07/05/15 Sermon (July 5, 2015) “A Pain in the …”

posted Jul 15, 2015, 10:19 AM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

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. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 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, 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. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, 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. 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.

Sermon: "A Pain in the ..."             Rev. David Hawkins

Today, we’re wrapping up our look at what Paul’s 2nd letter to the church in Corinth can tell us about what it means to live in fellowship with one another. Paul is coming to the end of his plea to his former congregation to listen to his words, to live lives that reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we have discovered, this has been a hard sell for Paul. The church that he had started years ago has been corrupted by a group of people that he calls super-apostles, a traveling band of preachers, probably from the church in Jerusalem, who have come to Corinth with a very attractive message, one that promises that if you do these things, take these steps, say the right prayers, observe the right rituals, then salvation will be yours. God will bless your efforts. You can earn your way into heaven. It’s up to you.

And the church in Corinth is tempted. And who wouldn’t be? It sounds great. It puts the power over our fate back in our hands. God is now controllable, understandable. It’s a business transaction. I do this, God can’t help but do that it. This method takes all the guesswork out of faith. There’s no more mystery to this whole notion of grace, of unconditional love. Because, as these evangelists are saying, it's not about grace. And it's not unconditional. Its about the law, and God's approval is conditioned upon observing that law.

As I said last week, Paul really does not like these folks. They have been a real pain. But they are persuasive, and he has to deal with them. And it looks like most of what he writes to the Corinthians is an effort to get the church to return to the understanding that Christ’s death and resurrection was not based on our observance of the torah, but on God’s faithfulness to his creation.

And, it turns out that the apostles that Paul is upset with aren’t above throwing a little spiritual hoodoo into the mix. Evidently, they’ve had visions, they’ve experienced God up close and personal. And we’ve seen this before. How many times have we heard it said from some famous televangelist or another that they had had a vision, and that God had spoken directly to them, and that God had told them that their ministry really needed another million dollars, or maybe a new car, or even better, a new Jet airplane.

I remember several years ago when Oral Roberts warned his congregation that God had told him that if he didn’t raise 8 million dollars, God would call him home. Well, they raised it and God didn’t call him home. So, it must be true.

Its strange that these televangelists don’t often hear from God the call to give all their money away and go work in a home for children with disabilities. No, generally, it’s a vision from the Lord about how he’s going to just bless everybody all over the place, all we have to do is plant that seed, throw a check for a thousand dollars into the mail, and voila, look out, the heavens are just going to start raining money.

Paul doesn’t have much use for these ‘visions’ that the super apostles are claiming to have. He doesn’t go so far as call them out for being straight up lies, but he does say that that sort of experience really should be a private one, and certainly not one that is used in order to build up the resume of the person who had it. Paul calls this sort of behavior boasting, and he doesn’t like it. The problem is, it’s effective. People are listening to these apostles, and a few well placed references to supernatural experiences goes a long way to helping people trust them.

And so Paul has to sort of establish his own bona fides. He has to find a way to let his church in Corinth know that these super apostles aren’t the only ones to have experienced some sort of heavenly vision. But he just can’t come out and say it was him. So he couches his story in the third person.  He says, he knows a guy that this happened to, that wound up in the third heaven, the highest heaven, and heard some crazy stuff, stuff that he can’t even begin to talk about.

Now, he says it happened to someone else, but it’s obvious that Paul is talking about himself. It’s his final effort to demonstrate to the Corinthians that an ecstatic vision, in and of itself, is not proof of what the person is saying. These visions don’t mean that the people who have them are superior. But it does mean that the people who have these visions change the way they live.

Most scholars think that Paul is talking about his experience with Jesus Christ, the one that is described more fully in the Book of Acts on the road to Damascus. It’s hard to say, Paul doesn’t really go into details, but it's obvious that the vision had a huge effect on Paul, and it’s not something that he wants to use for his own gain, but he feels that it’s necessary for the church to know about it.

Paul is all too aware of the temptation that accompanies the receiving of this kind of a vision. There is a terrible risk that comes with contact with the heavenly, and Paul knows first-hand this danger. Because along with this vision, he also received a thorn in his flesh, a pain that will just not go away. Three times he has prayed, and three times the answer has been no. Three times he has prayed and three times, the answer has been, ‘My grace is sufficient.’

And this, maybe more than anything else, is the difference between Paul and the super apostles. They tell their stories of a heavenly encounter in order to puff themselves up, in order to seem more spiritual than other people. Paul tells his story along with the reality that the vision he received came at great cost to him.

We don’t know what the thorn was. It may have been a physical pain, it may have been a mental or emotional pain. He may have even been making a sly reference to the troublesome evangelists themselves. But, it’s not really important what the thorn was.

The point is that it kept him grounded. He needed that thorn, and even though it took him awhile to realize it, he knew that he needed it. He knew that it could become very easy for him to become too strong in his own abilities, to become too confident in his own self.

The thorn in his flesh kept him vulnerable, and it reminded him that it was only by grace, not because of any supernatural vision, or because of any ability or special skill that he was able to do anything. It was in his own weakness that the strength of Jesus Christ was able to reach its fullest potential.

It seems strange that on this day, on this weekend when we celebrate strength, the strength of America, the strength of our armed forces, to contemplate the benefits of weakness. And really, strength is something we should celebrate. Strength to protect the innocent, to ensure justice, to speak and act for those who cannot speak or act for themselves. But just as strength has a place, so does weakness. Sometimes, not always, weakness keeps us humble. Sometimes, not always, weakness helps us be compassionate, to be sensitive to the needs of others.

Now, Paul doesn’t say that every bad thing that has ever happened to him is a reminder of God’s grace. And I don’t want to suggest that every bad thing that happens to us, every pain, every sickness, every disease is its own blessing. Paul doesn’t think that, Jesus never said that, and I don’t believe that.

But I think we also can learn from weakness. It can be too easy, when we’re strong, to forget the plight of the weak, to overlook the needs of those who are not strong. Maybe a pain in the, um, side, is not such a bad thing, if it helps us see the world through Jesus’ eyes, just a little bit.

When we are at weakest place, when we are at our most vulnerable place, God is closest to us. The meal that is laid out before today is a sign of that truth. Jesus became vulnerable on the cross in order to overcome death itself\, and it was in Christ’s greatest weakness that God was able to show his greatest strength.