Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Commentary
As we have been noting, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul seems a bit all over the map. The criticisms made behind his back and the charges of the “super apostles” seem to have driven Paul to a kind of emotional brink. By his own admission in one form or another, he has been nearly beside himself in defending both his mission, his person, and above all the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But now late in this letter we encounter this odd passage in 2 Corinthians 12. Is the man who had been caught up into the third heaven really Paul himself? At first it seems he really is talking about someone else but then next thing you know, he is claiming that these “superior visions” are actually his after all. “I don’t want to brag on myself” Paul writes “but I would brag on this other guy (who is not me but kind of is). So I won’t brag and anyway to keep me from thinking too much of myself given these grand visions I have this thorn thing to keep me grounded and humble.”
I suspect that if any of us who preach today came off this way in the pulpit, our Executive Committee would convene a secret meeting to see about getting the pastor some time off. Soon!
What are we to make of this curious passage, and is it a real preach-able text? Well, let’s admit we have to do a lot of work to explain these verses. That is complicated by the fact that no one has ever been sure about that mysterious “thorn” in Paul’s flesh. That he mentions “flesh” makes it fairly likely it is a physical ailment. Some speculate it is some leftover vision problem from his Damascus Road blazing encounter with the glory of Christ. Others think Paul seemed to be prone to come chronic illness (maybe migraines or a malaria-like condition that apparently—reading between the lines of some of Paul’s writings—laid Paul out flat for some time every now and again).
In the end it doesn’t matter and is a somewhat academic question to nail it down. But this is the one place where Paul makes it clear he had prayed—often—for a cure, for a healing but that the Spirit of Christ had conveyed to him that for whatever the reason, that was not going to happen. And although the whys and wherefores of that refused prayer request for Paul may have been as wide and varied as it is for any of us when for whatever the reason the Lord does not come through for us on what most would regard as a reasonable request, in Paul’s case God has a very specific reason: to teach Paul to rely on God’s strength above all. If God got great things done through Paul despite his weakness, then there could be no doubting—not for God and above all not for Paul himself—what was the source of that success and what was the origin of that strength. And it was not from Paul!
How interesting! And it makes you wonder: from everything we know about the former Saul of Tarsus, he appears to have been a highly motivated, decidedly driven individual. He reminds me of something someone once said of Charles Colson, the convicted Nixon hatchet man who later turned to Christ and founded Prison Fellowship. Colson is said to have been the ultimate Type A personality such that when he was working for Nixon, he was ALL IN on Nixon and would do anything for him (and he did do pretty much “anything” which is why he ended up going to jail over the Watergate cover-up and such). Thankfully Jesus got a hold of Colson but once that happened, Colson was equally ALL IN for Jesus. It was the same basic personality, the same drive, zeal, and hyper motivation it’s just that thankfully it got turned in a righteous direction eventually.
Maybe Saul-turned-Paul was like that. As he himself says in places like Philippians 3, when his gig was Pharasaism, he was the Pharisee of the Pharisees. A few might have tried to top Saul in the zeal department but no way! This man could not be beat. And once this Class A Pharisee turned his ire on this Jesus person and his sorry band of messianic followers, there was likewise no stopping his persecution of the just budding church. In the battle Saul vs. Jesus, Jesus was going down.
But then Jesus got a hold of Saul and he became the hyper zealous Apostle to the Gentiles who was once again ALL IN but this time for Jesus. Same zeal, same hyper temperament, same basic personality bent on success. It just all got shifted and aimed toward righteousness for God’s kingdom in Christ instead of ascending the ranks of the Pharisees by wiping Jesus’ name from the face of the earth. As the ironies of history go, this was a good one!
Still, even for a believer, that is the kind of thing that could go to your head. Even Paul was perhaps not immune from the temptation to survey all the churches he had planted and then pat himself on the back to say “Well done, old boy, well done. Lookee here what ye have accomplished!” So God found a way to keep his #1 Apostle grounded, perhaps literally, through a physical ailment that laid him flat now and then as a reminder that it is finally all about God, not us.
Part of me wants to say that was not very nice on God’s part but . . . I prefer not to question the tactics of the all-wise God. And anyway, it worked. Paul remained a loyal, zealous, outrageously effective Apostle to the end of his days.
And when it was all over, Paul had no reason to doubt: it had been the power of Christ in him all along. None of us in the church today should have any reason to doubt the same is true of us all no matter what we do or how gifted we are. And if we do feel that way, God may find a way to re-orient our thinking too.
In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the crew of the USS Enterprise inadvertently travels back in time as they pursue the dreaded nightmare species of The Borg. As it turns out, the Borg had traveled back to late 21st century earth in order to prevent earth’s first contact with an alien species. According to the story, a man named Zepharim Cochrane had figured out how to build a spaceship that could go to “warp” speed, traveling faster than light. On the day he took his initial flight, another spaceship from a planet called Vulcan was passing by, took note of earth’s ability to break the light speed barrier, and so made contact with the earthlings, with Zepharim Cochrane becoming the first human being to shake the hand of an alien.
This was key in the story because in the Star Trek universe, the first part of the 21st century on earth had been marred by a global nuclear war that made the future of the human race precarious. Cochrane’s accomplishment and the discovery that there was other intelligent life in the universe saved earth, giving people a purpose and a rallying point that united the planet and led to a whole new day. If the Borg has succeeded in preventing Dr. Cochrane from taking his space flight, the Borg could have easily conquered the planet themselves (they did not succeed of course!). Zepharim Cochrane was a legend, a hero, as famous as Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.
But then Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew made a discovery once they traveled back in time: it turned out that Zepharim Cochrane was not quite the heroic figure that crew of the Enterprise had grown up adoring and honoring and nearly worshiping as earth’s savior. Turned out Cochrane was drunk a lot of the time, that he could be rude and loud, that he developed his warp ship not to save the planet but make some money. He was a regular, flawed person. So when members of the Enterprise crew from 300 years into the future fawned over Cochrane and told him things like “I went to Zepharim Cochran High School” and things like “Right over there is where your 200-foot statue will be in the future when this whole area becomes an international park honoring you” . . . well, Cochrane could not abide it. He didn’t want stuff named after him. He did not want a statue. It was all a bit too much.
I wonder sometimes what the Apostle Paul—who worked so hard to let the power of Christ alone shine through him—would make of all those future churches and cathedrals named “Saint Paul Church” or what he would think of “Saint Paul the Apostle High School.” What would be make of half the New Testament consisting of HIS letters, including little memos like the one he dashed off one day to Philemon (“Really!? You regard that little note of mine as divine Scripture!!!?”). What would he make of the thousands of biographies of Paul that have been written, the miles and miles of library shelves sagging under the weight of books dedicated to dissecting his theology.
Surely he would be like the fictional Dr. Cochrane: he didn’t want all this. THIS had not been his goal or desire.
Yet few of us would deny Paul deserves the honor we give him even as we cherish the divine gift that just is his body of writing in the New Testament. Oh, it’s still all God but God has a good sense of humor too: he had used Paul’s thorn to keep him from being too big for his own britches in his lifetime but God then let the Holy Spirit make Paul a very big deal to the glory of God in Christ after all!
Paul might protest. “I am too weak, too unimportant for all this fuss.” True enough. But God’s power is made perfect in precisely that, Paul!
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