Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
June 24, 2018
2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 (CEB)
2I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. 3-4I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. 5I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.
6If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. 7I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.
8I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
If you all remember back about a month ago, we dove into Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And where we began, in the fourth chapter, Paul was working to regain the trust of the Corinthian people. The way Paul went about doing that, though, was not to lay out all his credentials and remind them of his rather impressive resume. Instead, Paul lowered himself. He talked about harassment, and trouble, and being crushed like a clay pot. Paul did this, as you may recall, so that he could put all the attention on God, glorify God, and remind the people that everything we are, all of our power, comes from God.
Over the last few weeks, we have listened as Paul, feeling the broken relationship with the Corinthian Church was sufficiently restored, went on to call the Corinthians and all believers to embrace the transforming power of God’s grace and love, and then to live out of that same grace and love with eagerness and enthusiasm. Now Paul is beginning to wrap this letter up, and here in this twelfth chapter, he circles back to this matter of his own credentials. Except now, as you probably noticed, Paul feels it necessary to remind the people that he is, indeed, a true apostle. But doing so requires some self-aggrandizement that may sound like bragging, and Paul really doesn’t want to brag. So instead, Paul speaks of this “man in Christ” he knows who has had these spectacular visions of heaven and even heard the Lord speak a message to him. In the midst of this, Paul reiterates that he wouldn’t brag about himself, but in verse 7 it becomes clear that this “man in Christ” is Paul himself. But from the beginning of the letter to the end, Paul’s purpose remains unchanged, and that is made clear by two things that Paul says in this passage we heard a few moments ago. First, “I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me.” And second, quoting God, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
Friends, it is the most radical, upside down-inside out message in all the world, but it is this message that is the very heart of the Gospel, exemplified by the cross itself—to attain true power, you must make yourself weak.
We possess nothing. Even some heightened spiritual experience that might be worthy of calling attention to our true piety is not ours to claim; it was an experience made possible for us by God’s grace, not because of anything we did, not because of some self-made righteousness. As Paul makes clear over and over again, we cannot brag, we cannot let pride overcome us.
Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Icarus, the legend from Greek mythology. The story of Icarus goes like this. Daedalus, a famous Greek craftsman went to Crete to work for King Minos, and built for him the great Labyrinth. But when Daedalus was ready to leave the island, Minos wouldn’t let him go. So he applied his inventor’s brain to the problem, and figured out a way to fly. He made wings out of bird feathers and attached them to his arms and shoulders with wax. He did the same for his son, Icarus. Then, together, they took off, heading back to mainland Greece, but Icarus became too excited by this new form of travel, and wanted to fly, not onwards to their destination, but upwards to the sun. Daedalus did his best to warn his son that this would be dangerous, but the headstrong Icarus wouldn’t listen. And sure enough, as Icarus got closer to the sun, the heat began to melt the wax holding his wings in place. Off came the feathers, and Icarus fell into the sea and was drowned.
The moral is clear: don’t fly too high, or you may come crashing down. Don’t be too proud, or presume too much, or everything may go horribly wrong. The message of this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is much the same. Paul speaks of this extraordinary and lavish spiritual experience, but in nearly the same breath he refers to his “thorn in the flesh,” a constant reminder not to get too caught up in his own abilities. Paul recognized the danger of lifting himself to a higher plane than anyone else. That might have made him too exalted. He might have become haughty. He might have thought he could boast, which is the whole point. Paul sees all around him these false apostles, trying to gain the following of the Corinthians. And these people are bragging about their very impressive visions and revelations in an effort to convince the Corinthians Christians that they are worthy of being heard. But Paul, the one person who might truly have a reason to brag and boast of his own amazing visions and revelations, reminds people that he has had such experiences, but does not elaborate on them. Instead, Paul takes it upon himself to show how even the most exalted spiritual experiences are to be understood only within the framework of the gospel. “My grace is enough for you,” says the Lord, “because power is made perfect in weakness.” Power is made perfect in weakness, for “when I’m weak, then I’m strong.”
Paul experienced weakness in very real ways throughout his ministry. Nobody knows what “thorn in the body” Paul was referring to. It might have been those days of blindness following his Damascus Road encounter with the risen Christ, but more likely it was something different; a recurrent disease is the most likely guess, but we really have no idea what sort ,if that even was it. In any case, to Paul, this “thorn” kept him “in check.” It was a constant reminder not to fly to high or to try and go too far by his own power. And even though Paul prayed to God again and again for this thorn to be taken away, God ultimate answer was “No.” But God’s answer was also, “My grace is sufficient for you.” We don’t need to be powerful. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t have to have all together, or be successful. We just have to rely on God’s grace because then, weak as we may be by worldly standards, we will be made strong in God’s power.
The gospel is this amazing, counter-cultural force, but we have to take it seriously. I think it’s fair to say that most of us draw this line where we are able to practice our Christian faith, but at the same time stay in our “comfort zone” where don’t have to give up too much, we don’t have to sacrifice too much. So we cling to our worldly power, we brag about our earthly accomplishments, perhaps we even try to present ourselves as especially righteous. But when we do such things, we are essentially taking the focus off the gospel and trying to put it on ourselves. The power of the gospel is made most clear in weakness. The moment of Christ’s glorification came when he was resurrected from the dead; after he had been hanged on a cross, crucified by the powers of the world. When he was weak, then he was strong. This is the amazing, even mind-blowing truth, of the good news of Christ. And we have to always remember that we are nothing, nothing without that!
At the height of the Roman Empire, Roman generals or even the Emperor would sometimes parade through throngs of crowds in triumphant processionals. Often, in such parades, a slave would stand in the chariot with the victorious leader. The job of this slave was to whisper in the ear of the general or Emperor, “Remember, you too are mortal.” Even the ancient Romans realized—most of the time—that it was dangerous to become too proud, arrogant. For Paul this thorn in his body was like that, a reminder to him not to be too haughty.
I don’t know if you have a thorn in your body. I don’t know if you feel like pride is a problem in your life. I will tell you, though, that a clergy colleague once said to me, “I think pride is the greatest sin of all, and I think it gets us all at some point or another.” Whatever it is that may at times pull us from the truth of the Gospel, whatever it is that may distract us from the source of power that is not our own, I hope we will always hear the Lord standing next to us, reminding us, whispering in our ear, “My grace is sufficient for you.”