July 8, 2012
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (NRSV)
12:2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
12:3 And I know that such a person – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows –
12:4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
12:5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
12:6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,
12:7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.
12:8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,
12:9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
12:10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul begins our scripture passage today by referring to “a person in Christ” who was caught up into the third heaven.”
Most of the commentaries I found were in agreement that Paul was speaking about himself, and many of them believe that what he’s referring to was his experience on the road to Damascus, the confrontation with God that led to Paul’s conversion.
He writes that he wasn’t sure whether he was caught up to heaven in physical form or whether it was a vision, but in either case he is sure that what he witnessed was real.
When Paul says he was caught up into the “third heaven,” he was referring to the common understanding of what the world was like among those of the Jewish faith in the First Century. They thought that the Earth, as the center of the universe, was surrounded by various layers, called heavens or firmaments. The first heaven was the air above us, in which the birds fly. The second heaven was where the sun, the moon and the stars were located, and beyond that was the third heaven, where God and other heavenly beings lived.
So Paul claims to have been either transported to, or at least shown, the third heaven. And he tells us that he’s not allowed to tell us everything he saw there.
Then, referring to himself, he says “I’ll boast about someone like that, but I won’t boast about myself.”
It does seem as if Paul is boasting – even as he claims that he’s not boasting. And then, to top it off, he says that if he was boasting, he’d have the right to boast. Doesn’t that sound like a boast to you?
While there doesn’t seem to be any dispute about Paul having a healthy regard for his own status, what he’s actually doing in this case is defending himself.
The Corinthians were being preached to by so-called “super-apostles,” who were cricitizing Paul’s teachings and trying to substitute their own teachings, which Paul claims to be heretical. Today’s passage comes as part of several chapters in which Paul is defending himself and his ministry in the context of trying to encourage the Corinthians to hold to the truth as Paul had presented it to them, and not to fall prey to the heresies that were being put forth by these “super-apostles.”
Paul tells the Corinthians that he refrains from boasting, quote, “so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.”
In other words, Paul could boast of intangibles, but that might lead people to think more of him than what was demonstrated in his day-to-day life.
That’s an important lesson, and I don’t want to move past it too quickly. We have a lot of intangible things about which we might, in theory, be able to boast. But sometimes the way in which we actually live our life undercuts those. It’s hard for us to boast of our relationship with God when our lives don’t seem to indicate any such relationship.
Obviously, we have to avoid legalism – we never want to feel as if we’ve earned the right to boast, or as if our failures have taken away our chance to accept God’s grace. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace, and not on our own works. But how we live our lives is an indicator, if an imperfect and somewhat inaccurate one, of the progress we make in our relationship with God. That little needle on the dashboard isn’t what makes the car go. But that little needle on the dashboard can help tell you whether or not there’s gas in the tank.
John Wesley used the word “perfection,” and his meaning was so misunderstood that he eventually had to come back and explain his meaning himself. Wesley did not believe, and did not teach, that any Christian achieved sinlessness in this earthly existence. But he believed very strongly that we were moving on to perfection, and that someone who was in receipt of God’s grace would lead a life that exemplifies that grace.
As Christians, we can boast of our salvation. We can boast of being God’s creation. We can boast of being received into God’s kingdom. And we should be willing to boast of all those things. But if our lives don’t represent that new relationship, our boasting will ring somewhat hollow.
In one of today’s other Lectionary passages, from the book of Mark, Jesus – not surprisingly – demonstrates actions that match his claims.
Mark 6:1-3 (NRSV)
6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.
6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Jesus performed acts of compassion and power that were consistent with his teachings. And yet, the people of his hometown rejected him anyway. So living a life consistent with your words does not guarantee that you’ll be accepted. But living a life out of step with what you say almost guarantees you’ll be rejected.
But now, Paul comes to one of the most debated and discussed references in the New Testament.
“Therefore,” Paul writes, “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.”
Paul became one of the central figures of the growing church, and except for Jesus himself Paul’s words have provided more of the basis for our understanding of the Christian faith than any other figure in church history.
And yet, Paul has something in his life he must constantly overcome – some great obstacle or challenge. Paul comes close to admitting his own ego when he hints that the thorn in the flesh may be there to keep him from becoming “too elated.”
There are almost as many theories about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as there are commentators. Some of the popular theories have to do with headaches or vision problems. We do have circumstantial evidence elsewhere in Paul’s writings that Paul might have had vision problems. At the end of the letter to the Galatians, which Paul had apparently dictated to someone else, he writes the last few sentences in his own hand, and comments on what large letters he makes. That could be an indication that he couldn’t see very well.
