Ancient Answers

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Room for Mercy

At the heart of our Liturgy is Mercy. We say it so often that there’s a Greek saying that makes fun of it. But make no mistake, Mercy is at the heart of our faith. And mercy is precisely what is missing in the world today. Everything comes from mercy. And the parable Jesus teaches today touches at the core of what we call religion and what we call gospel. Religion and gospel are not the same thing.

The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion is man’s rising to  go to God. But the essence of Christianity, what we can call the gospel, is God’s rising to go to man. Brilliant distinction. God rises to come to us because we need forgiveness, we need mercy. For some people that makes Christianity too negative. I still remember the woman we talked to at the harbor in Ydra two summers ago waiting for our boat back to Athens. How she was repelled by the many crucifixes she saw while traveling in Latin America and other Catholic countries. What perhaps she didn’t understand is that she was repelled not by the crucifixes, but by the Cross! The Cross, that “scandal” (σκάνδαλον, Galatians 5:11, translated as “offense” in most English Bibles) that strikes the heart of human thought; that reminder that we need forgiveness, that we need God to come to us – to be born among us, to walk among us, to be ridiculed and rejected by us, and finally to be crucified by us. 

Yes, we prefer our own versions of God. No Cross, no forgiveness, no praying for mercy. Those are all a big blow to human ego and self-satisfaction! No, all we need is love. Imagine no religion, sung the same John Lennon. Indeed, imagine no religion, yeah why not? Imagine the gospel instead. But no, we don’t want to imagine gospel. Gospel, evangelion, good news? Why do we need good news? We have fake news! 

Without mercy and forgiveness what do you have? Look at the Pharisee in today’s parable. He had no need of mercy. He was self-sufficient. He had all his religious requirements down pat. All he looked to receive from God was congratulations for being such a good religious man. But was he? His heart was full of hatred and contempt for the publican. He did not thank God for mercy, because he had no need of mercy. I thank you, God, that I am not like other men. You see, without mercy and forgiveness, you can pretty much hate anyone. Especially someone like the publican, who stands in the back and beats his breast asking for God’s mercy. Look how terrible that man is acting. Why is he so negative about himself, dragging himself like that? He must be a terrible sinner. Thank God I’m not like him.

One of the great ascetics of the Orthodox Church, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza (6th century) wrote this beautiful bit of advice:

God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races. Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God. Be attentive: Every time you go farther from your neighbor, you go farther from God.

Elias Chacour was priest of a small village in northern Israel before being made Archbishop of Haifa. When he first arrived at the village church in 1965 he found a church both physically and spiritually in total disrepair. When the people assembled in church he could see the deep divisions that existed among them. Four distinct groups, each keeping distance from the others. “The empty space between the four groups made the sign of the Cross” he said. On Palm Sunday of his first year at their priest, Father Elias looked at the grim faces in church. After the Gospel reading, when it was time for the sermon, he walked to the back of the church and padlocked the door. Returning to the front he told his parishioners:

Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other. You gossip and spread lies. Your religion is a lie. If you can’t love your brother or sister whom you see, how can you say that you love God whom you don’t see? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced. I have tried for months to unite you. I have failed. I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He has the power to forgive you. So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here. If you want, you can kill each other. In that case I’ll provide your funerals gratis.

A long silence followed. Finally one man stood up, faced the congregation, bowed his head and said, “I am sorry. I am the worst of all. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.” Father Elias embraced him, and the church immediately became a chaos of embracing and forgiveness. Father Elias had to shout to be heard. “Dear friends, we are not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let us begin it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.” He began to sing the paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” The congregation joined in. Unlocking the door, Father Elias led them into the village streets. The rest of that day, in every home, at every door, there was forgiveness. It was resurrection for the entire village.

It’s a beautiful story from the recent past. Elias Chacour is still alive, retired now. Three times he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli.” It doesn’t get much better than that. In 2001, Chacour gave a commencement address at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he accepted an honorary degree. An excerpt from his speech:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

Those are words of mercy, those are the words of someone completely under the power of the gospel. Mercy, dear friends, is at the heart of healing – not only at Mercy Hospital here in Portland, but the healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring to human relations and how we see each other and ourselves through the eyes of God. Thomas Merton, one of my great heroes, wrote:

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ. 

