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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
July 8, 2018 at 10:15 AM
Central Passage
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Pentecost 7B

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: July 8, 2018 – Pentecost 7B

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13




              Some of you, I know, will be shocked by this confession, but I’m going to say it anyway: I am a perfectionist. Not a recovering perfectionist. Not a reformed perfectionist. Neither of those adjectives apply to me. I’m a full-fledged, persnickety perfectionist, often hypercritical toward others or self (especially self). I’m someone who wants everything to fall into line, to be in order. I tend to expect great outcomes from myself, and when things don’t work out the way they should, I can beat myself up over it. I always want to be strong – never weak.


              And I know I’m not alone in my desire for strength and order to the point of perfection. Many pastors out there look for the magic formula that will set their church apart from the others in the glutted religious marketplace. They want right kind of worship that will engage people, the right kind of programs, the right kind of preaching, even the right kind of pastoral persona that will be the least offensive and most attractive to people. Many of us have this image of the “perfect church” or the “perfect pastor” in our head, and when that image is not congruent with reality, it can be difficult for us to deal with. To be fair, this isn’t just a church issue. If you’re a coach, for example, you have an image of what a “great team” or a “great player” or a “great coach” looks like, and if you’re a perfectionist, no reality short of the image will do for you. If you’re a farmer, you know how many bushels per acre constitutes a “great harvest”. It’s normal for us to desire strength and order and greatness. It’s when we desire perfection in our image that the desire for strength and order becomes pathological. It becomes destructive.


              Which is why I am still amazed at the work of the apostle Paul, and it’s also why we’ll continue to focus on his letters this summer. Paul’s churches, to put it bluntly, are a “hot mess”. For years, Paul has traversed the Mediterranean region, establishing churches in cities throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Greece. And since many of these communities are Gentile, they each come with a wide range of practices and customs, some of which are destructive to the church community. The Corinthian church, for instance, upholds social hierarchies at the Lord’s table. Some continue to frequent prostitutes. Others cause fellow believers scandal by attending banquets in pagan temples. Paul addresses all these issues, urging the Corinthians to see themselves as members of one body – the body of Christ – and therefore not only fundamentally equal, but also mutually accountable to each other. The Corinthian church also liked big, flashy spiritual displays, which made them extremely susceptible to false teachers who could “perform” well. During much of his ministry, Paul wasn’t just establishing new churches. He was also putting out fires in those that he had already established.


              And that’s precisely the context of Paul’s words here in chapter 12. False teachers, whom Paul labels “super-apostles”, have infiltrated the Corinthian church. They have captivated them with reports of visions, of journeys through heaven, commands from Christ himself, ecstatic experiences of the presence of God, and of course, the ever-popular speaking in tongues. They have used these spiritual experiences as the basis of their authority. Since up to this point, Paul has not spoken to the Corinthian church about his mystical experiences, save perhaps his conversion experience, these super-apostles have also pointed to Paul’s supposed lack of such experiences as a reason to denigrate him and his authority. Paul isn’t strong like they are, they say. He doesn’t have experiences of God and Christ like we do. He doesn’t heal like we do. He doesn’t prophesy like we do. He doesn’t even preach very well! (Remember how Paul echoes their criticism in chapter 10:10 – “For they say, ‘His letters are strong and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is contemptible.’”) Paul is no apostle, they say. If he was, he would be so obviously powerful – perfect, even – that his authority would be unmistakable.


              It’s in this context, Paul responds. And notice how he does it. He doesn’t attack the experiences of the “super-apostles”. Instead, he responds with an experience of his own – an experience he had wanted to keep private. He’s reluctant to talk about this experience because he begins telling it in the third person. He doesn’t say, “Oh yeah? Well I too was caught up into heaven!” He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up into the third heaven.” (Just a side note here – the idea of tiers of heaven is pretty ancient. Paul may be referring to the heaven in which God is fully present, beyond the stars.) He seems embarrassed to talk about this extraordinary spiritual experience. In any case, this vision was not a basis for his authority, nor was it for the good of the community. It was for the edification of his own faith. He talks about it here to refute the false claims of the super apostles.


              But to temper any temptation to pride, God sends a “thorn in the flesh”, a “messenger of Satan” to humble him. It’s a curious phrase that Paul uses. This “thorn”, whatever it is, is clearly an evil. We don’t know quite what it was, though it was probably quite clear to the Corinthians. The point is that God used an evil thing for Paul’s greater good. God used weakness to make his power stronger in Paul. Paul was never going to be a perfect apostle. He was never going to be a super apostle. He was never going to have all the churches in the palm of his hand, hanging on to every word he said or wrote. No, he was going to be “just Paul” – Paul, with an extraordinary collection of rather modest gifts in writing, preaching, teaching, and community organizing, coupled with an earth-shattering commission from Christ himself to evangelize the world.


              The same is true for us, the people of Zion Lutheran Church of Hartford City in July of 2018. We, too, are made up of ordinary people like Paul or the Corinthian church – people who will never be perfect according to the human definition of the word. But the good news is that we don’t have to be the perfect church. We don’t have to be the super church In God’s eyes we are already the perfect, super church. Why? Because God’s power is made perfect in weak, vulnerable, ordinary people like us. God’s power was made perfect in a deeply imperfect man like Paul. In deeply imperfect groups of people like the Corinthian church and in Jesus’ own disciples. God, in fact, took on deeply imperfect human flesh in Jesus Christ. To describe this, Paul uses this extraordinary phrase, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Even God in Jesus Christ is made imperfect. Why? So that in him we could be complete, whole, perfect. So that we could share in the power and grace of God, made perfect only in weakness and imperfection. It’s a paradox. But paradox is at the heart of the Christian life.


              God help us, then, to live into our weaknesses, to live into the paradox that is the Christian faith. It is there that we will find our true strength; our fulfillment as people of God redeemed in Christ.


              Let us pray.


              Jesus, you took on our deeply imperfect state so that we could be whole and complete in you. Help us to let go of our need to be perfect and strong on our own terms, and embrace the only way we can be strong – in weakness yielded to your grace. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.