Today we are again in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In our passage today he is in self-reflexive mode, but here he boasts that he has been granted visions and revelations, even vision of Paradise. And not even a vision, but an actual transfer to Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body he did not know. There he heard things that “cannot be told, which man may not utter.” He was taken to heaven, but he could not describe it nor repeat what he heard there. It was a mystical experience that could not be put into words.
In recent years a whole bunch of books have been written about near-death experiences, even books that presume to describe heaven – written by adults and even a child or two! Some people have taken comfort and reassurance in these books. I find it hard to take them seriously. If the great apostle Paul could not describe heaven, how can anyone else? There is a lot of deception in the world, “for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” Paul tells us in this same letter, just a couple paragraphs before our reading today. Even Satan can disguise as an angel of light. That’s a powerful statement, even more relevant today than in Paul’s time – because today with the spread of the Internet and instant media and interview shows on TV, any false teaching can be peddled as truth.
So John tells us in his First Letter, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And Paul also exhorts us, “but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Why should we believe Paul that he was taken to heaven? Maybe he was deceived? After all, he is boasting! Shouldn’t that disqualify him? Boasting is self-serving, self-promoting after all. In anyone else yes, but not in Paul’s case. Why? Because he tells us, he is not boasting about his visions; he is boasting about his weaknesses! What? Have you ever heard anyone boast about his weakness? Well yes, there are some who do that, but they are probably nut cases.
Listen again to what Paul writes: And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
This passage is enough to make Paul a spiritual giant among men – which he is, of course. He even accuses himself here, when he says that a thorn in the flesh was given to him, to harass him, so he wouldn’t get too proud or boastful about the revelations he received. He prayed to God about this thorn in the flesh, but each time God answered him in words beyond our ordinary understanding. Only deep faith can understand the answer God gave to Paul and not turn away from God. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
That is the key; that is the difference between Paul and those who write books about heaven. That’s what makes his talk of heaven authentic.
None of us wants to suffer. None of us wants a thorn in the flesh. None of us wants to be weak or to be seen as weak. To be proud of one’s weakness can easily be interpreted in today’s society as something weird or demented. None of us wants to suffer. Neither did Paul. Three times he prayed to God to take this thorn from him. Three times God refused. Does that remind you of someone else? Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?
But both Jesus and Paul allowed God’s power to be revealed in their suffering. Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross brought salvation to the world. Paul’s sufferings showed how God can work through any one of us to show his power. And his power has nothing to do with earthly power or what we humans customarily think of power. God is not a power player. He tried that game several thousand years ago in Egypt and Canaan, to no avail.
Madeleine L’Engle tells of an accident that nearly killed her. In the ambulance and in the hospital she held on to the ancient Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” She wrote about that experience in her book The Rock That Is Higher. She was viciously attacked by evangelical fundamentalists, accusing her of using that prayer as a mantra, which they considered satanic. Imagine, L’Engle ruminates, the name of Jesus is satanic?!
To ask for mercy is to allow God to work through our weakness and suffering. Our suffering is the place where God’s love and mercy can most brightly shine forth. And that love and mercy are precisely what make up God’s power. And his power is made perfect in weakness – our weakness, Paul’s weakness, Jesus Christ’s weakness! If you suffer today rest in that mercy and grace of God. Go ahead and ask God to take it away from you. Paul did; Jesus did. But if he doesn’t – at least not in the way you hope or in the time you hope – read this passage from Second Corinthians and learn a new source of strength that perhaps you didn’t know before you were given the thorn or suffering that you are enduring.