2 Cor 12
The Rev. Tara McGraw
Jul. 6, 2015
In our New Testament reading today, St. Paul, the great church planter, is experiencing something that diminishes him, something that keeps him from doing all he wants to do or being all he wants to be for our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul calls it a “thorn in the flesh”. Repeatedly, he asks the Lord to remove it. But the Lord says to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." And St. Paul “gets it”, and that allows him to accept the thorn in his life, and the results of the thorn in his life. And he is even able to say, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
St. Paul may have “gotten it”, but that doesn’t mean we do. The reader reads this, and says, “What? I don’t really understand this.” And then we have to read it again and pray about it.
You see, Peter may have been the rock on which Jesus said he would build his church, but Paul was the guy out there building the church for Jesus all across the Roman world. Paul was the guy who dared to show up in your neighborhood and risk being stoned or railed out of town or imprisoned for speaking about Jesus. Paul was the guy who convinced you that there was a Jesus, and what his life and death meant for your life and death. Paul was the guy who got families to found churches in their very own communities in their very own houses and put themselves at risk to Rome and synagogue or local body politic.
If you and I were Paul’s backers and bankrollers, if you and I were Paul’s prayer team or his sending church, if you and I were ones who had just opened their homes in response to his urging, all of us would want Paul to be the greatest, most outstanding, perfect evangelist. We would want him larger than life, charismatic, inspiring, always right, always got the answer, always available, a veritable superman. And Paul is so passionate about what he is doing for Jesus, Paul wants that for himself. He wants to do the absolute best. That’s human desire and human wisdom. And it would still be true today, and even more so probably, given our very competitive culture.
But God sends Paul a thorn in the flesh. God sends Paul something that constantly diminishes him, constantly impairs him. What? Why? It makes no sense in human wisdom.
Until we realize that it is not about the human. Because God sending a thorn in the flesh of this human makes no human sense, we realize we have to understand it cannot be about the human. And what is “it”? What is Paul doing? St. Paul is out there doing godly things for God, building church. So “it” is church. Church cannot be about a human being. Church cannot be dependent on a human being. How we think and feel about church cannot be focused on a human being.
Church has to be about God, not about the human leading it, not about any human in it, or it isn’t church. A ministry has to be about God, not the human doing it, or it isn’t ministry.
The human is the vessel, the instrument, but God is the actor. The human brings his or her desire, God brings fulfillment. Church happens when each of us in the church family bring our faithful desires and our imperfect vessels of our bodies and minds and capabilities to our Lord Jesus Christ and say, “Jesus work through us.” The miracle of church is that Jesus does! And when we see God working through us, and we know God took our imperfect vessels of body, mind, desire and capability and used them to bless, we know it is God’s grace at work in us and through us – God’s “unmerited favor” lavished upon us and awarded to others through us. Church is about God, and accomplished by God. Church is about God, and accomplished by God at work in our imperfect selves, and in our midst.
God gives us such privilege when God allows God’s great, perfect power to come through us and between us. We are limited and flawed and compromised, every single one of us. Our greatest strengths are mere shadows of God’s ideals, and our weaknesses can even be dangerous. But God accepts us nonetheless as partners in God’s work in the world. God pours God’s grace into us, and pours God’s power for good through us, despite all our weaknesses, flaws and limitations, and church happens when God does that.
So St. Paul says in essence, “Thanks be to God that all I want to do for Jesus and with Jesus isn’t dependent on me. Thank God that the sustenance and health of the churches I’ve founded isn’t dependent on me. With or without the thorn in the flesh, I wouldn’t have what it takes. The thorn in the flesh reminds me that I don’t have what it takes, and obviously at the same time reminds me that I don’t have to have what it takes because God does. God works in me and through me and around me. And God’s grace is sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. My weakness is freedom, because I remember that although the responsibility of offering is mine, the responsibility of accomplishment is God’s. I just have to be willing to put my flawed self into God’s hands and let God work.
This freedom of soul that St. Paul found actually enabled him to do more and risk more for God, and amazing things happened. This is your freedom, too, and this is mine. This is your empowerment, too, and this is mine. We put our flawed selves into God’s hands and let God work. Thanks be to God. This is how we can dare to be church. This is the only way we can understand ourselves as church. We are a collection of flawed people through whom God’s grace flows.
Does everything turn out perfect when God entrusts God’s power and purpose to flawed human beings? Good gracious, no! God is no doubt very disappointed, often. But God accepts, forgives, and gives the grace again. It is how God works. It is how church works. Like God does, we are to honor each other for who we are, and forgive each other for who we aren’t. We are to constantly re-offer ourselves to God to discover what God’s grace is doing in us and through us, and we have to be constantly awed at the privilege this is.
We might look around at our limitations and our flaws, individual or collective, and despair that God would still be there. But God always will be. Because church is about God achieving God’s purposes in our midst, not about us achieving ours.
What a great comfort this is. We can hear “God provides” and it sounds like a cliché, but God does provide. God really does. And will.