I Cor. 12: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The following are some thoughts and experiences coming from my recent unplanned and obligatory continuing education unit in pastoral care, on the receiving end, this time. I do so at the risk of sounding grandiose, as though I were in any way comparing myself to the Apostle Paul and the heavenly revelations he talks about. I’m not. Nor do I know for certain what that “thorn in the flesh” is that he mentions. But there are some things we do share with Paul and each other.
My recent experience with appendicitis reinforced for me all that we share, first of all, as fellow Strivers, Strugglers and Survivors. I call us all, myself included, strivers and strugglers in the best sense of the words. I look around and see fellow laborers on behalf of God’s Reign, God’s world, and God’s work. Like yesterday, at the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, and all the work that went into it in the days and weeks leading up to it, to address human needs like food, shelter, and disaster relief. Here I also see people who strive, seriously and sacrificially, for our Christian Education, people who keep this space hospitable for each other and the community; who visit the sick, the bereaved and the housebound, or who organize things like food and flowers and cards and care. People who serve on boards and committees in the community, like the Canby Center, or Hope Village.
In addition I see people who strive here and in the community on behalf of the gospel of peace. I see ESL teachers, advocates and friends for immigrants, the unborn and mothers in unsupported pregnancies, people with their sleeves rolled up to address hunger and homelessness, people who give sacrificially to share the Gospel here and around the world, and more. And I say “Bless you,” as one who needed that care, as well as giving it.
So might we identify with the writer of today’s New Testament passage, the Apostle Paul? The words we just heard result from Paul’s tireless striving on behalf of God’s kingdom. With his missionary team of Timothy, Luke, Silas and Barnabbas, he tirelessly preached the gospel and planted churches all over the Mediterranean world. After the team would move on to start another church in another city, they would still work just as tirelessly to train and support those new leaders, often by means of visits and letters, like the one we just heard.
But on the way to ending world hunger and sharing the gospel, life happens. And then we have to figure out where we were, pick up the pieces, and start again. Like when an illness strikes. Or a relationship breaks down. That makes us all fellow strugglers and survivors, too. Strugglers and survivors whose best laid plans have also often been thrown for a loop by circumstances and challenges greater than mine this last week. Whether it was a dreaded diagnosis, or a chronic condition in physical, emotional or mental health, loss, bereavement, unemployment or under-employment, betrayal in relationships or business, temptations or addictions to chemical, sexual or behavioral problems, none of which we either chose or expected, we often have to settle for being survivors who are happy just to endure, let alone achieve anything.
Can we not also identify with these words of Paul in that sense, too? His sufferings and setbacks, the obstacles, opposition and persecution that he and his missionary team faced are why he had to write these words to begin with. Maybe those are the thorn of which he writes. His Corinthian disciples have started to turn against him and his gospel, not in spite of his sacrifices, struggles, sufferings and setbacks, but because of them. They were wondering, “How can Paul and this motley, ragged crew be the messengers of Almighty God, if they’re living hand to mouth, and they can’t get from Point A to Point B without a shipwreck, or imprisonment, a beating, whipping or a stoning, or getting held up by bandits or pirates? To have whole cities rise up in riot against their message? If that’s what their gospel provokes in the world, we didn’t sign up for that. Don’t you think that revelation from heaven should lead to power, prosperity and popularity, not persecution, opposition and tribulation? Somebody find us another apostle with another gospel, please.”
Paul acknowledges their complaint in Chapter 11: 2 Cor. 11: 23b-30 : “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
With that, Paul turns their reasoning on its head to say that, if you’re looking for God’s seal of approval on his apostolic ministry, here it is: the very sufferings, struggles and setbacks, the very weakness, need and vulnerability that the Corinthians find so distasteful and disqualifying are the seal of our apostleship. Sure, the Corinthians can find self-styled “super-apostles” who exude all the signs and symbols of power, prestige and prosperity, who can better teach you how to win friends and influence others and be more prosperous, powerful and prestigious, and realize your life’s Plan A. You can find such preachers on TV still today. But now we hear that God’s world-saving Power works through weakness, vulnerability and dependence, more than through any of the normal human powers, prosperity or prestige that we usually trust and celebrate. The truest measure of God’s calling, and of God’s power, is not what God enables us to achieve and to accomplish, but in what God enables us to endure and to overcome.
Now where would Paul get such an upside-down view of God’s power and purposes in the world? From none other than his Hebrew Bible. It tells us that God dwells with the lowly and the contrite, the God who humiliated the hard-hearted Pharaoh, and who hears the cry of the poor, the widow, the alien and the orphan. But Paul didn’t really seem to understand all that until he found Jesus, or rather, Jesus found him on the Road to Damascus, when he was off to persecute the Christians there, and confronted him with the question: “Why do you persecute me?”
Then Paul began to understand that this Jesus, who had so offended and scandalized him for being hung on a tree, who was crucified in shame, weakness and apparent, humiliating defeat, is God’s one and only agent of triumph over all the rebellious powers of hell in the world. That’s what God is still up to in this world: working through our weakness, vulnerability, dependence, struggles and setbacks, every so mysteriously, as well as through our power, wisdom and will.
