Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Today’s second reading comes from the part of 2 Corinthians that some interpreters call Paul’s “foolish” letter (2 Corinthians 10:1-13:13).
Whether these chapters circulated as a letter independent of the preceding nine or not, the underlying issue is tension between Paul and the Corinthian church over Paul’s authority and credibility. Evidently, itinerant peddlers of rival versions of Christian faith had won the ear of the Corinthian church. It was fracturing.
Paul’s response shouldn’t be mistaken for the huffy rant of an out-preached preacher or a jilted suitor. The apostle uses the classic trope of the “boast,” yet gives it an unexpected turn: he foregrounds not his exceptional spiritual experience, but his weakness. His being and message are congruent: both testify to the God savingly revealed in a crucified man (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
Fascinating as we preachers may find these facts, starting with them may not be the best way to begin the sermon. Pew-sitters may have some idea what the early Christian community in Corinth was like, or they may not; either way, they may or may not care. Preachers will have to do some brisk work in the first 60 seconds of the sermon to get the congregation on board.
A preacher might decide to appeal to our culture’s enduring fascination with the supernatural. A spate of popular films and television shows in the last few years play with the ever-intriguing possibility that we live side-by-side with realities just beyond our sensing. Mythical creatures might be real. The veil between life and afterlife may be thinner than we know. Not only we, but the long-dead, may pass through our homes or brood at national battle sites.
Segue then to Paul, caught up into “paradise,” whether “in the body or out of the body,” he does not know (verse 3). We can explore this ecstatic experience briefly — what did he see? What is it like to hear things unsayable? — and yet, with Paul, we will have to lay it aside. Paul reports his out-of-body experience almost reticently. He isn’t going to tell us what he saw, and he can’t tell us what he heard. And that will have to do, because it is not the point. It is not in mystic ecstasy but in weakness that this man knows himself most surely “in Christ.”
This points us to another possible starting point for preaching; one that aims from the sermon’s beginning toward the latter half of the reading (verses 7-10). This preacher might start with the widely-circulated idea that when events turn against us, it’s divine retribution for sins of the past. The boss announces that “company ‘downsizing’ means you.” The doctor delivers a chilling diagnosis of chronic or life-threatening illness. The dull ache in the lower back tightens its grip, squeezing out thought and sleep. Is this divine justice? Punishment for things done and left undone?
Paul never even hints at such a possibility. He testifies that his struggle with physical vulnerability revealed to him more surely than any divine ecstasy could the nature of the power of God: this is a power that manifests itself in this world in and through weakness. One need not embrace the idea that God “plans” our difficulty or suffering to agree that God’s power can sustain us there. And yet that is not the end of the sermon; the end of the sermon is that power viewed through the cross, not the power of spectacle or domination, is the power that can make us whole.
It may be timely for the preacher to focus less on individual experience and more on a congregation’s collective experience. Then the ecclesial situation that evoked Paul’s testimony will take a more front-and-center role in the sermon. Maybe, like us, the Corinthian Christians hungered for deeper spiritual experience. Is that how the itinerant teachers got their toe-hold?
Such hunger, in itself, is legitimate. Contemporary Christians are rediscovering such spiritual resources as contemplative prayer, Ignatian discernment, and walking the labyrinth. But for congregations as for individuals, spiritual roots may grow deepest and strongest as we struggle together through experiences we cannot, and would not, construct or choose. A dwindling budget, struggle over an issue of doctrine or procedure that is splitting the community right down the middle, or the loss of key leadership can either make or break a congregation. We have to risk trusting each other at new levels, pray with much at stake, and practice the kind of Spirit-fueled compassion and ingenuity that finds a way where there appears to be no way.
Several weeks after the shocking death of 13-year-old Trayvon Martin in a suburban Florida neighborhood, students, staff and faculty at the seminary where I teach gathered on the quad to mourn, to read out the names of dozens of persons of color who have died such senseless deaths, and to ponder what is being asked of us. As I looked around the crowd, many deliberately wearing “hoodies” — the face-shrouding garment Trayvon wore, as do so many middle-school kids and teens — it struck me how many who had gathered had deep troubles of their own: profound losses all too recent, daunting financial situations. Some would soon graduate, with families to feel and no sign yet of a job. And yet there they were, praying, ready to be called by the Gospel outside of themselves in trust that God is at work among us, burdened and vulnerable though we are, to challenge and change the way power works in this world.
The culture is eyeing the churches these days, testing our credibility. Congregations may imagine that they cannot think about public witness until their internal problems, doctrinal and budgetary, are all resolved. But it may be precisely our internal challenges that press us into the kind of engagement with each other and with the Spirit that can turn us, sooner rather than later, away from cloying self-absorption and outward to the world God loves. Even in our weakness, maybe even because of it, we become credible witnesses of saving news in this frantic, fearful world.