I want to return this
morning to our look at Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, and look
at how Paul dealt with criticisms that questioned his authority.
In so doing, Paul does not just re-establish his authority as an
Apostle, he illustrates through his own life the very essence of the
Christian message. Hopefully, then, from his example, there is
much that we can apply to our own lives.
So let's take a look,
then, at the text, and I want to begin with the text that is not
printed in your bulletin, the start of chapter 2:
1So I made up my
mind not to make you another painful visit.
Evidently, the last
time he was in Corinth, it didn't turn out so well. And in verse
4, he says he decided to write a letter instead of making another visit:
For I wrote to
you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears. .
believe, as I pointed out a couple Sundays ago, that chapters 10, 11,
and 12 are this 'tearful letter' that Paul wrote, that has been appended
to this later letter that makes up the first 9 chapters of 2
So what was the cause
of that painful visit which led to this tearful letter?
Now the Corinthians,
of course, know what it was. They experienced it, so Paul doesn't
need to describe in any detail what the problem was. And that
leads up to extrapolate from the various hints and clues that he gives
in his response as to what that problem was. So if you look, then,
in chapter 10, verse 10, he says:
[referring to his critics]
say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is
weak, and his speech contemptible.’
No wonder it's a
painful visit! It's kind of like that visiting preacher who, after
the sermon, went to greet people at the door, people came out and said
'Nice sermon pastor, thank you for coming', blah blah blah. And
one guy, a rather odd looking gentlemen, came out and said "Your singing
is atrocious!". And he thought that was kind of odd. And a
little while later, shaking some more hands, nice words, the guy comes
through again and says "And your preaching is worse than your singing!".
He thought, gosh, this is really strange. And he shook some more
hands, and the guy comes through a third time. And he says:
"And you look like a monkey!". And now he doesn't know what to
make of this guy. The guy behind him overhears, and says "Oh,
don't pay attention to him, he's just got a real severe learning
disability, he doesn't understand anything anybody says, so he just
repeats what he hears" J.
I think Paul is
dealing with folks like that here, and it didn't go too well. And
he responds to his critics in chapter 11 (still not my text for today):
I may be
untrained in speech, but not in knowledge;
I think that I
am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.
Note the tone of
sarcasm here. And if you scan through chapters 10, 11, and 12,
you'll note repeated references to boasting, and to what Paul calls the
folly of boasting of one's own achievements, and he says 'If you're
going to boast, then boast in the Lord', not in yourself.
And so from these
comments we get a pretty good picture of what's going on here.
That there are some charismatic individuals that have come into the
congregation who have made Paul look foolish. Maybe even called
him a fool. In there smooth talking and boastful claims they are
questioning his authority. So Paul retreats, writes this letter to
defend himself, but he wants to make clear that it's not about him.
And if he's going to match their boasting, he has to do it in a way that
puts the spotlight on Christ, not on Paul.
And since he's either
been called foolish or he's been made to look foolish, he accepts the
fool's role. Chapter 11, verse 16 (not my text for today either):
I repeat, let no
one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool,
so that I too may boast a little.
In other words, those
super-apostles who are boasting only make themselves look foolish in the
And so Paul, unlike
them, says he will not boast of his power, his deeds, his authority, but
only of his weakness. And then in chapter 12, which is my text
this morning (you thought I'd never get there!), verses 1 through 12:
It is necessary to boast;
nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions
and revelations of the Lord. 2I 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.
3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of
the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into
Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no
mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I
will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of
my weaknesses. 6But 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. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that
it would leave me, 9but 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. 10Therefore I am
content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions,
and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am
weak, then I am strong.
It is said that the
true character of a person is revealed in times of stress. An
airliner, 120 people aboard, loses power in both engines shortly after
takeoff, and the pilot deftly lands the plane on the Hudson River
without any loss of life and hardly an injury.
The Ducks, down by 4
with a few minutes left in the game, take the ball on the 2 yard line
and Danny O'Neil comes into the huddle and tells his team not to worry,
they're going to go those 98 yards and win the game and indeed they do.
