Our Strength and Defender
Sunday, July 8, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
The city of Corinth – where the recipients of this letter lived – was an ancient port city known partly for its great wealth, but equally well for its unbridled licentiousness; it was like the Las Vegas of the first century. In the year 51 AD, the Apostle Paul rolled into town, headed down the strip, gathered up all of the Corinthian lounge singers, gamblers, Elvis impersonators, and other assorted riff raff, and somehow he made a thriving Christian church out of them. Paul inspired a great faith and zeal among the Corinthian Christians. He stayed there and worked with them longer than most other places - for about eighteen months - before moving on to Ephesus, Caesarea, Antioch and Syria.
After Paul left them, the Corinthians began to bicker about everything, and eventually they would have to write to him, wherever he may be, and ask him to settle their disputes.
These verses from 2 Corinthians are part of an impassioned, agitated response letter that Paul sent them, wherein he is faced with having to defend his position as an apostle, and reassure them of his credibility and authority. After Paul left the church he had established in Corinth, someone else has come along claiming to have more authority than Paul, and this person was contradicting what Paul had taught them, and raising doubts about his authority to be an apostle at all.
These were people who Paul referred to as “false teachers,” who were not teaching about the risen Christ (they were likely teaching that being a Christian meant living by Jewish food and purity laws) and who were only confusing the Corinthian Christians with false doctrine, and using their Jewish pedigree as proof of their superiority over Paul, who was Jewish himself, but of the Diaspora (from Tarsus, not Jerusalem).
Paul is in the position of having to defend himself against these accusations; but he is determined to remain true to his principles, and not resort to easy means of defense, such as boasting of personal accomplishments, or of his own Jewish heritage (he had, after all, been a Pharisee, which was a highly respected position among the Jews). And in the case of this passage, he specifically avoids boasting about religious experiences he’s had, which would prove to them that he was favoured in the eyes of God.
This passage is one scripture passage that always makes me laugh when I read it. Paul’s “I know a guy” story is the first century equivalent of “I’m asking for ‘a friend.’” “I wouldn’t dream of boasting about myself,” he says, “but let me tell you what happened to ‘this guy’ that I happen to know.”
When Paul says “nothing is to be gained” by boasting, he does not really mean that it won’t serve any purpose. Although he’s forced into this position by people who should know better, he hopes that by this “boasting” he will make the Corinthians see that they have been wronging him and following false leaders in Corinth. His words simply express his distaste for the whole business of boasting, and his sense that it is a desperate and suspect measure used primarily by those whose credibility is questionable.
He could boast, as his critics do, of impressive religious connections, experiences, and achievements… but he chooses instead to speak only of his weaknesses, attributing – in these verses - his own ecstatic experience to a third party, and boasting as though it were of someone else’s experience. Paul never wanted glory for himself; it was all about Jesus Christ!
Paul would like to take credit for his accomplishments and experiences, he would like to prove his authority and worth in the eyes of the skeptical Corinthians, to improve his image and demonstrate his personal power and strength; but he says that he has been shown by God that boasting of his experiences, puffing himself up, actually diminishes the power of God to abide in his life. Humility on his part allows God Almighty – the one who brought all life into being and won victory over death - to be his strength and defender.
So, he tells the Corinthians that when he started to get a little too big for his britches, a little too proud of himself, an experience - possibly a lingering illness -reminded him of how much is beyond his power; how much is simply out of his control. We’re not told exactly what the “thorn in the flesh” was, but it was an experience that brought him back down to earth, and reminded him of the value of humility, and of how much he depends on the grace and power of God.
Power is something that is addressed quite at length in a book called Radical Gratitude, by Mary Jo Leddy. The traditional notion of power, she says, is the ability to get what you want, or to realize your potential, and has been increasingly associated in modern times with the acquisition of knowledge and information. In our post-Enlightenment era, the world and the human beings who inhabit it are seen as objects that can be analyzed, broken down and reconstructed in better ways.
Thus - and I quote – “the modern world has cultivated within us a curious and conflicting experience of power. On one hand, we imagine that we have mastery or power over the world, and, on the other, we experience ourselves as merely parts of some great machine that can be manipulated and controlled by others. Modernity simultaneously generates philosophies of human beings as all-powerful and almost completely powerless.
