A Thorn in the Flesh
First UMC Shelbyville
July 8, 2018
(Based on a sermon preached July 8, 2012, at Concord UMC)
2 Corinthians 12:2–10 (CEB)
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. 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. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.
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. 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.
I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 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. 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.
Paul begins our scripture passage today by referring to “a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven.”
Most of the commentaries I found were in agreement that Paul was speaking about himself, and many of them believe that what he’s referring to was his experience on the road to Damascus, the confrontation with God that led to Paul’s conversion.
He writes that he wasn’t sure whether he was caught up to heaven in physical form or whether it was a vision, but in either case he is sure that what he witnessed was real.
When Paul says he was caught up into the “third heaven,” he was referring to the common understanding of what the world was like among those of the Jewish faith in the First Century. They thought that the Earth, as the center of the universe, was surrounded by various layers, called heavens or firmaments. The first heaven was the air above us, in which the birds fly. The second heaven was where the sun, the moon and the stars were located, and beyond that was the third heaven, where God and other heavenly beings lived.
So Paul claims to have been either transported to, or at least shown, the third heaven. And he tells us that he’s not allowed to tell us everything he saw there.
Then, referring to himself, he says, “I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself.”
It does seem as if Paul is bragging — even as he claims that he’s not bragging. And then, to top it off, he says that if he was bragging, he’d have the right to do it, and wouldn’t be embarrassing himself. That, to me, sounds like what we now call a “humblebrag.”
Merriam-Webster says the first recorded use of the word “humblebrag” was in 2002. They define the word as “to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.”
While it sometimes seems as if Paul does have a healthy regard for his own status, what he’s actually doing in this case is defending himself.
The Corinthians were being preached to by so-called “super-apostles,” who were criticizing Paul’s teachings and trying to substitute their own. Paul accused these super-apostles of teaching heresy. Today’s passage comes as part of several chapters in which Paul is defending himself and his ministry in the context of trying to encourage the Corinthians to hold to the truth as Paul had presented it to them, and not to fall prey to the heresies that were being put forth by these “super-apostles.”
Paul tells the Corinthians that he refrains from boasting, quote, “so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me.”
In other words, Paul could boast of intangibles, but that might lead people to think more of him than what was demonstrated in his day-to-day life.
That’s an important lesson, and I don’t want to move past it too quickly. We have a lot of intangible things about which we might, in theory, be able to boast. But sometimes the way in which we actually live our life undercuts those. It’s hard for us to boast of our relationship with God when our lives don’t seem to indicate any such relationship.
It’s very important for Christians to avoid the trap of legalism. We never want to feel as if we’ve earned the right to boast, or as if our failures have taken away our chance to accept God’s grace. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace, and not on our own works.
But how we live our lives is an indicator, if an imperfect and somewhat inaccurate one, of the progress we make in our relationship with God. That little gas gauge on the dashboard isn’t what makes the car go, and if you found some way of interfering with the gauge so that it read “full” that wouldn’t actually put gas back into the tank. But the gas gauge, under most circumstances, is a helpful way of knowing how much gas is left and whether it’s a good time to stop for a fill-up.
John Wesley used the term “perfection” in his sermons and writings, and his meaning was so misunderstood that he eventually had to come back and explain himself. Wesley did not believe, and did not teach, that any Christian achieved sinlessness in this earthly existence. But he believed very strongly that we were moving on to perfection, and that someone who had received God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace would lead a life that exemplifies that grace.
As Christians, we can boast of our salvation. We can boast of being God’s creation. We can boast of being received into God’s kingdom. And we should be willing to boast of all those things.
But if our lives don’t represent that new relationship, our boasting will ring somewhat hollow. There are too many people who wrap themselves in Christian language but who treat their fellow human beings so badly that they end up driving people away from the Gospel.
In one of today’s other Lectionary passages, from the book of Mark, Jesus — of course — demonstrates actions that match his claims.
Mark 6:1–3 (CEB)
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were surprised. “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.
