Sermon: 7/8/18

Pentecost 7B
2 Corinthians 12:2-10

by Pastor Sarah Stadler

In our reading from 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks of a rival group of Christian missionaries.  To help us imagine this, I invite 2-3 people to come and be these rival missionaries. This does require standing on chairs.

According to Paul, these were the “super-apostles.”  He actually uses this phrase in 2 Corinthians 11:5. But he meant it tongue in cheek because they were, apparently, violent, arrogant, moralistic, and power hungry.  In our reading, Paul describes how these Christian missionaries boast, how they puff up their chests, how they number their own accomplishments, how they share their exceptional revelations with the world.  

And then, there is Paul.  Can I get a Paul?

Two thousand years later, we celebrate Paul as a highly effective missionary, a skillful and insightful writer, a dependable witness to Christ, a perfectionist Pharisee, a zealous man of faith.  In the face of these super-apostles, however, Paul is small, weak, dependent (on Christ), always getting into trouble like getting himself imprisoned, shipwrecked, and ousted from communities not eager to hear his message.  

Paul and the super-apostles get into a boasting match.  No fistfights, apparently. No shouting matches, that we know of.  But some “one-up-ping” and some “here's what I've got, how about you?”  Perhaps not so unlike pastors from different churches comparing their ministries.  

Ask Paul and the super-apostles:

Who wins this boasting contest?  You, Paul or you, the super-apostles?  If you had to guess, who do you think ultimately won the favor of the people of God in Corinth?  

Thank you, Paul and super-apostles.  You may be seated.

Who wins whenever people try to outdo one another, like Paul and the super-apostles?    

You may be thinking: I know the answer is nobody.  Nobody wins in that situation. I get it. You may also be thinking: Pastor Sarah isn't quite realistic, though, because the stronger person wins.  The better person wins. The more fortified, the wiser, the more accomplished person wins in that boasting contest.

Paul, too, was taken in by that logic for a time.  From what we can tell, he participated in the one-up-ping and the “here's what I've got, how about you?” contest.  And then, he realized that nobody wins with that strategy. More than that, he realized that engaging in that strategy was not reflective of the power of God or the life of Jesus.  In his letter to the Corinthians who themselves had succumbed to a great many conflicts in their community, Paul comes to understand four things, things that for me personally are incredibly important in a life of faith.  

One, Paul's boasting just magnifies his weakness, a thorn.  Instead of creating an illusion of a super-Paul, Paul's boasting shows all the chinks in his armor. The boasting of the super-apostles certainly reveals their weakness to Paul.  And doesn't that happen to us when we get wrapped up in our own greatness? We become more and more unaware of our weaknesses while others become more and more aware of them.

Two, Paul realizes that, when he lets go of his ego and gets real about his weaknesses, God is able to work through him simply because he's humble and open to receiving the wisdom, including the criticism and questions and reflections, of others.  And haven't we all experienced this? I certainly have. Especially when I first came here to Grace, we struggled with aspects of ministry I had little experience unsnarling or untangling—issues related to finances and personnel, administration and even some interpersonal situations that required legal knowledge so as to avoid legal trouble.  Because of that, I spent many an hour on the phone, emailing, and in person with Don Stevens, our attorney, asking for and receiving help. I spent many an hour with council members and other leaders as we discussed and prayed about these issues. There is no way any of us could have dealt with these challenges alone, especially without the guidance of God through prayer and scripture!  While we are all capable, talented individuals, part of what it meant to be wise in those situations was to admit our limitations and our need for help. And then, God could work! But if we had been too busy being all-knowing, where could God have sneaked in?

Three, Paul recognizes that God's grace is sufficient for him.  There is no need to boast. There is no need to prove anything to anyone.  God's grace is sufficient. And God's grace is sufficient for us, sufficient both when we do well and when we don't.  

Finally, Paul comes to understand that God's power, revealed in Jesus, is different than how we often define power in our world.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 12:9 reads: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.  One New Testament scholar from Luther Seminary translates the Greek like this: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in loving. Love is not a position of strength.  When we love, we come undone. We can be hurt. For power to be made perfect in loving means power is made perfect in coming undone, in being vulnerable, in caring deeply for another. That's power.

When I think about the world, the challenges we face as a people, Paul's words are so very pertinent.  Leaders of nations and churches, people of God from all walks of life and in all parts of God's creation, we are so very busy trying to escape weakness, criticism, and questions.  Some of us are experts at one-up-ping and boasting in whatever realm we may possess influence. From crises involving immigration and nuclear arms and trade to crises of health and mis-steps of various kinds in our own personal lives, we shy from coming undone, from being vulnerable, from caring deeply about others above the goals of being right and being better than others.  I have no need to judge you or me for God's grace is sufficient for each of us, regardless of how we've treated our neighbors. God's own power has been made perfect in loving. Because of that, we need not boast except of our weaknesses through which we usher in Christ's love for the world. Thanks be to God!  Amen.