Monday, June 29, 2009

A Thorn in the Flesh

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Unlike the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, for whom heavenly visions are ‘proof’ of their prophetic call to mission, Paul begins this passage referring to himself in the 3rd person as a sign of humility. His honesty is also refreshing - he doesn't really know if this experience happened or if he imagined it.

In imagery typical of apocalyptic literature, he describes being caught up to the 3rd level of heaven (3 and 7 levels of heaven are common in ancient literature representing proximity to God) and hearing the secrets of the divine court. This is an important way of demonstrating his credentials as a prophet. To some degree this is required because Paul has been battling the 'super apostles'. He is facing real opposition but at the same time he doesn't want to be put on a pedestal. He wants to be accepted for who he is. He does not want to claim a false superiority or play games for the purpose of status – though he has proven the capacity to do this when necessary.

Paul is intentionally obscure in referring to his 'thorn in the flesh'. Was it a physical affliction (suggestions have included migraines, epilepsy, poor eyesight, malaria, a speech impediment, arthritis, even leprosy)? Whatever it was, it doesn’t appear to have significantly hindered his ministry. Augustine and Luther both suggested that it was a temptation of some kind. Based on Paul's other writings, it's possible that it represents something of a social problem - something that his enemies fed upon, perhaps persecution itself.

The city of Corinth symbolised the human desire for power and grandure. Its magnificent temples and giant statues were designed to bring awe to visitors. The city's elite were significant economic power brokers and political strategists. At the same time contests of physical athleticism and intellectual prowess abounded.

At this point, we may well ask how different we are in the church today? How do we understand the role of power in The Salvation Army? Sometimes we see Holiness as the exercise of a kind of personal power. The holy person has more personal discipline – they pray more, they read their bibles diligently, they consistently resist temptation - their lives appear to be perfect. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place. One cannot pretend to be holy: it requires, first of all, authenticity on our behalf.

The 'thorn' keeps Paul in touch with his fallibility as a human being. It keeps him from building his own personal Tower of Babel to achieve and sustain his worth. We know from experience that such facades don't hold. Instead, Paul accepts his personal frailty in the face of God’s grace. Paradoxically, the acceptance of his own weakness produces strength, freedom, liberation. It sustains him in his vulnerability and means he doesn't have to pretend to himself or others about his worth. He is able to be himself before God and others and this further enables him for mission. This is true holiness – experiencing who we really are before God and allowing that confidence to impel us again into God’s mission in the world.

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