This week’s readings are here.
I’ve not had much to say about the presence of selections from II Corinthians in the lectionary these past few weeks. With Paul, it’s always a question whether or not to talk about him. His writing is complex, the context and background equally so. It’s a judgment call. Does one lay out all the background in order to make a pithy statement or comment on a verse?
With this week’s reading, we are at a central moment in Paul’s self-presentation and his autobiography. The larger context is a deep conflict with the Corinthian community, so deep that Paul writes what he calls “a letter of tears” (some scholars think this passage is part of that letter). His authority has been challenged; he has been attacked personally, and has both wounded others and himself been wounded in the conflict.
The reading for next Sunday is part of his defense. He begins with a description of his own ecstatic religious experience (a vision of or journey to heaven? While there he receives a divine revelation. So he could boast of this to others, but he chooses not to. Indeed, to prevent him from becoming to full of himself (remember this is Paul!), he speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that troubled him. Three times, he prayed that he would be delivered of this thing, but instead of being healed or freed, Jesus Christ responded to him, “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
There has been endless, and largely fruitless, speculation on what Paul meant by thorn in the flesh. All sorts of possible explanations, from a wife to epilepsy, have been proposed. Whatever it was, it was a physical weakness, illness, or malady, that caused Paul problems. It also helped him understand the heart of the gospel: “Power made perfect in weakness.”
For Paul, the apparent weakness of Jesus Christ dying on the cross (a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles) is a demonstration of God’s power–power made perfect in weakness. This central paradox is also the heart of Paul’s theology and challenges every effort to make faith in Jesus Christ a road to success in life. In becoming human, Jesus Christ emptied himself, took on frail, human flesh, becoming like us (Philippians 2). That becomes, in Philippians, an opportunity for our own imitation of Jesus Christ. It was a lesson Paul learned from Christ through his “thorn in the flesh.” It is a message he has passed on to us.
It is also a reminder that whatever spiritual height or high we may attain, the truth of our faith is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, in his suffering and death, in the frailty of our own bodies, and in the frailty of the Body of Christ in which we share with our fellow Christians.