He was a spellbinding preacher addressing the ecumenical Thanksgiving gathering in the little gymnasium of my hometown.
"I wear a white suit, white shoes, and a red tie for the blood of Jesus!" he declared. The message was all about him, full of his exploits, and calling for "powerful faith" like his to make all things possible.
Irritated to my core, I headed for the door when the service ended. Paul's "super-apostle" opponents didn't hold a candle to this preacher. But my ten-year-old son went straight to the podium. He was always first to the car! I turned toward him, "Let's go!"
"No, dad!" He scowled. "This is the first time religion made any sense to me!"
So I stood behind my child in the line to shake the preacher's hand. One of us pure as the driven snow. The other, humbled in his hypocrisy.
2 Corinthians 12 churns with irony, sarcasm, and faith. If the lector reads it right, the calm of the Pentecost season will be disrupted with prophetic speech. No "working preacher" who engages this passage will allow boredom in the congregation.
To grasp its evangelical force, this text needs to be read in the larger context of chapters 10-13, or at least with the benefit of verses 11-12, just beyond the close of the pericope: "I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works."
Those "extra verses" remind us that Paul was dealing with high performers who apparently criticized his adequacy as an apostle. "His letters are weighty and strong," they noted, "but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible" (2 Corinthians 10:10).
"I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles," Paul responded. "I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge" (2 Corinthians 11:6). "And what I do I will also continue to do, in order to deny an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about. For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:12-13).
In the verse preceding our pericope (2 Corinthians 12:1), Paul notes: "It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on in visions and revelations of the Lord." This reading, therefore, is Paul's testimony to his "foolish boast" in the Lord and his experience of the presence of the resurrected Christ.
The commentaries demonstrate how profoundly the way Paul speaks is shaped by the prevailing styles, terms, and metaphors of his era. He is talking their game! Even the tensions between "bold speech" (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:2) and worthy or foolish "boasting" are consistent with the conventions of Hellenistic rhetoric.
Garrison Keillor aside, neither "militantly modest" Lutherans nor the Jews invented convoluted discussions about who is "holier than thou" or "humbler than thou." What the apostolic witness added, however, was a "proper confidence."1
Even Paul's ironic tone, verging on the sarcastic, does not hide Paul's confidence that his religious experiences are at least as powerful as anyone else's. Accounts of out-of-the-body experiences were as popular in Paul's world as in ours.
The mystery religions often cultivated transcendent experiences, "whether in the body or out of the body" (2 Corinthians 12:3). Their ecstatic visions were to be kept secret: "things not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat" (2 Corinthians 12:4). For Paul, speaking in the voice of the third person ("I know a person in Christ who..." 2 Corinthians 12:3) could be an ironic imitation of how people told such stories to heighten the mystery of watching themselves having the experience.
People have been practicing spiritual travel, telling death and near-death stories, and inducing visions in every era. The apostle does not discredit such human religious experiences. Instead he describes his encounter with the living Christ in their terms.
For those who are amazed at such experiences, Paul is confident his story ranks right at the top: "If I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth" (2 Corinthians 12:6). Recent Pauline scholarship has emphasized the Apostle did not lack ego strength. "I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing" (2 Corinthians 12:11).
The statement "I am nothing," therefore, is not a denial of self-confidence, but a witness to his profound confidence which is grounded in Christ outside of himself.
The true ecstasy to which Paul testifies is not his personal accomplishment of standing outside of his body, but the living Christ Jesus standing in for him. He even saw he could put others in the spiritual danger of thinking "better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations" (2 Corinthians 12:6-7).
"A thorn was given me in the flesh," he declares. The passive voice suggests this "thorn" was given by God, as "a messenger from Satan" (2 Corinthians 12:7). In the Bible, God can even be at work in the trials of Satan, as in the trials of Job or the testing of Jesus in the wilderness.
This entire journey through the splendors of human experience of transcendence takes us to the revelation of the gracious presence and power of Christ.
Instead of being full of himself and his religious experience, Paul is aware that his own weakness, his emptiness is the occasion for the presence of the living Christ: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is not a general truth, but the specific truth of the Gospel that "the power of Christ may dwell in me."
Under attack from "false apostles," Paul is fierce, ironic, even sarcastic, drawing the Corinthians away from the illusions of superior spiritualities. In his letter to the saints in Philippi, he was gentler with his adversaries about what matters. "Just this," he said, "that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice" (Philippians 1:18).
So too for you, dear "Working Preacher!" Even when you persist in making yourself the hero of your stories, God can draw your people to the proper ground of their confidence: the power of Christ dwelling in them.
1See Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.