There are also theories that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was epilepsy. There’s another school of thought that it was his appearance – that he was somehow ugly or repulsive.
Then there are non-physical theories – perhaps the thorn in the flesh was temptation, or the persecution that Paul faced, or something of that sort.
There’s a certain poignancy in someone who both faces great obstacles and accomplishes great things.
For the past two years, since my mother died of pancreatic cancer in August of 2010, I’ve been involved in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. I was a member of a team from my home church in the 2011 Relay For Life in Bedford County, and I joined the county-wide organizing committee a few months later.
We held our Relay event in Shelbyville on June 1st of this year, and I’m proud to say that we beat our county-wide goal by more than $20,000, and I think we raised an all-time record amount for our county.
Relay has become a big part of my life, and something I take a lot of pride in.
Relay For Life was founded by a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, named Dr. Gordy Klatt. In May 1985, Dr. Klatt, wanted to promote the work of the American Cancer Society. He decided he would run for 24 hours. He ran more than 83 miles during that 24 hour period. Nearly 300 friends paid to join him on the track for half-hour increments, and he raised $27,000.
Dr. Klatt began thinking of ways he could turn this into a more formalized event. He thought about an event where runners and walkers could participate in teams, taking turns on the track the way his friends had. The “City of Destiny Classic 24-Hour Run Against Cancer,” which is considered the very first Relay For Life, was born the following year.
Since that time, Relay For Life events have raised $4.5 billion towards the fight against cancer.
The American Cancer Society announced May 1st that Dr. Gordy Klatt has stomach cancer. There’s been an outpouring of support for Dr. Klatt, and at many of this summer’s Relay events there were special tributes to him. It’s somehow all the more tragic that a man who has worked so diligently to battle cancer now has cancer himself. He must now face a different kind of battle against cancer – not raising funds, but taking treatments.
We look at Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s greatest physicists, and it’s poignant that his brilliant mind is trapped in a paralyzed body. For us as Christians, it’s even sadder that this great man who understands so much about God’s creation apparently believes there is no need for God in his cosmology.
We look at so many great artists, who – whether in spite of their talent or because of it – were troubled and tortured, even as they created remarkable works. There are many examples, from Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Kurt Cobain.
And Paul, too, has his thorn in the side. We may not know what it was, but we know what the answer to it turned out to be. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this,” wrote Paul, “that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
God’s grace is sufficient. There’s a powerful phrase if I’ve ever heard one. God’s grace is sufficient. If you have physical struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. If you have emotional struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. If you have financial struggles, God’s grace is sufficient.
And by “sufficient” I don’t just mean “just enough to get by.” In Paul’s case, God’s grace was sufficient not only to overcome the thorn in Paul’s side, but to enable Paul to spread the Gospel throughout the known world at that time, and to enable Paul to share wisdom that resonates with us even today on some of the most critical issues of Christian theology.
That’s a powerful and humbling word for all of us. Too often, we use our own thorns in the flesh as excuses. If only I were healthy, if only I were out of debt, if only I could get my own life sorted out, then I could serve God.
The nature of our task varies from person to person. But rest assured, God has tasks for you. God is calling you to serve, to spread the Good News, if not to the far corners of the earth, then to every corner of your world. God may not call you to heal the sick, but God may be calling you to take a covered dish, or to cover for a co-worker with a sick relative, or to say a kind word.
As we try to complete the tasks that God sets before us, the nature of the obstacles also varies from person to person. The thorn in your own side might be your own self doubt. It might be a relationship. It might be a chronic illness or a sudden catastrophe.
But whatever the size of the task, and whatever the size of the obstacles, we know the size of the grace: sufficient.
And that knowledge should, if we can move it from our head to our heart, give us the sense of contentment to which Paul refers in that last verse: “Therefore,” he says, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
In the book of Judges, Gideon faces a great battle, and God, in effect, orders him to send home much of his army. It needed to be clear to the people of Israel that the battle had been won by God, and not by Gideon. When we face obstacles, it reminds us that we, too, are dependent on God for ultimate victory.
That’s not to make light of those struggles; they can be bitterly felt. You can imagine Paul’s pleading with God three times to take away his thorn. We need to have the empathy needed to recognize the struggles, the thorns, felt by those around us, and we need to show Christian compassion to anyone who is being challenged.
But while our pains and tragedies and struggles are very real, they can also be a part of our ultimate triumph. It’s our weaknesses that help to remind us of God’s grace. It’s our weaknesses that keep us from trusting in our own ability. It’s our weaknesses that give us the strength that comes from reliance on the sufficient grace of God.