The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (4)

Paul-Writing

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles; Valentin de Boulogne or Nicolas Tournier; ca. 16th century

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

12 7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

The Apostle Paul was here engaged in a controversy relating to his authority in the Corinthian church. In verses one through six of this chapter he is responding to those who have claimed superior authority from having received their teachings directly from God through ecstatic visions.  Paul describes his own experience of being “caught up to the third heaven” where he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

However, unlike his adversaries, Paul follows this disclosure not with boasting but with a sustained passage in which his own unworthiness and weakness is highlighted so that Christ can be exalted.  It is this attribute that ultimately separated (and continues to separate) the true from the false leaders in the Christian fellowship.  Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!

8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is replete with unexpected reversals from weakness to strength – the good as dead bodies of the aged being chosen as the wellspring of a great people of the Covenant (Abraham and Sarah, age 100 and 90, respectively), the youngest son raising above all his elder brothers, and against all social conventions of the day, to the pinnacle of power (e.g., Joseph to Egyptian Vizier and David to the Kingship of Israel), a Savior who dies in disgrace on a cross, and, yes, an Apostle of Christ who begins as the leading destroyer of His Church.  It sometimes appears that our God prefers to do His work through human weakness.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this fact.  How better to demonstrate that an end has been obtained by God’s power rather than human effort?  And yet, this is a lesson that we continually struggle to hold on to.

The Apostle Paul had no such difficulty.  So deeply had he drank of the spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) that his identity was as completely surrendered to Christ’s service as can be imagined for frail human flesh.  Inherent in this identity was the affirmation of his own weakness and of Christ’s supreme strength.  This is the spirit-print of a man humbled down to the very foundations of his character. In his own words, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Corinthians 15:9,10a)

And so, this Great Apostle delights in weakness, in insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties, for in them he finds a deeper fellowship with his Savior and access to greater power to serve His cause.  Even more, by Christ’s own words, His power is not made stronger, or more effective, but perfect in weakness.”  When we suffer, do we not experience weakness? What of Christ’s power is being offered to us when we suffer?  To answer this question is to delve deeply into the language of suffering.

Finally, a prayer, offered at a service of worship on April 29, 2001 that explores the issue of weakness within the context of Christ’s church.

Dear Heavenly Father, we approach your holy throne this morning in prayer for your body, the Church.

We come in thanksgiving that you have given this precious gift to those that you have graciously called to be your own.

But we also come in sorrow, because the influence of your Church appears to be receding.  We see the powers arrayed against her and oh how strong they appear!  We see hate, envy and corruption organized into terrible weapons of destruction by all the energy of humanity.  In the face of these terrible machines oh how weak does the Church appear.

But she will not be cowered, she will not be defeated.

Yes, we the living members of this body are weak, but we are bound together by invisible sinews of grace and love that contain all the strength of Jesus Christ.  Empires and despots have raged against this body only to be shattered by a power that they could neither see nor understand.

Yes we are weak, but you are the God who chooses to work through weakness. Says the Apostle, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Therefore, let us, the Church, find in our weakness the humility, the thankfulness, the peace to boldly confront a dark and dying world with Christ’s message of forgiveness and new life.

May we stand before your Cross with heads lifted up not because we are strong, but because we are forgiven.   Amen.

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