Jesus performed acts of compassion and power that were consistent with his teachings. And yet, the people of his hometown rejected him anyway. So living a life consistent with your words does not guarantee that you’ll be accepted. But living a life out of step with what you say almost guarantees you’ll be rejected.
But now, Paul comes to one of the most debated and discussed references in the New Testament.
“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.”
Paul became one of the central figures of the growing church, and except for Jesus himself Paul’s words have provided more of the basis for our understanding of the Christian faith than any other figure in church history.
And yet, Paul has something in his life he must constantly overcome — some great obstacle or challenge. Paul comes close to admitting his own ego when he hints that the thorn in the flesh may be there to keep him from becoming conceited.
There are almost as many theories about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as there are commentators. Some of the popular theories have to do with headaches or vision problems. We do have circumstantial evidence elsewhere in Paul’s writings that Paul might have had vision problems. At the end of the letter to the Galatians, which Paul had apparently dictated to someone else, he writes the last few sentences in his own hand, and comments on what large letters he makes. That could be an indication that he couldn’t see very well.
There are also theories that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was epilepsy. There’s another school of thought that it had to do with his appearance — that he was somehow ugly or repulsive.
Then there are non-physical theories — perhaps the thorn in the flesh was temptation, or the persecution that Paul faced, or something of that sort.
There’s a certain poignancy in someone who both faces great obstacles and accomplishes great things.
In March of this year, the world lost Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of its greatest physicists, and as you know his brilliant mind was trapped for decades in a paralyzed body. For us as Christians, it’s even sadder that this great man who understood so much about God’s creation had no need for God in his cosmology.
We look at so many great artists, who — whether in spite of their talent or because of it — were troubled and tortured, even as they created remarkable works. There are many examples, from Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Kurt Cobain. Just in the past few weeks we lost Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
And Paul, too, has his thorn in the side. We may not know what it was, but we know what the answer to it turned out to be. “I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone,” Paul wrote. “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.”
God’s grace is enough for you. There’s a powerful phrase if I’ve ever heard one. God’s grace is sufficient. If you have physical struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. If you have emotional struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. If you have financial struggles, God’s grace is sufficient.
And by “sufficient” I don’t just mean “just enough to get by.” In Paul’s case, God’s grace was sufficient not only to overcome the thorn in Paul’s side, but to enable Paul to spread the Gospel throughout the known world at that time, and to enable Paul to share wisdom that resonates with us even today on some of the most critical issues of Christian theology.
That’s a powerful and humbling word for all of us. Too often, we use our own thorns in the flesh as excuses. If only I were healthy, if only my finances were better, if only I could get my own life sorted out, then I could serve God.
The nature of our task varies from person to person. But rest assured, God has tasks for you. God is calling you to serve, to spread the Good News, if not to the far corners of the earth, then to every corner of your world. God may not call you to heal the sick, but God may be calling you to take a covered dish, or to cover for a co-worker with a sick relative, or to say a kind word.
As we try to complete the tasks that God sets before us, the nature of the obstacles also varies from person to person. The thorn in your own side might be your own self doubt. It might be a relationship. It might be a chronic illness or a sudden catastrophe.
But whatever the size of the task, and whatever the size of the obstacles, we know the size of the grace: sufficient.
And that knowledge should, if we can move it from our head to our heart, give us the sense of contentment to which Paul refers in that last verse: “Therefore,” he writes, “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.”
In the book of Judges, Gideon faces a great battle, and God, in effect, orders him to send home much of his army. It needed to be clear to the people of Israel that the battle had been won by God, and not by Gideon. When we face obstacles, it reminds us that we, too, are dependent on God for ultimate victory.
That’s not to make light of those struggles; they can be bitterly felt. You can imagine Paul’s pleading with God three times to take away his thorn. We need to have the empathy needed to recognize the struggles, the thorns, felt by those around us, and we need to show Christian compassion to anyone who is being challenged.
But while our pains and tragedies and struggles are very real, they can also be a part of our ultimate triumph. It’s our weaknesses that help to remind us of God’s grace. It’s our weaknesses that keep us from trusting in our own ability. It’s our weaknesses that give us the strength that comes from reliance on the sufficient grace of God.