The 2nd Lesson of Mattins
II Corinthians 12. 1-12.
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger or Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the chiefest apostles, thou I be nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.
Some of you will have noticed that I have decided to deviate from the usual practice of preaching on either the Epistle or Gospel for the Mass today, and have instead chosen for my text the New Testament lesson from Mattins on this morning. And if that weren’t confusing enough already, I also note that the people who devised our Prayer Book lectionary seem to have the order of things reversed; the Mass epistle is from the end of the eleventh chapter of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, while the Mattins lesson is from the beginning of the twelfth chapter of that same letter. Nevertheless, I shall try to make that work for us here today.
At the end of the eleventh chapter, St. Paul is responding to a challenge to his authority and position as an apostle. Additionally, there were some in the early Christian community who felt themselves to be more “authentically Jewish”, in comparison to this little Hellenistic tentmaker. These same Jewish Christians therefore felt that St. Paul had little or no right to preach the true meaning of the Gospel to them.
And so Paul presents his resume to the Corinthians. First, he lets them know about his identity as a Jew (Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.). Then he presents them with his credentials as an apostle of Christ.
Now as we have just heard in the Epistle this morning, this list of credentials appears to be a catalog of all that St. Paul has suffered for the Faith. And boy did he suffer. Shipwrecks, beatings, stonings, nearly being drowned. And as if all that weren’t enough, Paul says, I also had to look after all of YOU every day! (Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches).
But then, Paul seems to catch himself. He appears to realize that his inventory of sufferings, no matter how truthful, might be perceived as either complaining, or as an attempt to make himself look good; to draw glory to himself. And so, he directs the attention of his audience towards the real and only reason for his perseverance through all these trials; “ If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”
Now it’s not as if St. Paul took any particular delight in the actual pains that he suffered. But what he did delight in was the reason for which he suffered. He suffered for the furtherance of the Gospel. He suffered for the spread of the Church. He suffered for Christ.
This is the theme that carries on into the twelfth chapter of II Corinthians; a continued defense of his authority, some mention of additional sufferings, and an explanation of the reasons for his perseverance. But here we also have some very interesting and significant differences.
First, St. Paul describes a “man” whom he “knew” some fourteen years before who was “caught up to the third heaven”, and “into Paradise”. Paul is not describing some friend or acquaintance here, but rather he is describing his own experience, his own visions, which he received from God shortly after his Conversion. Paul tells us about this experience not to further glorify himself, but instead to glorify God and to emphasize that it was through God’s Grace that Paul’s spirit was raised in nearness to God.
This is why Paul attempts to deflect any perception that he is boasting about all that he has suffered, even as he asserts his rightful authority, “For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.”. And if that weren’t convincing enough, Paul gives one more example of what he is talking about, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure”.
Now let’s make sure we’ve got this straight; in order to keep him from getting too puffed up or from receiving inappropriate acclaim from others because of the visions God granted to him, St. Paul was also given some physical affliction, one that appears to have been somewhat painful; a reminder, if you will, that even though he has been greatly blessed by God, Paul is still very human, still susceptible to all those human failings; such as pride.
Oh, to be sure, Paul is not happy about this affliction, this “thorn in the flesh”. It is, no doubt, a hindrance to him as he tries to continue his ministry. And so he asks God to please remove this affliction, so as to make his task easier. And he asks again. And he asks a third time. And after the third time, Paul receives his answer from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for thee”.
How many of us, I wonder, would have been satisfied with God’s answer to St. Paul? How many times have we heard someone say, “I prayed to God to heal me, but he did nothing!”? And how many of those people have used that as an excuse to stop going to church; or to stop believing in God altogether? How many people, ourselves included, fail to recall or understand just what the Grace of God is all about?
“My grace is sufficient for thee”. This is the promise of God’s all-sufficient Grace. That Grace that provided St. Paul with the strength and determination to persevere through all his physical hardships. The Grace that justifies us and sanctifies us. The Grace that grants us our Salvation from eternal damnation. The Grace that comes to us through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is the Grace that inspired St. Paul to not only persevere through his physical hardships, but also, more importantly, to rejoice in them. For it is when he is suffering the most that he calls upon the strength, the Grace, bestowed upon him by Jesus Christ; and as a result, Paul’s spirit is roused and he is emboldened all the more to preach the Gospel; and God is likewise glorified all the more, “for my strength is made perfect in weakness”.
This, then, is our example. For no matter what hardship we may endure, be it physical or emotional, we have a way to gain the strength to persevere. Further, we have a way to glorify God by maintaining our Faith and witness to God, and by making Him the centerpiece of our lives, even in the face of hardship.
Our hardships are not a punishment from God, nor are they evidence of His absence in our lives. They are a reminder of our frail, sinful nature, and a wonderful opportunity for us to recall God’s all-sufficient Grace. In the words of Blessed John Keble;
“If on the sinners outward frame, God hath impressed His mark of blame, and even our bodies shrink at touch of light, yet mercy hath not left us bare, the very weeds we daily wear, are to faith’s eye a pledge of God’s forgiving might”.
So as we approach the Lenten season and contemplate what we will give up or what we will take on as part of our seasonal discipline; and further as we reflect on all our personal hardships and physical afflictions, let us remind ourselves that we are recipients of God’s all-sufficient Grace, and let us be emboldened, like St. Paul, to use that same Grace to strengthen us and guide us and inspire us to proclaim our witness to the world. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee