Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 14 • 5 July 2015

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Rev. Chris Udy

We’ve been reading from 2 Corinthians,
part of Paul’s correspondence
with the new, largely Gentile,
and sometimes over-enthusiastic
Christian community in Corinth –
a Church that had a lot in common with Hillsong.
They’d found their way into trouble
because they’d tried to use
their strengths and giftedness -

their energy and innovations,
their cultural connections,
their rhetorical brilliance,
their spiritual richness:
prophecy, speaking in tongues,
miraculous spiritual healing -
the whole box and dice -
they’d tried to use their strengths and giftedness
to claim individual authority and status,
instead of using them
to encourage community;
to build up the body of Christ.
They’d had a string of leaders
who each had different styles,
both personally and theologically,
and apparently they’d left the community divided
into camps or parties.
Some claimed to be maintaining Paul’s teachings,
some followed his successor,
a man named Apollos,
who was probably Greek,
others said they belonged to Peter’s party -
which probably meant they were Jewish Christians -
and so on.
It was an awkward and difficult situation.
All those parties made them
a bit like our Federal Senate
and apparently their conversations were negative,
their arguments were heated
and slanderous accusations had begun to fly.
As we’ve noted,
Paul had been appealed to as an authority
to support one of the camps - Paul’s party -
but he refused to buy in
to these games of power.
Instead, he wrote - at least 4 letters -
and he visited - at least twice -
trying to bring peace
and restore harmony.

Paul is one of the architects of Christian faith.
His life and his writings
have been inspirational
to generation after generation of Christians -
but he was also entirely human,
and part of his inspiration and encouragement
is his fundamental humanity.
Some of the problems in Corinth
were almost certainly his responsibility -
he’d arrived there on fire
with his understanding of God’s grace
and his absolute conviction
that Jesus had appointed him
“Apostle to the Gentiles”.
Apostle means ‘sent’ -
so he was the one sent, by Christ, he said,
to welcome and incorporate non-Jews
into God’s purpose of salvation.
That was a big brief! ...
and he’d gone to Corinth
fired up with his global mission.
He was also expecting the return of Jesus
any day now - almost immediately,
certainly within his lifetime -
so his mission was both urgent and enormous -
and it looks like, in his enthusiasm,
he may have cut some corners
and laid some foundations
that under later stresses and strains,
were found wanting.
So Paul had to go back in
and do some re-construction -
and his letters and visits
were his attempts at correction.

Paul insisted that he was an Apostle:
one directly sent and authorised by Jesus.
He hadn’t been converted or commissioned
through the work of the other apostles -
so he wasn’t accountable to them.
He had been called and sent, he said,
by Jesus himself,
even though the death and resurrection of Jesus
had taken place some years before Paul was converted.

He doesn’t spell out exactly what happened,
but apparently Paul’s appointment as an Apostle
took place that day, on the Damascus Road,
when Paul had that blinding vision of Jesus
that changed his life entirely and forever.
“Saul, Saul,” he heard Jesus say,
“why do you persecute me?” -
and from the experience that followed
Paul drew new and unique insights
into who Jesus was and what he had done
and the conviction that Jesus had called him
to welcome and include Gentiles
just as Jesus had welcomed
and included Jewish outcasts -
the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ -
into the community of God’s people.

That experience on the Damascus road
was utterly transforming.
It provided Paul
with an unshakable foundation
for his faith and his proclamation;
it gave him a drive and confidence
that took him on three missionary journeys
around and across the Mediterranean
between Jerusalem and Rome
and possibly beyond -
planting new congregations,
enduring sometimes violent opposition,
and providing us with both
the earliest Christian documents we now have,
and with ideas and insights
that continue to guide and influence
our understanding of Jesus
and the meaning of his life.
All of that was energised
by this shattering experience -
one in which he discovered
that everything he’d devoted his life to,
everything he’d achieved in his career,
was not only wrong,
but profoundly destructive -
an experience that also,
with the light of that revelation,
deprived him of his vision and competence.
So he was now blind,
buried in regret,
cut off from the Jewish authorities
he’d worked for with ferocious dedication
and desperately feared by the Christian community
who would be his future -
it was in that moment
of absolute desolation and ultimate weakness
that Paul received the gift
that would guide and sustain him
through the rest of his life and work.
It was pure gift - pure grace.
He did absolutely nothing to earn it -
in fact he deserved its opposite.
What he deserved - what he was owed -
was judgement and condemnation,
but what he received
in that moment of shattered weakness
and helpless vulnerability
would give him the power and authority he needed
to become the apostle to the Gentiles.

