Sermon prepared for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, Indiana and preached in all three Sunday morning services (chapel, bridge, and sanctuary) July 5, 2015.
2 I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. 3-4 I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. 5 I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.
6 If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. 7 I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.
8 I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 9 He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
An amazing man died this week at the age of 106. In the words of the New York Times, “Nicholas Winton, a Briton who said nothing for a half century about his role in organizing the escape of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, a righteous deed like those of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, died on Wednesday in Maidenhead, England. He was 106.” He saved 669 children? And said nothing about it? Through all sorts of complicated and dangerous processes he got all those children on trains headed out of Nazi occupied territory and helped them to find homes in safer countries. He put his own life in danger repeatedly to save these children. He interacted with families making the agonizing decision to put their children on trains and send them away, likely never to see them again. And he surely suffered when the last train (the eighth train) he arranged to leave Prague, the train carrying the largest group of children- 250 in total- never made it out. Hitler invaded Poland and sealed the borders. All 250 of those children likely perished in concentration camps. But 669 got out, thanks to his efforts. They call themselves Nicky’s kids and have over 6,000 descendants among them. And he never said a word about this, even to his beloved wife whom he married over a decade later. Late in his life she found an old photo album attesting to the work he had done, but he was hesitant even then to talk about it. He told her to destroy the documents because no one would be interested. She opted, instead, to give them to a Holocaust historian, and, as you might imagine, many, many were interested.
In light of our scripture passage this morning this story truly stands out. It’s a strange passage. The sort of passage that makes brows crinkle, chests sigh, minds wander. We picked up reading in the midst of what some call Paul’s fool’s speech. Paul has gotten reports from his co-workers who have delivered earlier letters to the Corinthians (there were surely more than two— more than one embedded in the book we call 2nd Corinthians even) that the situation in Corinth has deteriorated. There are alternate apostles there who have won great favor among the Corinthians and who have managed to systematically discredit their founding apostle— calling into question his worthiness and his credentials and presenting impressive accounts of their own credentials to shore themselves up as they run him down. So in chapters 11 and 12 Paul is defending himself against these attacks; he may be trying to save face with the Corinthians.
But he has a funny way of saving face. He starts out, in 11:22, acknowledging rather petulantly that he is, like his opponents, a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham. But he doesn’t elaborate on his rather impressive credentials in this regard. Instead he elaborates on all the suffering he has endured. It’s a pretty impressive list— if you’re impressed by catalogues of woe. And then, where we picked up he turns his attention to sharing revelations and visions; it is likely his opponents claimed to have rapturous spiritual experiences. Paul was not inclined to speak of such things even though he appears to have had experiences like that himself. We can see his unwillingness to talk about it in the strange way he does so— he speaks in the third person “I know a man in Christ” speaks in third person about a first person experience. And he tells the Corinthians absolutely nothing useful about this experience. We can gather he had a direct encounter with God in God’s glory 14 years before the letter was written. Might have been in the body, might have been out of the body. Doesn’t know. God knows. Heard things he can’t repeat. Or rather this man he knows had this encounter and heard things he can’t repeat. It was Paul who had this experience, but he distances himself from a testimony to an encounter with glory. He comes back to directly talking about himself to speak about the thorn in the flesh, some persistent form of suffering from which he strongly desired to be rid. He believes he received this thorn, whatever it was, in order to keep him from being conceited, overly puffed up. He refuses to brag about his encounters with glory. He will only boast about suffering, weakness. The one direct revelation he shares is a powerful, but paradoxical word from Christ to hm “My grace is enough for you; power is made perfect in weakness.” The recollection of which triggers him to make another short list of his sufferings— for the sake of Christ— and to claim “When I am weak. Then I am strong.” Paradox again. That’s what he offers in self-defense. Strange credentials.
When you feel under attack, undervalued, discredited, mis-represented, undermined… is this how you would respond? Aren’t we more likely to trot out lists of accomplishments, lifting up the shiniest truths about ourselves in defense against the onslaught? Paul had started churches all over the Roman Empire by the time these charges were being leveled against him. He had raised significant funds for the poor church in Judea. He had done more than any other individual in the early church to foster the growth and spread of the Christian Church. He had successes about which he could truthfully brag. He had shiny truths he could trot out. But he says he wants no more credit than what people see in him and hear about him. And what folks are seeing and hearing is a mixed bag. And Paul is o.k. with that because if people see him as weak and flawed, then all the success that he has been privileged to foster— all that glory will go to God, which is where he thinks it should go. The power of Christ rests on him when he brags of his weaknesses because he is thereby testifying to his dependence on power beyond himself to accomplish anything in this life. The only credential Paul thinks matters when it comes to validating oneself as an apostle of Christ is complete dependence on Christ— even to the point of patterning one’s life on the sacrificial life that Jesus lived.
The question was raised in Men’s Bible Study on Wednesday whether if our prayers were to be answered and this congregation were to grow again and every Sunday were like Jazz Sunday (something we might particularly be wishing for on the typically low, low Sunday of a secular holiday weekend), should we not brag about this? Would this not be a sign of God’s favor upon us and our faithfulness to God? It might be. We might experience it as resurrection and of the amazing power of God at work among us. But we might also begin to pat ourselves on the back or give undue glory to particular leaders among us and we might forget that whether we are big or small, we are utterly dependent on Christ’s mercy and grace. Even the biggest churches are weak and dependent on the power of Christ. And perhaps the biggest churches are most at risk of forgetting what matters most. Then again, it sure seems all churches, all humans run this risk.
This is part of the reason we have sacraments. Every time we share in Christ’s feast, a humble feast, one might even call it a weak feast— a bit of bread, a bit of juice— it gives us an opportunity to remember that we are beggars for grace, dependent in every moment on nourishment from God in Christ in order to continue to live as servants of Christ. And perhaps if we keep coming back to this table, we’ll become more comfortable, perhaps even joyous, living sacrificial lives for the sake of Christ— and not finding ourselves puffed up about this, not even needing to tell anyone about it, willing to burn the evidence even. Christ’s grace is enough for us. Power is perfected in weakness. That the church is spread throughout the whole word 2,000 years after Paul wrote these sputtering words is testimony to power that comes to the aid of human weakness. That those 669 children survived and have over 6,000 descendants to show for their survival is a testimony to power that comes to the aid of human weakness. May the life of this church be such a testimony, too.