“In mystery” is the key. Do you have room in your life for mystery? Then you have room for mercy. 


Reflections on the Sistine Madonna

I came upon a story called The Sistine Madonna, by Vasily Grossman, a writer and survivor of Soviet and Nazi antisemitism. A black and white picture of the painting Sistine Madonna was included in the story, so my curiosity was piqued. I found a good quality color reproduction of this painting and I wish to share with you my thoughts.

The Sistine Madonna (click to enlarge)

The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the great Renaissance artist, Raphael. It shows Mary in full standing form holding the Christ child who is looking straight at us. It is called the Sistine Madonna not because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but rather it was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto. It is an incredibly human painting of the young Mary, her face glowing with motherly love. As a matter of fact I would say that this painting shows Mary as a human mother more than any icon I have ever seen. Our icons tend to emphasize the transcendent rather than the earthly. 

I like talking about Mary, the mother of Christ. Yes, she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, and all those other amazing titles the church has bestowed upon her. But I like to think of her simply as Mary, Miriam, the young Jewish girl who was chosen by God for a most amazing miracle. In three days the Orthodox Church celebrates her entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem. The sheer irony never ceases to amaze me. The church celebrates the entrance into the holy of holies by a girl – something strictly forbidden by Jewish laws – and yet after 2,000 years the church still does not allow women or girls to serve in the altar in any way! As I said, irony.

I was so overcome by the beauty of this painting that I took the upper portion of it and made it the wallpaper of my computer. So when I turn on my computer I immediately see the two faces touching each other and looking out toward me, toward all human beings. Mary looks a bit to her left while Christ looks straight at me. It is with my humanity, with your humanity, that Christ looks out. Looking at Christ I see my humanity in all its glory and all its sorrows and deficiencies. It’s all there. And Mary holds the Christ tenderly but firmly, as if to protect him from what the world will unleash against him. And we know that Mary did precisely that. The Gospels tell us that she kept a close watch on him and even tried to pull him away from combative encounters with the religious leaders.

Sistine Madonna – enlargement of top portion (click to further enlarge)

The Mary that I see in this painting is the Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. Do you know it? She spoke these words when she was pregnant. We sing her words at every matins service. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

She considers herself a humble handmaiden – but she is also a rebel and rejoices in the downfall of the mighty. As she looks slightly to her left in this painting she is perhaps imagining those centuries in the future when the mighty of the earth will try to refute her prophetic words by enlisting her son to their ambitions. And she holds her child tight. She does not want to see him used and abused by 2,000 years of human greed and hatred. But she does not hold him so tight as to restrain him from facing his destiny – his destiny on Golgotha; but also his destiny as Savior and Judge. So the child looks straight at us and 2,000 years of human history, with a look of defiance and already a look of judgment. The face of the Christ child in this painting reminds me of the Star Child at the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both images strike deep chords in me. 

Regardless the subtext that I’m reading into the Sistine Madonna, it remains a profoundly beautiful painting. It is profoundly humane, full of sorrowing compassion. It confronts us with questions: Do we see our humanity in Christ? Do we see the love of a mother and the love of a savior who is one of us? And do you see the unity that calls us forward in these times of profound danger? There is one body and one spirit, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to unity, despite how much division and hatred keeps spreading in the world around us. Grossman lived through the decades of Nazi terror, world war, and Stalinist tyranny. As humanity was disappearing around him, he found humanity in this painting. Every one of us can be a beacon of humanity, Christ humanity! Only then do we prove to the world that Mary’s life was not in vain. That she who once held Christ in her arms is now held in his arms. It’s there, in his loving embrace that we find our true humanity.

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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.


When righteous people of God are killed

In the aftermath of the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s appropriate to reflect on how Jesus spoke of righteousness.

