Vicar's Sermon - 5th July 2015
2. Corinthians 12.2-10
Not so long ago I conducted a baptism service here in church. The little boy who was being baptised had not long before been very ill. His parents had spent some anxious days and weeks up at the RVI in Newcastle as the doctors worked to combat a disease that could have been fatal for their child. The baptism was a small affair. Not for this family a huge gathering with everyone dressed up for the celebration, no there were just the family and the boy’s god-parents at the service. Needless to say, this small group had gathered to celebrate the little boy being ‘out of the woods’ let alone the baptism itself.
After the service, when most of the baptism party had left the church or were stood in the church porch, I had a few words with the boy’s grandpa. It was clear he had lingered in church to speak to me. We didn’t talk for long but he wanted to tell me that, when his grandson was really poorly on the ward in Newcastle and he had felt totally unable to help, he had come into church and prayed. ‘I’m sure it made a difference’ he said ‘I wanted to tell you’. Back then, as I came away from church I was aware that grandpa had shared something intensely personal with me, something that was real but which he didn’t feel too comfortable sharing with too many people.
As we make our way through our sermon series on Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians we come, today, to a passage in which Paul speaks of his own spiritual experiences. He’s not at all comfortable doing so, and so he speaks in the third person singular rather than the first. He speaks of ’a man’ who was caught up to Paradise, rather than saying ‘I was caught up to Paradise’ - but there can be no doubt that he is speaking of himself. Perhaps it’s something to do with personality type, maybe it’s a cultural thing but Paul is particularly reticent to ‘boast’ about his inner life. This experience has stayed with him. It’s not particularly recent – 14 years ago he tells us- it’s therefore not normative for him (lest we imagine that there are some whose experience of prayer is one spiritual high after another). No, this experience has made its mark on the apostle but he’s reluctant to use it in some ‘bidding war’ against others who doubt his apostleship. He can’t claim any credit for the vision that was granted to him. He had done nothing to deserve being granted the privilege of eaves dropping on the affairs of heaven – he can’t boast about the experience because it was granted to him out of God’s grace. It was unmerited, unsought for...just there.
Perhaps that’s the way that it ought to be? Perhaps we should be suspicious of those who claim some superior technique in prayer, maybe we should run a mile if someone is too keen to tell us of the deepest workings of their soul. Just as there is something wrong in the media when the journalists themselves become the story the gospel message is, in the end, about Jesus (not me, or you or even the apostle Paul) – when our story points to Him all is well and good, but if it ends up being about us then something has gone wrong.
Which is why Paul wants to leave ‘boasting about visions’ behind him – better, he says in verse 6, for the Corinthians to focus on ‘what they see in him’ and ‘what they have heard from him’. There’s a challenge in those words isn’t there? There is an old saying that goes ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ Paul isn’t on trial for being a Christian – at least not before the Corinthian church – rather, it’s his apostleship that is being questioned, his leadership of the Christian community, and here he is willing to lay himself on the line before the Corinthian church members and say ‘Here I am. Do you see in my ministry the marks of Christian leadership?’
You’ll remember from a few weeks back that one of the problems the church had with Paul was his perceived weakness: his illness, the fact that trouble seemed to follow him everywhere he went, the catalogue of manmade and natural disasters that afflicted him. ‘How’, the Corinthians asked ‘can this man be a messenger from God ?’ Again, Paul doesn’t run away from this question. Here he again speaks of his weakness. ‘Look’, he says, ‘I struggle, I have struggled. I was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (which we must presume is some sort of debilitating illness) and despite praying repeatedly for it to be taken from me I still carry it in my ministry BUT God is using this suffering for good and I am content with that.’
Don’t mishear what Paul is saying here. Paul is not saying that suffering is good. Rather, he is saying that God can use it for good. He had prayed that his problems be relieved, but when they were not removed Paul asked a question that perhaps we could all learn from and the question was this ‘What does God want of me now in this situation?’ Not everyone who prays in the face of illness is healed – we know this. Not everyone who faces intense hardship has their hardship relived – we know this. So when the answer is ‘No’, what do we do? It would be easy to lose faith in God. It would be easy to doubt his loving purposes. We might be filled with questions about whether God is powerless in the face of illness, we might wonder whether the Almighty is cruel – there is a great deal of suffering in the world. Paul’s faith does not let him travel down these cul de sacs. He knows, because he has seen it in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s faithful, loving kindness. God is sure. But till the kingdom comes this knowledge will be tried and tested. His ‘thorn in the flesh’ is both a messenger of Satan but also a gift – to prevent him from being too exalted. His weakness, we know, has led him to almost despair of life itself but has brought Him to a deeper knowledge of the grace of God. Struggle and blessing are bound together in his experience.
Like an alcoholic at AA it is precisely because Paul has plumbed the depths that enables him to speak so powerfully of God’s grace being sufficient for him. He must trust in God to bring him through one day at a time. What Paul has been given is the grace of endurance, of faithfulness, stick-ability.
The Christian life is a marathon more than a sprint. Those who win the prize are those who stay the course, who run through the pain. Paul keeps coming back for more and more because what matters is not his faith in God but God’s faithfulness to Him. This is the diamond that lies buried at the heart of our Christian faith, the thing of beauty that cannot be destroyed that makes ours a faith that will never be crushed albeit that we might face hard times: God’s love will never let us go. We are His and nothing can snatch us from His hands. We, like Paul, are therefore more than conquerors through Him who loved us- whatever might come our way we face it secure in His love. May that be our experience now and always.