Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians begins with an amazing story. Paul describes it as if it happened to someone else, but readers have always recognized that he was talking about himself.
So, as we just heard, Paul was caught up to the third heaven, to Paradise itself. And there Paul heard things that are not to be told, things that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
That is already amazing enough. But what strikes me is Paul’s repeated claim that he doesn’t know if it happened “in the body or out of the body…; [only] God knows.”
Occasionally I have woken up from a dream that was so vivid I think it really happened. Always, after a few minutes, I realize it was just a dream. Unlike me waking up from a dream, Paul never knew for sure exactly what happened that day. God may have lifted Paul bodily into God’s own presence. Or maybe it was a vision. Paul can’t be sure.
Vision or physical experience, either way, Paul was clear about one thing: it was real and it came from God. This was divine grace and love experienced in a truly incredible way.
Indeed, Paul recognizes that experiences like this one were so incredible they could give him a big head.
But Paul refuses to boast about what happened to him. Kind of…..Paul says he doesn’t want to make a big deal about the divine favor he received. But Paul does want his readers to know about it. It is a little like someone saying, “I don’t brag about how successful I am.” And you think to yourself, “But you just did.” Even when Paul himself talks about blessings he has received, the ego sneaks in there. More on that shortly.
The surprising thing in our passage is actually what comes next: the great Saint Paul had a thorn in the flesh.
Paul’s “thorn” was some kind of physical ailment. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s ailment was. My own best guess is that Paul had eye trouble, but it could have been anything.
Three times Paul prayed that God would remove his “thorn,” whatever it was.
This is the same Paul who was lifted into God’s own presence, the same Paul who repeatedly healed others by prayer, including raising one boy from the dead (Acts 20:10-12). Surely Paul’s prayer would work. Surely Paul would be healed.
But Paul’s prayers didn’t work. God answered Paul. But God’s answer was “My grace is sufficient for you.” That’s a nice way of saying Paul was stuck with his thorn.
I wish Paul had said more about what it was like for him to know that God was not going to heal him. He doesn’t. But we can learn plenty from what Paul does say.
The first lesson is obvious, but worth emphasizing. Paul had incredible revelations, AND Paul had a thorn in the flesh. Even great saints like Paul have real problems that prayer doesn’t simply make go away. The same is true for us.
We keep praying because miracles do happen. But miracles don’t always happen. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we ask and God says no. That is true even for great saints like Paul.
But, and this is the second lesson we can learn from what Paul says, we can learn from our own trials and tribulations. The things that we suffer can help us to grow closer to God.
Paul knew that as well as anyone.
Paul was stuck with the thorn in his flesh. And, unpleasant though the thorn surely was, Paul knew the thorn was good for him. Without his thorn, Paul might have become all puffed up with the exceptional character of the revelations he received. Instead, Paul tells us, the thorn in his flesh kept him from getting too elated about his dramatic revelations. Paul says it twice, which means this was important to him. God left the thorn in Paul’s flesh to keep Paul from getting too elated about the divine favors he had received. Paul’s physical troubles kept him spiritually humble.
I can sort of identify with Paul here. So far I haven’t had any major thorns in my flesh, at least not long-lasting ones. But on at least one occasion, God did NOT grant my earnest prayer, and that was good for me.
I have told this story before, but it has been a while. When I was a young man just starting my teaching career, I tried to publish a book with Oxford University Press.
I wanted this. Publishing a book with Oxford Press would be a major feather in my cap. It would give me status and security in the academic world. That was enough reason for me to want it to happen. But my reasons for wanting to publish with Oxford weren’t just professional. It would also be a huge ego boost.
So, I began praying. For a few weeks, every time I prayed, I added the request that God would get my book published. And, as the deadline for the final decision came closer and closer, I became more and more convinced that God would NOT make it happen, that Oxford would turn down my book.
Worse still, I recognized that Oxford should turn down my book. Not because it was a bad book. It wasn’t, in my obviously not very humble opinion. But I had become too attached to the idea of becoming an Oxford author. It was becoming all about me and my ego.
Well, Oxford did turn me down. And even at the time, I could see that God declined my prayer request to make Oxford take my book for exactly the same reason God declined Paul’s: to keep me from being too elated about something that could have given me a bigger head than I already had. Nobody in my life wanted that!
But Paul goes a step farther as well, and this is where we can see how radical Paul really was. In telling Paul that he was stuck with his thorn, God said, “power is made perfect in weakness.” Think about that.
We normally think of power and weakness as opposites. But Paul says, Paul tells us that God says, power is made perfect in weakness. God’s power works in and through our weakness.
When I am at my best, it is easy to focus on my gifts. But when I am in over my head, when I am struggling, when I can’t see any way forward, then it quits being all about me and what I can do. Then it becomes all about God and what God is doing.
And so Paul says, “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.” I am content with whatever thorns come my way. “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong” in the Lord.
There is an uncomfortable invitation here. Paul invites us to accept whatever thorns come our way as an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God, to make room in our lives for God to work, to allow God’s power to shine in our weaknesses.
That can a hard invitation to accept. But with God’s help, we can do it. And in accepting that invitation—this is the good news—, we can find new and abundant life, no matter our struggles.
And so I pray that God will work through the thorns that we encounter. And I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan