Three Times

(sermon 7/4/21)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  

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. 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. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, 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, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Last Sunday I mentioned a few television shows and movies. Not to get in a rut, but as I was studying this particular text from 2 Corinthians, considering its backstory and trying to understand what Paul is getting at, another movie came to mind. The movie “Office Space” is a goofy comedy movie from 1999 about a poor guy with no real ambition, going nowhere, stuck in a dead-end job in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of some big corporation. Part of the overall plot of the movie is that the big corporation has brought in a couple of outside consultants to study their operations and come up with ways to make the corporation more efficient, and ultimately improve the corporate bottom line. It just so happened that both of the consultants were named Robert, so in the movie they just get referred to as “The Bobs.” Now anyone who’s ever worked in the business world knows the dread that comes when you hear the company has hired consultants to come in and streamline things and tell the company how it should really be operating, because this process almost always ends up eliminating some jobs, and adding workload and causing other difficulties for the employees who remain, and while they might get some things right, they can also get a number of things wrong – sometimes really wrong – and in fact, that’s what happens in the movie.

Consultants in the business world are an interesting bunch, and having been an architect, I was generally considered a kind of a consultant, so I feel I can talk about them. They usually have some kind of specialized competence, and they try to apply that competence to benefit their clients. But as outsiders, the fist thing they have to do is to learn their client’s actual business model, their operations, their corporate culture, and then, after they’ve got a handle on things, they’ll make recommendations to the client regarding the way they should really be doing things. Many years ago, a business associate of mine said that “A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch, and then charges you to tell you what time it is;” and while he meant it to be funny, there’s at least a bit of truth to that. But before they can charge you for anything, they need to get hired, and they do that like any other business – by gaining a client’s confidence thro8ugh touting their qualifications, their expertise, their past successes, and making a case for why they’re the best one for the job.

There’s something very similar to that going on as the backstory to this text we heard today, to what Paul is saying in this passage. Paul takes pride in the fact that he’s the one who got the church in Corinth started. He went to the city, proclaimed the gospel there, made some converts, and got them organized and structured as a church; and then, consistent with the way he understood his call, he moved on to do the same thing in other cities.

But apparently sometime after he left, some others showed up on the scene in Corinth; people who claimed to be able to help them even more than Paul. But these were people who Paul said were in some way, we’re not sure the details, skewing the real message of the gospel. They were apparently touting their credentials to the small church; earlier in this letter he sarcastically refers to them as so-called “super apostles”. Based on what Paul writes in this passage, these newcomers were trying to sell themselves, similar to the Bobs, as having more credibility, more qualifications, more authority than Paul, so the Corinthians should listen to them. You could imagine their arguments: Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t directly taught by them; he actually used to persecute Christians. What’s so special about Paul? Why should anyone listen to him? It seems that these would-be super apostles were trying to build themselves up by tearing Paul down.  

In response to this, to reestablish his own qualifications and credentials, Paul writes what we heard this morning. He wants to reassert his own authority, but he doesn’t want to sound arrogant or boastful himself, so he engages in this little bit of wordplay where he talks about himself in the third person – “I know someone who was taken up into the third heaven, into the very dwelling place of God, and who heard deep, divine revelations that mortals are forbidden to hear or repeat…” It’s an age-old tactic of saying something without actually saying it or taking ownership of it, while still making the point, and in this case, the point is made. Paul has credibility due to the amazing revelations that he’s received directly from God, he tells them – in fact, it’s enough to make him want to boast about it. IN the English translation, Paul says he needs to be cautious so he doesn’t get “too elated” about the fact that he’s has these special visions or experiences. That translation, “too elated,” is probably a little too polite; the Greek here actually means to be conceited, arrogant, cocky. So Paul tells the people in Corinth that in fact, his credentials are such that he *could* be boastful, but he’d never want to do that; it just wouldn’t be right.

At the same time, we hear Paul say that it’s what he describes as a “thorn in the flesh” –  we don’t really know what that means, exactly, but it’s some kind of problem or distraction – that keeps him preoccupied and unable to be boastful. In fact, he says, it was such a problem that “three times” he prayed to God that this “thorn” would be taken away from him, but to no avail – it’s kind of a parallel, whether he intended it or not, to the three times that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would remove this cup from him, that he wouldn’t be crucified. Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Don’t struggle and strive for glory or greatness, or to assert your authority, which doesn’t come from you anyway. There’s no need to be boastful or arrogant; there’s no need to feel cocky or lord it over others because of your standing and place of authority in the kingdom of God.

Arrogance, conceit; they always cloud a person’s vision and ultimately lead to self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness. Don’t get too full of yourself, Paul, Christ tells him. My grace is sufficient for you.

It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can all, at one time or another, get a little full of ourselves. From time to time, we can all feel like people aren’t respecting our authority or our dignity, and we deserve a bit more deference than we’re getting in the moment. But the message Paul got is the same message Christ gives us, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too boastful; that just ends up leading you in the wrong direction. Instead, try to remember all the goodness and blessings that God has given you, and remember that it wasn’t through any of your own doing; it was a gift, so rather than boasting, be humble and grateful.

Paul offers a good reminder for us as individuals and as people of the kingdom of God, and given that it’s also Independence Day, it’s a good reminder for us as a nation, too. There are so many great and wonderful things about our country that we can and should be rightly proud of. From our seemingly endless natural beauty, to the beautiful concepts in our founding documents. To the spirit of opportunity, progress, and advancement. To our scientific, cultural, educational, and social advances that have led the world. To the overarching goodwill and good-naturedness of the people.

But it’s no big secret that just as we have greatness, we also have great failures. And if you really think about those failures, almost every single one of them arises out of having slid into an attitude of self-righteousness, conceit, arrogance; forcing our own attitudes, trying to assert our strength and power over others. Other countries, other people, even other people within our own country. Our global successes have been great, but those successes have often planted those seeds of boastfulness, exceptionalism, and have led us into paths very different than the ways of the kingdom of God.

We do fail in this regard sometimes. Honestly, it’s inescapable. But that’s why what Paul says here is so important, such good news – that even when we do slide down that wrong path, God is still with us, reminding us that it isn’t all about us. That God has bestowed grace upon us in sufficient measure for all that we need – maybe not all that we want, but all that we need, and as a gift, not through our earning any of it through our actions. So our mindset can be one of gratitude and not boastfulness, and our actions toward others can be actions of grace.

So this weekend, let’s all give thanks to God for all the good that God has blessed us with. Let’s be proud of the real good in this country. Let’s be aware of and repentant for the bad; for the harm that we’ve caused. Let’s recognize that the harm almost always comes out of a boastful attitude that leads us to think that we’re somehow more special, more right, more beloved in God’s eyes than others. Let’s always be thankful for the wonderful news that first and foremost, we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, and that Christ tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now, if the Bobs offered advice as good as that, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

Thanks be to God.

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