So, writing about that experience,
as we read today, Paul said:
“I know a person in Christ
who fourteen years ago
was caught up to the third heaven--
whether in the body or out of the body
I do not know; God knows.
And I know that such a person --
whether in the body or out of the body
I do not know; God knows --
was caught up into Paradise
and heard things that are not to be told,
that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Paul’s writing about himself -
and although the timing is a little contentious,
‘fourteen years ago’ would be very close
to the time of his conversion.
Paul says he was caught up
into the ‘third heaven’ -
and there’s argument about that too,
but the idea is that the air and clouds
are the first heaven,
the stars and sun are above those,
the second heaven,
and, in Paul’s cosmos,
‘Paradise’ - God’s home - is beyond the stars,
in the third heaven.
Not even Paul knows how all this works -
whether, as he says,
he was ‘in the body or out of the body’ -
but during that time Paul heard and saw things
that converted him
from a bitter opponent of Christ and Christians
into a believer and a disciple of Jesus,
and convinced him of his calling as an Apostle.
At other points in his writing
he describes things as having been told him
directly ‘from the Lord’ -
things such as his understanding of communion -
but he also says there were things he heard
that, in his words: ‘no mortal is permitted to repeat’.

Paul’s a complicated man.
He is entirely human,
and sometimes he can be impulsive,
opinionated and inconsistent,
but when he draws on this experience -
when he goes back
to that shattering experience,
and remembers how graciously he was treated,
not only by Jesus,
but by the Christian community
who then took him in,
blind and helpless as he was,
despite what he had done to them -
when he returns to that experience
he’s on solid ground.

So he goes on:
“On behalf of such a one I will boast,
but on my own behalf I will not boast,
except of my weaknesses.
But if I wish to boast,
I will not be a fool,
for I will be speaking the truth.
But I refrain from it,
so that no one may think better of me
than what is seen in me
or heard from me,
even considering
the exceptional character of the revelations.
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated,
a thorn was given me in the flesh,
a messenger of Satan to torment me,
to keep me from being too elated.”

Paul tends to boast quite a lot, really,
so he sometimes sounds a bit sanctimonious
and we hope he’s writing ironically,
with a little wry smile on his face -
especially when he’s dealing with the Corinthians.
They really are his spiritual children:
there are traits and characteristics in them -
like their arrogance, and impatience -
that it isn’t hard to see in Paul as well,
but at least Paul understands that he has problems.
He also has what he calls ‘a thorn in the flesh’,
that he never fully explains,
but many people think might have been
a problem with his eyes,
and some suggest began with his conversion -
but we can’t be sure.
What he says
is that three times he asked to be healed of it,
praying that it would leave him,
but, he writes,
(the Lord) said to me,
"My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness."
So,” Paul continues,
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,
so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

“Power is made perfect in weakness”.
It’s interesting
that many translations of this passage
say “My power is made perfect in weakness” -
as if it only refers to God’s power -
but what Paul wrote - the Greek text -
doesn’t have the word ‘my’ in it.
“Power is made perfect in weakness”
is almost certainly what Paul wrote.

For Paul that’s certainly true.
It was at his lowest point -
when he was most wrong,
most vulnerable and broken,
that he was commissioned to his life’s work
and given the experience of grace
that is still at the core of Christian faith.
Paul did his best work -
he lived his best life -
when he was weak:
when he was blind;
when he’d been attacked and beaten up;
when he was shipwrecked;
when he’d been arrested and was in prison -
that’s when Paul was most persuasive and effective.

“Power is made perfect in weakness”.
It’s also true for Jesus.
Today we read that when he went back home,
where you’d expect he could draw on
the goodwill and support of his family’s connections -
it was there, where he and he family were well known,
that he was least able to heal or preach persuasively
or do what he came to do.
And it was when he lost everything,
when he had no political support,
no disciples, no powerful friends -
it was when his body was broken,
he was stripped of life itself,
that Jesus became the one in whom
God’s healing and salvation was achieved.
“Power is made perfect in weakness”.
It’s a paradox of life and faith.
It isn’t our strengths and achievements
that lead us deeper into life.

We tend to do the things we’re good at
easily, almost thoughtlessly, out of habit.
Doing things that come easily to us
doesn’t make us grow;
it’s when we fail - when we’re vulnerable -
when we’re broken - when we’re weak -
that we concentrate,
we pay attention,
we’re open to advice from other people
and we build community.
It’s when we’re at rock bottom
that we reach out to others
and make the decisions
that turn our lives around.
It’s when we let ourselves feel confused
and ignorant and foolish
that we begin to learn.
Those who only ever do
what they know they can do already
are just going through the motions of being alive;
it’s when we’re willing to fail;
when we open ourselves to love -
with all its risks of sadness and betrayal -
it’s when we confess our need,
it’s when we admit that we’re ill,
it’s when we ask for help
that our healing can begin.

For Jesus, for Paul, for the people of Corinth,
and also for us,
“power is made perfect in weakness”:
our capacity to live, and love,
and work, and understand,
can only grow into its full potential
when, in moments of loneliness, or failure,
or confusion, or regret,
we open ourselves to new sources of life and truth -
and it’s then,
when our hearts and minds and souls are receptive,
that the inspiration and love of God
can flow into our lives
to bring healing, and wisdom, and courage,
and grace, and peace.