I don’t know about you, but when I read about Paul’s vision of heaven, the first thing I wonder about is not what Paul saw, but what that thorn in his side was.
If Paul were with us today, I’d ask him why he shared that rather personal bit of information about himself. My imagination digresses into all the different possibilities for what might have ailed the apostle.
It seems like it was serious. Paul’s metaphor carries with it something more than just a minor annoyance. In fact, it sounds like it bothered the hell out of him. He was desperate to be rid of it.
Well, I’m not the only one to be so nosy about Paul’s predicament. Scholars from the prominent to the popular have speculated.
My favorite treatment, a 2009 book, claims to have figured out Paul’s secret. The Amazon description claims that “this book will give you biblical documented Scriptural truth of what it was. You can be the first to know what the secret really is in your community. In the future, when you hear your beloved pastor or a friend speak words that only guess what Paul's thorn in the flesh was, you will be able to enlighten them with the truth of what it really was.”
Let me stop there for just a moment.
If you find this book, I’ll kindly request that you spare me such enlightenment, although I won’t speak for my esteemed, and new colleagues here at Bruton.
The description continues: “The secret of the mystery that has caused many wise men to search in vain for over two thousand years will be yours. You will love the knowledge of it. You will be informed. You will have secret information into the life of the Apostle Paul. You will cling to the secret as though you've found a precious pearl. The secret will help make your character like Christ [sic] and draw you closer to God... The secret will help guide you to make the right decisions for your life. The secret will open doors of ministry for you. The secret will save souls in your house and community. The mystery is waiting for you.”
Now, I doubt that knowing the secret of Paul’s mystery ailment will bring you such fortune. And I doubt this claim not only because I’m a recovering cynic, but because this claim seems to miss something important in Paul’s message to the Corinthians. And it suggests that there is something other than God’s grace that saves.
It’s a common mistake, unfortunately, and one that we’re likely to make ourselves.
As the son of an Air Force pilot, and the grandson of a self-made man and veteran of the Second World War, I’m often reminded that one of the core American values is self-reliance. We are a people of independence, of stick- to-it-iveness and resilience, a people that pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and did what needed to be done. America is the country of the cowboy, the entrepreneur, the self-made man and woman. We are in control of our destinies, and we honor those that go it alone, who overcome adversity in the course of accomplishing their goals. And I suppose that we could also use a little more resilience in our lives. I often encounter folks, whether children, students or adults, that seem to wither in the face of adversity, that could use a little more fortitude in their lives.
And because of my upbringing and that American heritage I need to hear Paul’s reminder to all of us.
For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t about resilience or accomplishment. In fact, one of the most notorious heresies of the early church subscribed to the idea that if I just worked hard enough, if I disciplined my soul, mind, and body severely enough, I could earn righteousness for myself. But Paul is quick to remind us in his letter to the Romans that the father of faith, Abraham himself, was considered righteous because he believed God’s promise. In fact, you might remember that Abraham often wasn’t a good person, and yet God continued to love him, to protect him. Regardless of Abraham’s flaws, God made an everlasting promise to him and all his descendants, who had plenty of their own flaws. And that just goes to show you one of the most important lessons of the Bible. God seems to love working with faulty product.
And we see that lesson all over the Bible, often in the lives of folks who we typically think of as bulwarks of sound character. David, we know, is called a man after God’s heart. But don’t forget that David’s own people initially saw a scrawny teenager when they wanted a warrior. Definitely not King Material. And as a king, David’s lust and pride tarnished his reign.
Nevertheless, Christ comes from the line of David and Bathsheba.
Likewise, Paul a notorious persecutor of the early Church becomes one of the greatest apostles of the early church. But Paul is quick to remind us that his greatness is not his own. And God gives him the mysterious thorn in the flesh as a reminder that God works through weakness. God loves faulty product.
Paul takes it a step further; he celebrates his weakness because through weakness God displays his strength.
Through these lessons, God calls to each one of us saying, My grace is sufficient for you. It’s impressive how rarely we remember that no accomplishment, nothing we will ever do will cause God to love us any more than he already does.
In fact, like Paul, we might find that God chooses to work through our failures rather than our accomplishments. It might surprise us to discover God in the midst of embarrassment. What are you doing here God? We might wonder, as if God’s only around when we’re doing great, or when we plead for help.
And it might surprise us further still to discover that God draws others to himself through our embarrassments, almost as if God is trying to call attention to our weaknesses.
It’s not about us any more than it was about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, that stumbling block in Paul that, quite frankly, we wouldn’t have known about if Paul hadn’t have called attention to it.
Rather, what people remember is the remarkable work that GOD did through Paul’s ministry.
And how about you? Is there a thorn in your flesh? There probably is. We all have them. Whether they’re physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual doesn’t really matter. We’d be better off without them, however severe they might be. So there’s really no use trying to look on the bright side, as if we could explain them away.
And anyway, trying to explain them away, trying to make less of them than they really are, well that just misses the point. The point is that these are weaknesses, these are frailties. But your frailty, your thorn in the flesh is precisely that point in your life where God wants to break in, where God wants to show you his strength.
That thorn is the place where heaven and earth potentially will meet, where God will show you and others his glory.
And that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be okay. And it doesn’t mean that God is going to heal our thorns any time soon, any more than he conveniently healed Paul when Paul asked.
But maybe that thorn is a sign that God has bigger things planned, plans that do include healing, but not just for you or for me. Rather, that thorn is a sign that God will heal the world, and that God wants you to be part of that healing. My friends, will you accept that invitation, thorns and all?
7th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018