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The Christian Paradox

Sermon - 7/12/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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. . . .

Many scholars 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 Corinthians.

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:

For they [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 process.

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 J.

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 J.

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 married J.  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 were denied. 

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 indeed. 

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!'" J.

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, save me".

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.

 


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