5/7/17 Year B Trinity 5
2 Corinthians 12:1-10 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. 7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Three boys are in the playground boasting about their fathers. The first boy says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him £50."
The second boy says, "That's nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song, they give him £100."
The third boy proudly says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon. And it takes four people to collect all the money!"
In today's gospel Jesus offended many people in his home town. Paul had a problem in his relationship with the Christians at Corinth who were being lead astray by false teachers. He had written a difficult second letter, which we do not have. So 2 Corinthians is really 3 Corinthians! Paul called his opponents “Super apostles” 11.5. They were boastful, trained speakers, self-confident, critical of Paul, saying he was out of his mind, timid face to face and bold in his letters.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that his ministry was for them. Proclaiming Jesus without distortion, deception or charge, and relying upon God's spirit, not on human strength or abilities. Indeed, Paul had suffered in many ways for the gospel and the treasure of the gospel was found in weak, fragile jars of clay to show that the power is from God, 4.7.
These “super apostles” took money for their speaking, causing Paul to accuse them of exploitation. Paul said they taught a false gospel, a false Jesus and a false Spirit. The Greeks valued the supernatural and this is evidenced by the visions and speaking in tongues that the Corinthians church prized.
Paul starts Chapter 12 by playing the super apostles at their own game. “Tongue in cheek” if you like. He is saying “OK, if you want to play the game of boasting about the supernatural, I can do this. The Message translation, verse 1, You’ve forced me to talk this way, and I do it against my better judgement. But now that we’re at it, I may as well bring up the matter of visions and revelations that God gave me.
Paul then goes on to talk about himself in the third party. Perhaps to distance himself from the boasting he was doing to counter the “Super Apostles”. Perhaps it also conveys something of the way this experience was very different from the hardships he encountered for most of his ministry. The Message, For instance, I know a man who, fourteen years ago, was seized by Christ and swept in ecstasy to the heights of heaven. I really don’t know if this took place in the body or out of it; only God knows. I also know that this man was hijacked into paradise—again, whether in or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. There he heard the unspeakable spoken, but was forbidden to tell what he heard. This is the man I want to talk about. But about myself, I’m not saying another word apart from the humiliations.
This experience, be it physical or visionary happened around 42AD. Paul established the church in Corinth about 51AD and wrote 2 Corinthians around 5 years later. So, 9 years before the first Corinthian became a Christian Paul had this out of this world experience. He also met Jesus on the Damascus road, and performed signs, wonders and miracles, verse 12. So he was familiar with the supernatural.
Yet he doesn't want the glory to go to himself, but God, who uses weak, humble people. He could have been a celebrity had he publicised his experiences. Instead he focuses on his weakness and sufferings because then people could see the supernatural power of God, working through and despite this weakness. Of course, the Christian faith is founded on a weakened man dying on a cross at the hands of the so called “powerful”.
Perhaps there may have been the temptation for Paul to become conceited. Paul was given a thorn in his flesh from Satan but it was permitted by God. We cannot be certain what the thorn in the flesh was. It has been suggested that it would be a physical problem, Galatians 4 refers to an illness affecting Paul's eyes. The opponents could have been the thorn, in the way we might call someone a pain in the neck. It could also refer to a temptation, or the persecution that Paul refers to on several occasions in this letter. What the thorn was is not important. What is significant is that God allowed it to continue, despite repeated prayers from Paul. Yet, God was not silent, He told Paul He wanted Him to suffer in order that people would see God's power and not Paul's. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ”
We live in a world where there have been tremendous advancements in the treatment of disease and other other problems. This is great. There is, rightly in many ways, a rejection of pain, suffering, disease, death. Yet this can lead to not facing up to the inevitability of these things. This passage should challenge and form how Christian see suffering. This passage, and others, for example James 1.2ff, show that God can use difficulties to form us into the people he wants to be.
This passage also tells us that God doesn't always say “Yes” to our prayers, but He always gives us more than we need. Paul didn't need to be self-assured, fit, well trained because who would get the glory? Paul needed God's grace, literally undeserved favour, in his own life and to flow through the lives of others. He needed God's supernatural power to overcome his own natural, physical weaknesses.
This passage tells us that Paul's thorn is the result of God's hand on his life, not the absence of it. The thorn came because of God's concern for Paul's overall well being. God is equally concerned about you and me. He wants to make us more like Jesus, to grow the fruit of the Spirit. But, are we open to this? Or would we rather continue in our own strength, seeking our own glory?
This passage also tells us that we need to follow God's ways and weapons rather than adopting the approach of those around us. We live in rapidly changing times, not just in terms of technology but also in the moral sphere, with pressure being brought to treat as acceptable that which Christianity has declared for years is contrary to God's will and what other faiths still see as unacceptable.
In the Old Testament God's people consistently adopted the practices and morals of those around them and they suffered in their relationship with God and failed to prosper in the way he wanted them to.
One of the most important things for the church to discern is what to retain, what to adopt and what to reject. We can rely too much on uncritically accepting shifting morality, a consumerist attitude to worship, adopting modern management techniques to run the church, and then leave God out.
We can think that without human strength we are destined to fail and without personal courage we are bound to falter. Yet good as these are, such qualities tend to push us to self-sufficiency and away from God-dependency. Human strength is like the flower of the field that has its day in the sun but then shrivels up and dies (Psalm 103.15f). Enduring strength lies in God alone (v19). We cannot have the church that we desire and the lives we want without God's grace
"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Cor. 12.9).
That is remarkable! Think about it! Let it sink in! God's grace is all you and I need, for his power is greatest when we are weak. So, next time you feel weak and inadequate, just ask for God's grace. It is all you need.