And if you know your Duck history, of course, they go on to the Rose
Bowl, first time in 37 years, God willing it won't be the last
A soldier lies
wounded in the midst of battle. Enemy fire pins him down.
Another soldier, at great risk to his own life, carries him to safety.
We admire, and honor
those who in such times show their fortitude, their strength.
Responding to the call when it matters most. And Paul is no pansy
in such matters. In chapter 11, he gives a long list of his
hardships: 5 times, he says, given 40 lashes minus 1 (the legal
limit). Three times beaten by rods. Once by stoning.
Three times shipwrecked. Endangered from rivers, from bandits,
from Jews, from Gentiles, the city, the wilderness, at sea, from Paul's
brothers and sisters. Sleepless nights, cold and hungry, and if
all of that were not bad enough, he concludes by saying: "I am
under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches".
Well, two weeks ago
on Monday morning, I was with the Early Bird Truth Seekers.
Minding my own business, sharing a conversation with the group, and
something comes to mind, I pull out my computer to show a picture to
illustrate something, and Frank makes this gesture to point at the
picture -- sweeping across the table and across my coffee cup!
Full of hot mocha, onto my lap! I'm in my best suit, because I
have a memorial service that afternoon, and there it is, just spilled
all over me J.
Ministry is a dangerous profession! I feel Paul's pain here
I make light of that,
but the reality is there are those for whom it is indeed very dangerous
and suffer for the sake of Christ.
Now Paul comes under
fire of an entirely different sort. And it would be one of the
greatest challenges he would face in this ministry. Ridiculed for
weak appearance, chastised for his poor speaking, questioned on the
basis of his authority, and he defends himself not by boasting of his
great accomplishments, the number of churches he's established, the
number of converts he's made, the number of cities he's visited, and not
even his success in gaining approval from the leaders of the Jerusalem
church for the acceptance of the Gentiles into the community. And
even that long list of sufferings is intended not to show how tough he
is, but how vulnerable and powerless he is. As if to say 'everyone
has their way with Paul -- Romans and Jews, false brothers and sisters,
even nature itself'.
And then to counter
these super-apostles apparently claims of ecstatic experience and divine
revelations, Paul cites not his own work but someone he quote "knows",
unquote. It's the oldest trick in the book, you know, for averting
attention from one's self -- claiming that it comes from somebody else.
Except, of course, it rarely works, we see right through it.
Regardless, by claiming it for someone else, Paul is able to use his own
ecstatic experience to counter that of his critics. They use their
supposed revelations as a claim to authority, but note that Paul does
not. Indeed, not only that, but he makes clear that anything one
receives in such visions is not to be told.
People often wonder
'what the heck is this 3rd heaven business?'. Are there 'levels',
ranks, in heaven? Suffice it to say, Paul has some kind of
ecstatic experience, we don't need to dwell on it, because Paul doesn't
dwell on it. Whether in the body or out of the body, Paul does not
know, God knows, that's tongue-in-cheek. That's Paul's way of
poking fun at the dramatic claims of his critics. It's a sort of
'Nostradamus' as done by Saturday Night Live.
And finally, to show
just how weak he truly is, Paul says he has this 'thorn in the flesh', a
messenger from Satan. There's all kinds of speculation as to what
that might be. I've read claims where people say that means Paul
was a closet homosexual. Or others who say that's evidence he was
Most likely it's something very mundane, maybe he has malaria, a
recurring condition that he struggles with. In any event, in spite
of his close relationship with Christ, his prayers to have it removed
It is this last
admission that I think is quite telling -- up to this point, I'm not
sure Paul has been entirely convincing, you know, of all these hardships
he's endured. Kind of brought attention to himself, they're
self-serving. But what motive does Paul have to call to mind this
one weakness? Perhaps it's something the folks in Corinth knew and
had seen and experienced. But except to illustrate this very point
he's trying to make -- that it is in and through our weaknesses and
vulnerabilities that God is most present.
Paul is in effect
saying 'If you want to know how God works in this world, look not to the
examples of power and success (what conventional wisdom says is evidence
of God) but look at my own life which by worldly standards is a
disaster'. Or as some charged in Corinth, a fool's life. But
if a fool, a fool for Christ.