Jesus said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – δικαιοσύνην αυτού – and all these other things will be added to you.” He also said: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Or, your righteous deeds – δικαιοσύνην again. In the very next sentence he says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you.” The Greek word is ἐλεημοσύνην – acts of mercy, compassion. Like God shows to us. Kyrie eleison! Righteousness cannot be separated from ἐλεημοσύνην. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will in heaven is always the reflection of God’s righteousness. So when we show mercy ἐλεημοσύνην, we are reflecting and sharing in God’s righteousness in heaven. His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Yesterday an evil act was committed by an evil man against people gathered for prayer and worship on Shabbat. The crime has been labeled a hate crime, anti-semitic. And it was that. But there is a deeper story that perhaps you haven’t heard. This Jewish congregation, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh – a beautiful name for a congregation – this Jewish congregation is one of over 300 synagogues across the United States that are part of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was formed in 1881 to help Jews fleeing from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and later from Nazi Germany. It’s the oldest refugee agency in the world, and today they help non-Jewish refugees, even Muslims. Partner synagogues help refugees from various countries resettle in American communities. Just as Catholic Charities do and as our parish did in the late 80s and early 90s with refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eastern Europe. 

The President and CEO of HIAS, Mark Hetfield was interviewed yesterday on CNN. I was struck by something he said: “We used to be an organisation that welcomed refugees because they were Jewish, and today we welcome refugees because we are Jewish.” Helping refugees is ingrained in their DNA because Jews themselves were refugee people!

In his social media posts, the shooter often attacked Jews and Muslims together and seems to have singled out HIAS in his last hateful messages, because they bring refugees into the country who, according to him, are killing us. I don’t know who he meant by that. His final social media post: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The shooter was so filled with hatred that he could not tolerate Jews helping Muslims and other refugees. All his hatreds came together into one act of multiple murders.

Jews helping Muslim refugees. This, to me, is an extreme example of what Jesus meant by righteousness. The shooter is evil. Let’s not spend any more time talking about him. The real matter for us today is this question of righteousness. Jews who have been mistreated and persecuted for thousands of years are helping others who are fleeing persecution and war – because they have not forgotten who they are and what they have endured over the ages. Today Greeks celebrate OXI Day, commemorating the day in 1940, when early in the morning the Greek prime minister Metaxas rejected the ultimatum issued by Benito Mussolini. As day dawned on October 28th, Greeks all over the country took to the streets shouting Ohi, No!. Perhaps because of its own history Greece was more willing to assist refugees from the Middle East than most other European countries. 

This is the righteousness of the kingdom at work among human beings. Will any Christian say today that those Jews who were killed yesterday are not going to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus? They might not believe in Jesus, but they do the righteousness that Jesus taught. They are his people, and we would do well to follow them in acts of righteousness. Kyrie eleison we sing hundreds of times in our services. But do we show ἐλεημοσύνην? Yes, it’s dangerous to show mercy, to be righteous. What do we sing in the Beatitudes? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – δικαιοσύνην. And, Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew. And Christians would do well to learn some righteousness from our Jewish brothers and sisters. May their souls rest in the kingdom which Jesus promised to all who are persecuted for the sake and cause of righteousness.

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Let’s not talk of demons

Most people today don’t believe in demons and demonic possession. Yet, I claim that today’s Gospel reading is even more relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago. That’s because we don’t live in the age of demons; we live in the age of demonization! Yes, we demonize people; we demonize individuals we don’t agree with; and we demonize whole groups of people. And the greater tragedy is that people don’t want to stop demonizing someone else or another group because they need a scapegoat, someone to blame. So even when the facts don’t agree with them, people invent lies or simply refuse to believe what’s in front of them. That’s what happened with the Jews in Germany and Russia and other European countries in the previous two centuries. Fake documents were created – like the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – in order to support the demonization of Jews. And all this led to the Holocaust, the darkest act of evil perhaps in all human history. 

In today’s Gospel reading, the local people of the village had cast out this man. He was demonized – or, perhaps they demonized him. Jesus released him, liberated him – but the villagers were not happy. Who would they demonize now? Oh, wait, they got it. They demonized Jesus, and forced him to leave their area. But Jesus asked the man to stay behind, among his own people. The man they demonized now stayed behind to be their healer. A beautiful conclusion. Did he succeed? We don’t know. Human history would tell us that the strategy of staying behind to heal a village or a country rarely has succeeded.

