Pentecost 6: 8 July 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Once again we have a snippet of something much larger in which Paul is trying to win (back) the Corinthians. Chapters 10-13 form a unit and may be originally a separate letter. They could be still part of the letter which began in 2 Corinthians 1, but there is a difference in tone. These chapters are much more confrontative. We can see some of the context by reading on to verse 11. Paul is being measured against others who have claims to be apostles and is found wanting. They are more impressive, better speakers, greater in their accomplishments, and better connected.
It makes Paul mad! So mad, it is hard to disentwine his own personal defence from his defence of what he believes is the gospel. Our verses form the closing segment of Paul's 'boast', which he never wanted to make, but which he feels he must, to state the case that he is as good as the others and not to be discredited (and so nor is his understanding of the faith!). The rhetoric is quite complex. Paul is playing a kind of game. He ends by saying he has been a fool (12:11). He began this ploy by asking the Corinthians to let him be a fool (11:1). He is not inferior to these super-apostles, a point he makes in the beginning (11:5) and at the end (12:11). It takes him a full 15 verses before his formal boast begins in 11:16, where, again, he mentions its foolishness.
Calling it foolish does not disguise that Paul is deadly serious. Look at 11:16-21. It is very confronting. Paul is very angry. He doesn't really start the boast until 11:21 (again with reference to foolishness). He can match their exploits. He can match their pedigree (11:22). He's an even better minister (11:23)! He has gone through all kinds of perils for the sake of the gospel (11:24-27). It becomes more personal where he speaks of his enduring care (worry/stress/anxiety) for his churches (11:28-29). In 11:30-33 he tells of his ignominious escape from Aretas, whom Antipas so deeply offended when he divorced his daughter (and was denounced by John the Baptist and then humiliated by Aretas' army). Already there he shifts towards boasting of his 'weakness' (11:30). He comes back to that in 12:6.
First he rather awkwardly announces his spiritual prowess - at least as others would measure it, who prized spiritual experiences. Our passage begins one sentence into his account. It is Paul's rhetorical ploy to save his embarrassment, that he speaks of someone other than himself when he is really reporting his own experiences (12:2-5). In the ancient world to have had such experiences indicated divine favour. So Paul is arguing his value and status here. He shares some Jewish views of the heavenly world of his time according to which there are many layers in the heavenly world or many heavens. In his vision or somehow (Paul deliberately leaves it open how this might have been) Paul was taken on a spiritual journey. It all sounds rather fantastic. Why don't we hear more of this in Paul? Why is it not a feature of his defence elsewhere and his wish for others? The answer lies in what follows.
Paul does not deny such experiences, but he denies that they are central. Christianity is not about 'highs'. It reminds us of 1 Corinthians 13 where he had to argue that all such experiences mean nothing without something more fundamental: love. In 12:6-7 Paul begins undermining the inflationary effect of reporting spiritual experiences. Paul does not want to be put on a pedestal. He wants to be accepted for who he is, not more - and not less! In fact, he is quite uncomfortable playing games for purposes of status (although he makes a fairly good job of it in what precedes and uses lots of contemporary rhetorical tricks to good effect!).
So Paul has a weak spot. He is fallible! He bursts his own balloon. Whatever he might have been referring to in reality, to say that he has a constant weakness ('an angel of Satan') is like blotching his cv. Earlier in both letters we see Paul having to defend himself against the fact that others saw weakness and frailty in Paul at points. Paul makes a blessing out of a curse. The 'thorn' keeps him in touch with his fallibility as a human being. It keeps him from thinking he can succeed in building his own personal Tower of Babel to achieve and sustain his worth. The facades won't hold up. Paul accepts his humanity and along with it believes in divine compassion. That kind of power, which he has experienced in Christ, sustains him in his vulnerability and means he doesn't have to pretend to himself or others about his worth.
It is interesting that Paul remains coherent, even when he is very emotionally involved - in fact, really angry and worried. To his credit, even then he comes back to what throughout his writings has been his chief concern: compassion matters most. Justification (for our existence before ourselves, before others and before God) lies in that compassion and our appropriation of it. These chapters are strikingly personal. Yet they embody theology at a very deep level. For all his turbulence Paul seems to be able to remain centred. This is not easy - as many in ministry and conflict (of which there has always been plenty in the church) can surely testify. Paul is at his most passionate and personal in these chapters. There is a lot at stake. He found himself on the outer - probably ever since his 'bust-up' with Peter at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). He kept focussed. He was a strange man, a world apart from us, but his issues remain just as relevant today. The struggle is still on.
Gospel: Pentecost 6: 8 July Mark 6:1-13
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