So if there is any
good that comes out of it, it is not my doing, says Paul, but the Lord
And this is in
essence the power of the cross. For Romans, the power of the cross
was very clear -- it was the power to dominate, to oppress, to
terrorize. And thus the Christian paradox is to embrace the cross.
How is it that there is power in weakness? To embrace the cross --
not buy using it as the Romans did, exercising power of dominion over
the weak -- but using it as God did, turning worldly power on its head.
Siding with the weak. Claiming our vulnerability. Allowing
God to work through it.
The great Disciple
preacher Fred Craddock, stands all of five-foot two, and he's a master
at using his diminutive stature and wispy voice to witness to the power
of Christ. I love his story he tells about a time when he was
worshipping in a black church, I think it was Ebenezer Baptist where
Martin Luther King preached, he stood up to preach and all of a sudden
the pastor of the congregation began to hum very loudly. And the
choir took up the tune. And then the mother of the church -- in
that tradition, the pastor's wife is known as the 'mother of the church'
-- she stands, and everyone else stands. And they begin to sing.
And they begin to praise God with 'Hallelujah!', and they start clapping
and the whole place was filled with this spirit and it builds to a
crescendo. And then some type of signal is given and it all begins
to settle down and quiet down. People sit down. Pastor nods
to Fred and says 'OK, you can go on and preach now'. So he does.
Afterward, he says to
the pastor of the congregation 'You know that little thing you did
there, right before my sermon, what was that about?' And the
pastor said "Well, when I saw you stand up to that great big pulpit I
said 'Lord, he's going to need some help!'"
At the risk of being
trite, there's a great scene at the end of the Star Wars trilogy, the
original one, where Luke finally defeats Darth Vadar. And the
Emperor urges Luke to finish the job, to kill his nemesis Darth.
But instead Luke turns off his light saber, puts it away, he declines
that opportunity to give in to the 'dark side' of power. And the Emperor
becomes enraged and he 'tasers' him, sending these bolts of electricity
and tortures him. And Luke is lying there in pain and he screams
out to Darth Vadar (who we of course know is his father): "Father,
And finally Darth
Vadar, this evil character, the symbolism of everything evil and dark in
the world, something tugs at him, and finally Darth responds and picks
up the the Emperor and throws him into the abyss. Thereby
sacrifices his own life in the process.
It's a message as old
as the gospel. It's not the power of the sword, the power of
Empire, that saves us, but the power of love.
And so too Christ
says to Paul: my grace is sufficient for you. Love is the
only power in the end that can truly save you.
And you see that's
the meaning of the cross. So how do we put that into practice?
Paul tells us to let God work through our weakness. Such of course
is the first step in all 12-step programs -- to recognize that you are
powerless over that addiction. And to allow God, or that higher
power, to take charge of your life.
In Argentina, during
the 'dirty war' in the 1970s, tens of thousands of suspected leftists
were 'disappeared'. During that period, when so many people
disappeared, it seemed like there was no power that could challenge the
authority of that government. Until the women, the widows, the
weak, the mothers, the grandmothers, dressed in black, stood up in the
public square day after day after day, thereby undermining the moral
authority of that government and eventually leading to its collapse.
Martin Luther King
knew that he could not match the power of Bull Conner's water hoses and
dogs, and so instead, by submitting to them, he could show to the world
how bankrupt such power really is.
Mahatma Gandhi called
it 'truth force'. Power made perfect in weakness.
Whenever we use love
instead of force, we are drawing on that power. The power of the
transformed cross. The power of God.
Whenever we use truth
instead of might, we make that power visible.
Whenever we draw on
compassion instead of coercion, we act out that power.
Whenever we use
gentleness instead of brutality, we are in that power.
Whenever we use
kindness instead of meanness, we use that power.
Whenever we use
forgiveness instead of vengeance, we are part of that power.
It is our choice.
It is in our choosing.
To choose the power
of love, what the world sees as weakness.
But which is the
power of God.
That is our choice.
That is the power we are called to be.