Our reading today comes from 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, 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. 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.”
In this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is at first trying to explain why the people should listen to him, and follow his lead, in becoming children of a loving Father. He starts at first by boasting, but quickly realizes that that is not the right way to go. In the process, he learns a couple of valuable lessons. A couple of crucial lessons that are still relevant today.
The Lesson of Humility:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul had to learn two lessons. The first was the the lesson of humility. Paul had to learn that grace had to replace ego. This was difficult for Paul. We live in a culture that prizes strength. It was no different in Paul’s time. In spite of this fact, Paul said, “My authority comes because of my weakness.” Paul had revelations from God in which he was taken up into paradise. Paul could have said, “Look at all of these revelations I’ve had. These are my authority.” No, he said he would boast only of his weaknesses. He was a very learned man. He demonstrated great intellectual skills so God gave Paul an infirmity. He called it his thorn in the flesh. Scholars have expended a great deal of time, ink and paper speculating on the nature of the ailment but are not even close to an agreement. Some think it was an inflammation of his eyes that caused swelling, others contend that it was severe headaches or even malaria. While we do not know the precise infirmity we do know that Paul’s opponents used it against him. They argued that if he had enough faith or was truly called to be an apostle, God would have healed him.
Physical health is often used as a sign of God’s blessings. How many times have you heard someone remark, “Why doesn’t God heal me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” We assume that if we live a good life we will be free from chronic physical ailments or that spiritual maturity can be measured by good health. This argument may appear ridiculous to hear now, but how often do we think about this in moments of frustration. Or how often do we use some form of disability or physical ailment as a reason for not doing what we feel God has called us to do? I know, I do….for example, I have hand tremors. How many times have I let this neurological ailment prevent me from doing things? More often than I can count.
God had given Paul a vision so incredible that words could not describe it. Anyone who has had such a mystical experience would be tempted to brag about it. Paul’s thorn prevented that because the severe pain or the physical disfigurement reminded him each day that he was still just a mortal man. He had to rely on the grace of God, not on his good looks or skillful speaking to accomplish God’s work.
Sometimes, fear is what’s holding us back from becoming a better Christian, or from taking a more active role within the church. We are reluctant to try something new because we are afraid of failing. Or we are embarrassed by the quality of our work compared to someone elses. In the back of our mind we are saying that unless we can do an excellent job, then we will not risk doing the project. Of course there are some jobs that this attitude is indeed important. We do not want a NASA scientist doing a less than a precise job on the design and construction of the Space Station. We do not want our doctor saying when writing the prescription for our medication to make us feel better, “Now was that dosage 15mg or 150mg or 1500mg.” Nor do we want to hear the teller at the bank make a mistake in adding up our bank deposit. Those professions require an exactness. But God does not expect that every person will produce an award winning performance in every task, job, project or ministry.
Sometimes, its just showing up, and trying your best, that truly reveals how gifted you really are. You may not be able to teach Sunday School like a trained school teacher, but if you can share your love for Jesus who cares if you follow the lesson plan. You may not be able to heal the sick or say elegant prayers, but if you can just sit with someone who is sick and hold their hand no one will fault you. You may not be able to pound a nail in straight or climb onto the roof, but if you can mix up fruit drinks and serve sandwiches during a Habitat for Humanity project, then you will be just as important as the people doing the hard labor.
The Lesson of Weakness:
“my power is made perfect in weakness.”
We may consider ourselves inexperienced, unpolished, and unskilled. We may consider ourselves unqualified to serve God in the church because of our past or even a present that is not consistent with the teachings of Christ. We may consider ourselves unprepared because of a lack of education. We all have our weaknesses. We all have “flaws” but whatever we lack God can take it and make it into our source of strength.
Our weaknesses can lead to strength. Our weaknesses, struggles, and shortcomings, though they are painful and may be embarrassing, can keep us from that awful smugness and arrogance and open us to God. I myself have found that my own personal experiences and struggles, whether as a mom, wife, grandmother, and a Sister in the Church, have better allowed me to help others. If someone is talking to me on a matter with which they’re dealing, and if I can say, “Maybe I haven’t struggled with exactly that same thing, but, I have dealt with something similar”, then that recognition is my credential, not the college degree or formal training. A person can have all that and come off as pompous. I don’t think people are very helpful when they feel like they have not experienced the usual sufferings of life. When a person can say, “I understand that. I have experienced something similar”, a person may then go on to say, “My power really does come from God.” Paul is saying here that it is his personal weaknesses, including the thorn gifted to him by God, that reveals his greatest strengths. In this he feels justified in boasting, as should we all. For it is in being our most humble, and human, that brings us into a closer relationship with our heavenly Father.