This came to mind for me last week in the hospital, as I got to know the person who shared the room with me. My situation was a stroll in the park compared to his. Still, he and his wife would tell Becky and me, “We’re praying for you!” I could hear some of his moans and groans through the long nights. But I never heard any resentment, blaming or bitterness. In fact, he shared with Becky and me that he was a police officer in Washington State, a leader among very tough, courageous and competent men and women who have to keep it together and be strong in the face of all sorts of perils and provocations. And yet his dire diagnosis has given him and his crew opportunities to talk very caringly and openly about those deep, tender and terrifying things, those scary and sacred fears, hopes and needs that we all share, but that we don’t always want to name or admit. It has also given him chances to share about the Lord and the faith that sustain him and his wife, come what may. So the love of God reaches more people, not in spite of his weakness and need, but through them.
In such times, then, not only are we strivers, strugglers and survivors, we are also, if I might say it, “superheroes.” No, not the ones who will ring our doorbell some night in a few weeks. Children commonly pass through a stage in which they identify with such Superheroes as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman. I think that’s because they’re coming to terms with our common weaknesses, needs and insecurities. They’re hoping to find some way that someone, somewhere, can deflect or defeat the threats to body, soul and spirit that they’re just coming to understand. Perhaps being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound will help. Or, at least dressing and pretending that you are, might help.
At some point, however, we have to grow up from that. For there comes the day when we realize that we can go no faster than the dog we’re taking for a walk. Nor can we leap a speed bump with even a lively shuffle. Even then, we can be superheroes in the way Paul described then in Romans 8: 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That phrase, “more than conquerors,” is the First Century version of “superheroes.” Paul there is riffing on the official title, “Conqueror,” that the Roman Senate gave to victorious generals returning to Rome from battle with their armies, their captives, their loot, booty and trophies, to ride in triumphal procession before the crowds, wearing an official Roman laurel wreath. But Paul has the nerve to apply it to himself, while in prison, and to his fellow sufferers, strugglers slaves, and other overlooked and under-valued people in the churches of Rome. We are “more than conquerors,” he says, not because of what we do to other people, but because of what God has done for us. “We are more than conquerors… through him who loved us.”
I saw the more conventional kinds of conquerors while laying on the hospital bed one night last week, when I used the remote to turn the TV on. On one channel, Yoda was teaching Luke Skywalker to wield a light saber. “Use the force you must,” said he. Why, I wondered, do we think that the same kinds of power, violence, contest and conquest exist long, long ago and in a galaxy far away as they do on our fallen, captive planet today?
So on to the next channel, where there was more news on the mass shooting in Las Vegas. We may never know what all motivated the gunman. But isn’t such carnage where our conventional cults of power, and the contempt of weakness, always eventually lead us? Whether it’s the more intimate domestic violence, or the mass, industrial-scale slaughter of war?
Speaking of war, on the next channel, Brad Pitt was playing an American tank commander trying to teach his new gunner to have no mercy for German prisoners. So off went the TV. I didn’t want to stay in the hospital a single minute longer than necessary.
By contrast, that same day there was an ancient Christian prayer on the website that I check in with every morning that begins like this: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and compassion.” Think of that. Mercy as the mightiest expression of God’s power in the world. Mercy like what Jesus showed to lepers in need of cleansing, and to the sick in need of healing. And that just when they expected—or suspected that they deserved– nothing other than death, disaster or condemnation. That hospital room was full of mercy (as long as the TV was off), mercy in the persons of caring, competent professionals, caring visitors, the calls, cards, flowers and prayers from you. And, of course, Becky’s support and wisdom. Mercy seemed to be there as a power, not Yoda’s “The Force” for killing and contest, but mercy as a presence, even a Person, who gave us peace, come what may.
It makes me remember those times riding in the car as a kid while my Dad was driving. In back, behind the passenger seat, it always looked to me like every car coming toward us in the other lane was going to hit us, head on, right in front of the steering wheel. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t Dad see that we’re about to die, unless someone swerves to the right? And then we’ll never make it to the Dairy Queen!” But just as I expected disaster to strike, our car and the other one would whoosh right past each other, with no one swerving an inch. And we did get to the Dairy Queen, alive and in one piece. So I learned to trust the perspective of the one in the driver’s seat, more than my own from the back seat.
Mercy is the mighty, wonder-working power of which Paul writes in today’s passage. The cross behind me tells us how this mighty power of mercy can work and win through any circumstance, however grave or devastating. So don’t let the Confuser and the Accuser of the Brethren add shame, oppression, condemnation or bitterness to the griefs and sorrows we naturally experience whenever life interrupts our striving and succeeding with unforeseeable setbacks, struggles and sorrows. There will come a time when we too will find that God’s grace is sufficient for us, that God’s strength is made manifest through our weakness, and just how much God can do through our weakness and our limits, and not in spite of them.
Trust the One in the driver’s seat; he’ll get us to the Dairy Queen.