So I, like Jesus, take my leave from this town of the Gerasenes. I don’t want to talk about demons – whether ancient or modern. There’s too much demon talk in the world anyway. I want to turn to Saint Paul. I want to be inspired by that one phrase we heard from him today: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). What an extraordinary statement. And as a perfect example of what it means for Christ to live in me or you, I go back to Colossians chapter 3, that marvelous paragraph I explored yesterday:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

If you want a description of what it means for Christ to live in you, you can’t do much better than this. Compassion and kindness in Paul’s mind are inseparable from humility, meekness and patience. Knowing our own neediness prevents us from judging someone who needs our compassion and kindness. Knowing our own neediness of God keeps us from becoming arrogant in our attitude toward others. The meek shall inherit the earth, not the arrogant. And those who are patient – a tough thing to be in our instant gratification society. But if we learn to be patient in our own healing we will be patient with others, “forbearing one another…forgiving each other other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in harmony.” Community is the training for all this. And unless love binds everything here where it is easiest, how can we bring love and compassion to the world out there that needs love and compassion so desperately?

But Paul is not finished pouring out inspiration for us who hear him: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

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The Contemporary Voice of Jesus

Why do the Gospels rely on seed parables to explain what the kingdom is? There’s today’s parable; there’s the mustard seed parable; and the parable of the seed that grows at night. Both can be read in Mark 4:26-33.

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.

Why did Jesus use seed parables? Many reasons, obviously. It was an agrarian society. Today Jesus might use the imagery of a YouTube that goes viral or an email that you send out and which is forwarded to others and to others…. But the primary message of the seed is that the kingdom of God is hidden but will eventually flower forth into life and eternal glory.

But Jesus goes way beyond the agrarian context in which he spoke. Because he had the kingdom in his mind, not relevance to farmers. Quite frankly, any farmers listening to the parable of the Sower and the Seed would have laughed – I’m speculating here, since I’m not a farmer. Perhaps this is the reason why he said those shocking words: “for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” 

So a farmer might have mocked: Really Jesus? Who would throw seed along the path? Actually the Greek says, παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν, next to the path, which would have been the unplowed ground, so seed thrown there would be easily trampled and easily found by birds. But when Jesus goes on to interpret the parable, ὁδός takes on a new meaning: the path of salvation, the way of Jesus and discipleship! So those who are παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν are not rooted, they are not on the path to salvation and are easily turned away from salvation.

The farmer will laugh again: Really Jesus? Throw seed on rocks and thorns? Who would do that? Such waste. No, only good soil should receive seed! That’s the logic of farming, of course. But Jesus is looking at a very different logic. He is using the language of farmers in order to be understood. And yet, he is not understood, because he is not teaching in an agricultural school. He is teaching in the school of life.

God is not solely interested in those who are receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ. No. God shows his love and grace on everyone. But many will not accept or recognise the love and grace and goodness of the Lord because they are easily distracted and care more for material goods. Those who preach a God who selects who will be saved and who will not should seriously look at this parable. God does not select. We select! We decide whether God’s grace will work in our lives. Protestant preachers keep harping the same message: It’s all grace. Yes, it is all grace, all a gift from God; but we decide whether to accept the gift. And not only accept the gift, but produce fruit. Seed that falls on good soil will not be devoured by birds or wither or be choked by thorns – but it will produce fruit, otherwise it’s useless.

The kingdom of God is quiet. The kingdom of God has nothing to do with noise and slogans and big numbers and budgets and Supreme Court victories or any of the things that Christians have been proud of since the days of Constantine 1,700 years ago. The kingdom of God has nothing to do with what Kierkegaard called Christendom. The kingdom of God finds good soil and there produces fruit. The kingdom of God finds good hearts and minds that are open to awe and wonder at God’s infinite goodness; and there, the kingdom produces the signals, the secret code that can only be perceived by those who have ears to hear and hearts to rejoice. This is the message of today’s parable. Jesus spoke with a contemporary voice for his time. He is still very contemporary – with or without our language.


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Thorn in the Flesh

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.