II Corinthians 12:1-10
The Apostle Paul is in deep trouble with the folks in the Christian Church in the city of Corinth. They don’t like him anymore, and maybe they never did. At least not for very long. The Apostle Paul was the one who brought Christianity to Corinth. He came preaching the good news. People responded to his message, and he was the one who established the church and got it up and running. But since that time, he has seriously run out of favor with the Christian folks living in that city. They think that he is a fake; that he is an impostor, and that he is only pretending to be an apostle.
And the issue facing Paul in our passage this morning, is how much effort does he put into defending himself? And that’s a thorny issue. No one really likes to be in the hot seat. None of us really likes to be forced into the position of having to defend ourselves. We’d rather have our work and our accomplishments speak for themselves. We’d rather be trusted. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work out in a positive way for us, and it certainly wasn’t working out for Paul.
But now Paul is being forced into the position of having to defend himself, and he says so. “It is necessary to boast,” he says, I don’t want to do it, “nothing is to be gained by it”, but I’m going to do it anyway. You’ve given me no choice. I’m backed into a corner.
And so he begins, reluctantly, to tell the Corinthians about an experience that he had fourteen years prior to the writing of this letter. But he is so reluctant to defend himself, and so reluctant to boast about having had this experience, that he isn’t even going to describe it as having happened to himself. He wants to take no personal credit whatsoever for this extraordinary thing that has happened to him.
And the reason for this two-fold. What happened to him had nothing to do with him. He did not have this experience because he was a wonderful person, or a wonderful teacher or a wonderful preacher or apostle. Paul believed that this awesome experience was God’s doing, and God’s doing alone. It was solely by the mercy and grace of God. It was nothing that he had deserved or merited or earned. It was simply a gift from God.
And the second reason that he isn’t taking any personal credit for this extraordinary experience is because that is exactly what his detractors are doing. As Paul is writing this letter; there are teachers and preachers in Corinth who are claiming that they are so spiritually attuned and so wonderfully knowledgeable that they have received special visions and revelations, and that they have been given new insights that they are willing to share with others, oftentimes for a price. And they’re boasting and bragging about these revelations and visions as if they are something special. And the implication is that the Apostle Paul is nothing special, that he’s a has-been, and that he’s nothing more that a bit player in the magnificent drama of God’s unfolding revelation, at least as experienced by these other teachers and preachers.
But Paul refuses to play the game of oneupmanship. And so he humbly describes this awesome, out of this world experience as having happened to someone else. I like that. He’s boasting, but he’s doing it with humility. I wonder if the Corinthians caught that, or if it went right over their heads.
It turns out that this experience was so awesome and so amazing, that the Apostle Paul is keeping it to himself. Up till now, he’s never said anything about it, he’s never mentioned it, he’s never considered it to be part of his resume’. And that’s because what he learned and saw in that experience is not for sharing with the general public. And it’s certainly not for sale, at any price. In fact, he says that when he was caught up into paradise, he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
So, why tell it all…why even bring it up? If this experience, and apparently even some others, all equally exceptional, was between him and God alone, what’s the point of talking about it now?
Well, it’s partly because Paul is on the hot seat. He feels like he needs to defend himself against the other teachers and preachers in Corinth who are making a big business of proclaiming and boasting and selling their special experiences of revelation. If there was television in Paul’s day, you know exactly where these guys would be. But Paul might also be subtly indicating that if these other teachers and preachers are boasting and spouting off about their own special revelations, that they may not be entirely telling the truth. If their visions and revelations are so special and so profound, then really, they probably ought not to be mentioned at all. They might just be made of the stuff that no mortal is permitted to repeat. That is, if they’re real visions and revelations at all. It seems pretty clear that Paul is also implying that these guys are making this stuff up, all the while making a fast buck.
Not long after we got back from Puerto Rico, word got out that one of those television prophets had decided that God had revealed to him in a vision that he needed a new airplane to replace his clunky old one. Apparently he need a much larger plane with a much larger gas tank, because stopping for gas was such an inconvenience when he had very important places to go, and equally important things to do. And so he was asking for millions of dollars to accomplish this. And he was getting the money. And I thought, how much good that money could have done in Puerto Rico. How much good could small, local churches like ours have done with just some of that money? We could have proclaimed out loud, with enhanced effectiveness, the free gift of God’s grace.
But the real reason that Paul is reluctant to boast about, or even mention his special spiritual experiences, beyond the fact that he believes that no real good can come of it, is so that he can tell us about something else that he’s also never mentioned before. And that is this mysterious thing that he calls his thorn in the flesh, which he describes as a messenger of Satan. Paul was a well balanced fellow, he received stuff from heaven and he received stuff from hell. I don’t suppose that we are any different. And interestingly, he’s just as reluctant to tell us about his thorn in the flesh, as he is about his special spiritual experiences. He’s very vague about it, other than to tell us that it is a torment to him, but that it ultimately serves the divine purpose of keeping him from being too impressed with himself.
Speculation about this “thorn” is rife. It runs the gamut from migraine headaches, to poor eyesight, to recurring malarial fever, to a cranky and obstreperous wife.
But really, it is not ours to know, any more than the content of his revelations. What is ours to know, though, is that the thorn, as mysterious as it was, did more to shape and define Paul’s spiritual life than all of his special revelations and visions combined.
And that puts him solidly in our own shoes. We yearn for the special moments of grace in our lives. We love the special moments when we are profoundly and deeply connected with our Creator. We deeply appreciate those times of spiritual closeness to God, when we feel as if we have been transported to and through the very gates of heaven. We soar into glory. Perhaps it comes when a favorite praise song is on the radio, and we’re singing along, and suddenly we’re sobbing, and tears of joy and gratitude are flowing down our cheeks. Or maybe its that special passage of Scripture that leaps off the page and speaks comfort and truth directly into our souls. We love those moments in prayer when our hands rise in gratitude toward heaven, when our spirits are shaken by holy and divine fire.
But like Paul, we are troubled by the thorns that pierce our flesh, and bring sorrow to our hearts. We want these things gone from our lives.
Three times Paul prayed for his thorn to go away, and three times Paul heard from God, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
We ought to learn from our joyous and glorious encounters with God. We ought to know that these are gifts of grace from a loving and compassionate Creator who deeply desires that we have peace in our hearts and a sense of contentment that can only come from above.
But we ought also to learn from the difficult moments of our lives, for we have all had thorns in our flesh. We ought to realize that our spiritual lives can be powerfully shaped by admitting our weaknesses and failures. For it is in our weakness and in our failure that the power of Jesus Christ dwells fully within us, and is hindered neither by our own accomplishments, nor by the accolades that we receive, nor by any boasting that we may be tempted to do. For, as the Apostle Paul learned, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”