Beyond the Thorn
When Morning Gilds the Skies
God of Our Life
Some Glad Morning
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
2I 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. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But 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, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to God about this, that it would leave me, 9but God 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. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
“Beyond the Thorn”
Every year, I try to set some challenges for myself regarding my goals for preaching. For example, it occurred to me this semester, while listening to one of my students give a sermon on Proverbs, that I don’t think I’ve ever preached on the book of Proverbs. So preaching a sermon on Proverbs is now on my Preaching Goal List. For my time at OCBC, I’ve put the goal of coming to terms with the Apostle Paul on my list. Initially I thought of it as “making peace with Paul,” but decided that my limited time at OCBC isn’t nearly enough time to accomplish that ambitious goal. So, I modified it to a more generic “coming to terms,” which is just vague enough to give me wiggle room, in case I need to bail on my preaching with Paul goal. (You’re laughing. Thanks for Nancy’s encouragement in her sermon last week where she noted that Paul sounds critical but when you dig below the surface, there is more going on.)
As I’ve indicated in a previous sermon and in various conversations with you, I have some issues with Paul. As you might imagine, I’d be stinking rich if I had a nickel for every time someone quoted Paul’s words about "women being silent in church" at me regarding my status as an ordained woman. But I think my issues with Paul began long before that. Perhaps it is the filter of growing up in the Bible Belt, a place where the emphasis on "hell fire and damnation" tends to skew any religious messages one might receive. Hearing Paul through that filter might have amplified small tendencies of his into what I experienced as his rigid, willful, controlling, and dare I say it, narcissistic stance. It’s almost a “tone of voice” thing. Paul’s words may look good on paper, but something about his tone makes it difficult for me to hear him as anything less than fierce, critical, demanding, or judgmental. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on what I see as his negative stance toward the human body.
Over the years, I certainly have gained more sympathy for the Apostle Paul, a man whose authority as a religious leader was always tenuous at best, given that Peter and some of the other apostles could always trump him with the fact that they knew Jesus personally and Paul didn’t. Paul only had that blinding, mystical experience on the road to Damascus to give him credibility, something that paled in comparison to actually walking and talking with Jesus in the flesh.
As can happen in many difficult relationships, I have taken the route with Paul of thinking that the problem is purely with me: if I just try harder or change myself, the relationship will get better. Surely, it is because of my own ignorance, and if I just knew more or understood more clearly or was a better biblical scholar, I’d be able to sit side by side peacefully with Paul if not give him a warm embrace and invite him to tea. I’ve long ago made peace with the women in ministry thing, as I learned that Paul was most likely very supportive of the women who were powerful leaders in the early church, and there were many of them. But the words of a Rabbi I spoke with in January who suggested that “Judaism is the religion of Jesus and Christianity is the religion of Paul,” keep haunting me. I am left wondering how or if Christianity would have been shaped with or without Paul’s influence.
So I wrestled with Paul this week by going again to the scene of the early church in Corinth, I decided, just for giggles, to turn to technology for help. When all else fails, why not ask the modern day Oracle, Siri, for direction? Do you know Siri, the little woman who lives in my I Phone? Just ask her any question and she’ll provide guidance, helpful or otherwise. So I asked Siri, the Spiritual Director in my phone: “Do you like the Apostle Paul or not?” And she wisely replied, and this is a genuine, direct quote: “This is about you, Margaret, not me.” Oh well, so much for my attempt to triangle Siri into my relationship with Paul.