In this context, our society has dictated that an important virtue is always having control over your actions and intentions. Being out of control - of any area of your life - is considered disgraceful. Of course, any idea of near-total control of one’s own life, much less over anyone else’s, is an impossible dream and inevitably generates a vicious cycle of feeling powerless, and making more radical attempts to gain control. The stress of trying to remain perpetually in control of all of the events of our day-to-day lives and of our environment is literally killing us and destroying the planet.”
Our personal power to control the events of our lives is much more limited than we like to admit. Things happen that we just never expected, that throw us for a loop, that force us to change the way we think, or even the whole direction of our lives; events that shatter our confidence in our ability manage our own lives – an illness, a death, falling in love, an unplanned pregnancy, a marriage breakdown, a job loss, an unexpected new opportunity. I would dare to say that probably almost everyone here today has experienced something in their life that was against their will, completely beyond their control, and that dramatically changed their life.
It’s hard for most of us to accept that we cannot always be in control. But if we try to accept that we just can’t control all the events of our lives, and we loosen up on the reins, relinquish some of our need for control, then we actually take some pressure off of ourselves, and then we become open to go where God is leading us.
But we may not always like the outcome; we may question God’s ability to direct our lives to our satisfaction – Paul, for example, says that he will accept weakness, insults, hardships, persecution and calamities, but with confidence that the power of God’s grace will give him the strength to see it through. If we’re going to trust in God to be in control of our lives, we don’t want His plan to include weakness, persecution or calamities…but it sometimes does, and the interesting thing is that – for better or worse – it’s those times when we have the greatest opportunity to grow in faith and courage and character.
When we trust in God’s ability to direct our lives, our capacity to get through life’s pain and disappointment, and to experience and appreciate life’s joy and love becomes real, concrete, and palpable.
I have been given my own thorn in the flesh, so to speak, and through it – like Paul – I have learned that God’s grace is sufficient, and that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. Throughout my life – since I was about 14 years old – I have struggled with occasional bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, and over the years I’ve more or less learned how to manage it. Except that, by nature, anxiety sometimes throws you a curve ball. I’m told that 33 percent of the population of Canada experiences anxiety and panic attacks, so if there are 200 people here today, roughly 66 of you have experienced what I’m talking about, and many others probably know someone who has.
I once had an experience where panic began setting in during the opening hymn of a worship service, about 10 minutes before I was supposed to preach a sermon. I didn’t know what to do! My heart was racing; I could feel all the colour draining out of my face. All I wanted to do was run out of the room, but obviously I couldn’t do that!
As the congregation sang the hymn, I began reflecting on the anxiety Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing what he would endure the next day: an agonizing death by crucifixion. I reminded myself that as I stepped up into the pulpit to preach nobody was going to crucify me! When I began to speak, within three words all anxiety drained away, and I felt the strong and powerful presence of God in each and every word I spoke.
God’s power was made perfect in my weakness. I just had to relinquish control and trust in God.
This passage from Paul’s letter assures us that the love and grace and power of God will sustain us through everything that life brings our way, and that it is in our weakest moments that the glory of God’s love becomes ever more present. The promise of God is that, despite adversity, despite challenges or setbacks, we can trust God to direct our lives for ultimate good, certainly more than we can trust our foolish selves to manage things. God said to Paul, “My grace is enough for you: for power is made fully present in weakness.” This does not promise any cure for the human condition; it is a promise that God’s power will sustain us in the midst of weakness and misery.
The biblical assurance and promise that God’s grace is sufficient, that God’s love will sustain us is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, God assures Moses, Jacob, kings and prophets that they can place all of their faith in God. Jesus taught it to the disciples and to the crowds who followed him. Listen to the words of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew: “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
The biblical witness – the promise that we can cling to – is that God gives abundant grace, abundant love, abundant strength to get through all that life brings our way, all that seems insurmountable. For those of us who weaken at the thought of ever letting go of the reins of our own lives, the Bible assures us that placing our lives in God’s hands and accepting the reality that we are not always in control can offer us a strange and very real sense of peace and joy. And when we place our lives in God’s hands, God’s power and strength will sustain us, and whenever we are weak, we will become strong in Him. Amen.