Scripture for Sunday: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
I 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 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.
Notes on the Text:
Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth needed repair. Somehow by the time of the writing of this letter, Paul felt that he needed to defend his credentials. He was the founder of that church, but other leaders had come after him and challenged his teachings and his authority. They taught “the gospel of circumcision” while he taught that it was not necessary to be circumcised, i.e., become a Jew before joining the church. Corinth was a city of great competition. It was a city that wanted to compete with the glory of Rome. There was also the social structure of patronage which divided the society into separate social classes based on power and wealth.
Even in the church in Corinth there seemed to be a spirit of competition and division. There were people who considered the preaching of Paul to be inferior to the preaching of the so-called “super apostles.” They wanted to follow the ways of the “glitzy” and charismatic preachers and teachers. They wanted to be led by the “best” preachers. They also wanted to have ecstatic and mystical visions or at least be led by preachers who had those experiences, as if those experiences were badges of honor to be worn and bragged about in public. They also taught that belonging to the church was to be associated with a certain religious practice and group.
If Paul was not fully grounded in his own soul and in his relationship with God, he might have tried to please and impress the people. He might have struggled to disown a part of himself or the belief the gospel of Jesus was open for all people. Paul responded with an invitation to the Corinthians to the upside-down values of Jesus Christ. But first he told them about his own ecstatic/mystical experience of going up into the third heaven. This had happened to him fourteen years prior to the writing of the letter. The third heaven was understood to be paradise. In the Jewish and Christian literature of the time this was understood to be part of the multilayered abode of God. The people of that time believed that heaven, the residence of God, was made up of several layers. The third layer was the one place where one could stand near God. The word paradise comes from the Persian language meaning “garden,” which was used in some Jewish literature to refer to the home of the departed righteous. Paul tells the congregation in Corinth about his mystical experience of visiting this special place and experiencing God’s presence in that unique way not to brag but to show them that he himself had some experiences of deep faith. In addition, Paul reminds them of all that he had done for the ministry of the gospel. He told about all of this not to show off but to remind the Christians in Corinth that he was more than qualified for this ministry. He was not inferior in his faith or his abilities. But, at the end, Paul reminds them that bragging and boasting were not Christian qualities. Paul had self-compassion instead of arrogance. He told them about his gifts and about his weakness (the thorn in the flesh) to make sure that they knew that he was not denying any part of himself.
Self-compassion is very different than narcissism or arrogance. The true challenge of the gospel of Christ for the Corinthian followers of Jesus was to learn to trust in God and to see that God worked best in weakness and not just in strength. God works powerfully through our faults and mistakes.
We know from our own experiences in life that God is more visible for us in places of brokenness because that is when we truly allow God to work in our lives. The façade of success and the cultural allure of power and independence often block our ability to enter deeply into God’s presence because they keep us busy with the surface stuff of life, i.e., the ego/false self. That is why our attitude toward ourselves is very important to our ability to heal and to grow in life.
We learn from an early age that certain parts of our identity are not acceptable and thus need to be hidden or repressed. And thus as Christina Feldman says, “We tend to treat ourselves with a level of harshness and demand that we would be reluctant to inflict on anyone else, even our worst enemies. Even as we open our hearts to others, to received and embrace them, we habitually judge and condemn ourselves.” This does not mean that we should think that we are always perfect or that we never have bad qualities. It does not mean that we are always right or that we never make mistakes. What it does mean is that we learn to have compassion for ourselves just like we have compassion for others when they fail or are hurt. Instead of rejecting or hiding the shadow parts of ourselves, we see them as opportunities to allow God and others to help us.
In her book Boundless Compassion Joyce Rupp quotes Parker Palmer who wrote this, “I now know myself to be a person with weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light. I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but embrace all of it…Others may that ‘embracing one’s wholeness’ is just fancy talk for permission to sin, but again my experience is to the contrary. To embrace weakness, liability, and darkness as part of who I am gives that part less sway over me, because all it ever wanted was to be acknowledged as part of my whole self.”
Paul acknowledged both his greatness and his weakness (mystical experiences and the thorn in his flesh) and saw in the cross of Jesus an example of how what the world considers to be weakness turns into wholeness and greater transformation for the world.
Here is a quote by Jean Vanier about the importance of learning from weakness in order to become whole. Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian who in 1964 founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities in 37 countries for people with developmental disabilities and the people who assist them. In his 1992 book From Brokenness to Community, Vanier writes of Armando, an 8-year-old boy who could not walk or talk and had been abandoned in an orphanage: “That is the power of Armando. In some mysterious way, in all his brokenness, he reveals to us our own brokenness, our difficulties in loving, our barriers and hardness of heart. If he is so broken and so hurt and yet is still such a source of life, then I too am allowed to look at my own brokenness and to trust that I too can give life to others. … I am allowed to be myself, with all my psychological and physical wounds, with all my limitations but with all my gifts too. And I can trust that I am loved just as I am, and that I too can love and grow.”
Prayer by Joyce Rupp:
Source of Love, turn me around to look at myself, to see as you see, to love as you love, to accept as you accept, that I may approach myself with a heart of loving-kindness. Amen.