As complicated as my relationship with Paul is, I must admit that this passage in the 12th chapter of 2 Corinthians is where Paul, dare I admit it, starts to win me over. I find myself softening towards him, even feeling a little tender toward his predicament. Paul has run into yet another layer of complication when some wealthy patrons have offered to become his benefactor. The expectation, spoken or unspoken, was that Paul would be their personal, private apostle. But Paul will not be bought, and in rejecting their offer of patronage from these wealthy Christians, he has shamed them, and in the shame/honor system of his day, he has therefore brought shame upon himself. To make matters worse, it seems that those leaders with whom Paul is caught in a rivalry have found favor with the wealthy patrons. These rivals for the soul of the church in Corinth are boasting about their importance and their supriority over Paul. The apostle is having difficulty maintaining any footing in regard to his pastoral authority in the church. Given this complicated scenario, no wonder Paul comes across with a bit of an edge to his words.\
So, Paul starts to fight fire with fire. If his opponents are going to play the complicated boasting game common in the Jewish and Greco-Roman would, then Paul can play it too. Paul can out boast the most boastful of them all. He almost sounds comical when he starts talking about himself in the third person, as having these incredible visions where he was caught up into the third heaven (evidently some thought of the third heaven as Paradise) where he has such a rapturous conversation with the Divine that he can not even begin to share what he learned there and in fact he is directed not to share. Not that any fact checker could validate Paul’s story, which is part of what makes this whole boasting game look so downright silly. But Paul stands by this profound spiritual experience that happened years before and that he has not shared in his other letters. But then he does something unexpected in the boasting game. He turns the tables by starting to boast not about his strengths, but his weaknesses.
Suddenly Paul strips off all pretenses and talks about what it is like to struggle with something. This “thorn in the flesh” he has experienced is something that Biblical scholars and Christians have been speculating about for generations. Evidently the Corinthians knew what Paul’s affliction was, but we don’t. Some have speculated it was a physical problem: an eye problem, or migraines, or epilepsy or malaria, others suggest it was psychological like bouts of depression. Whatever his affliction, Paul steps back from his efforts at haughty boasting and opens the curtain on his vulnerability. For a moment, Paul is not concerned with shoring up his image as competent or capable or powerful. He takes a risk by admitting that he is not perfect, that he struggles, that perhaps he even has failures as a person. This is the Paul that I can like, the one who is abundantly human. He steps out from behind the curtain of all that posturing and reveals a man who doesn’t have all the answers and who is willing to risk all his credibility in a tenuous situation by sharing something of his personal agony. Why does Paul do this? Because he believes in the powerful love of God to hold him up when he is falling. Here we see the true Paul, the one who says that salvation is not earned by perfection, but is a gift of grace. Paul suggests that the only way we can tolerate the shame of our human brokenness is by letting God’s unconditional love get behind the façade of our carefully constructed mask. Psychiatrist Carl Jung called it our persona, the face we present to the world. It is the face shored up by our boasting in our degrees, our accomplishments, our successes, our competence, etc. But when all of that is peeled back, there is a basic self that is held together by the compassionate love of God that says: you are enough. That God loves you. This is theology that Paul is willing to go to the mat for, to fight like a dog to defend.
Suddenly, I see Paul letting his guard down in this complicated situation. As the mask slips, I see his pain, his withering self-doubt, his frustration with his limits and weaknesses. As he stands holding his heart in his hands, I suddenly want to sit down beside him, so he won’t be so alone. And better yet, I want to tell him of the ways I feel weak, about my own limits and brokenness, and my passionate desire for healing, and how on my good days I can allow that sense of being deeply loved by God be enough to make me stop faking it for awhile. As Paul stops writing, I see him staring off into the middle distance, looking beyond the thorn in his flesh, aware of some deep place where he once knew without a doubt that God loved him. I see him summoning all of that up so that no matter what happens next, and we know things don’t go that well for Paul, God’s unstoppable blessing will be enough to see him through. And I think with appreciation of how kind he was to want those testy Corinthians to take their masks off long enough, to let down their defenses in order to taste something of what he knows to be true: that God’s love is enough.
As Siri , the Oracle in my IPhone suggested: “This is about you, Margaret, not me.” She might have been channeling the Apostle Paul. It is about me. And it is also about you. It is about what happens to all of us when our complicated filters don’t allow us to hear the gospel message that Paul tried so hard to deliver to the Corinthians. As we read these letters to the church in Corinth over his shoulder, we understand that Paul is trying to deliver this same message to us: We are recipients of God’s unconditional love: undeserved, unearned, a free gift. And this is enough. Believer it or not, this is the simple, gospel truth. AMEN.
 This interpretation of Paul’s situation in Corinth is from Duane Watson, professor at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.