Sunday 8th July 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-12
The Rev’d Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Jesus calls the twelve and begins to send them out two by two, and gives them authority over the unclean spirits. He orders them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; and to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. (Mark 6:7-9)
Jesus sent his disciples into the world as he sends us into the world to share God’s love. He sent them in twos partly as it would be safer this way. But he does not seem at all concerned that they be well equipped. No bread, no food in other words, no bag in which to carry any essential items, no money to provide for themselves and they are to wear sandels and just one tunic. The point about the two tunics is that wearing two tunics would enable them to sleep out at night, they would be kept warm. But these disciples are not to prepare for that. They are to trust that someone will give them a bed for the night. They are to go only with their own human frailty and with faith. Their ministry, their taking of God’s love and forgiveness to the nearby towns, is to be done through his love and with only their faith and their vulnerability as companions.
It seems a strange way to operate. You’d think a show of strength might be more effective.
It is interesting, though, that Paul, in his second letter to the people of Corinth, seems to be saying a similar thing. He seems to be pointing to a similar truth, that it is in our vulnerability that we can best bear witness to the truth of God and the reign of God, the reality that God’s love is at the ground of all things and is at work bringing healing to our world.
Paul has established a Christian community in Corinth and he cares deeply that they thrive in their new faith. As with any fledgling community, they struggle and so Paul writes to them and he visits them. By the time he is writing what we know as his second letter, the issue is with some other expounders of the faith who have infiltrated the community teaching that signs of the success of their faith would be that they would be healthy and wealthy. Many members of the community are loyal to Paul but some doubt his legitimacy as an apostle because of his constant references to his sufferings and also because of his unimpressive public manner. In the part of his letter we heard read this morning, we see Paul arguing that it is his very weakness and his dependence on Christ in that weakness that is evidence of his being worthy of their loyalty. Again, this seems an unlikely way of gaining people’s trust. We know his words well.
[T]o keep* me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, wrote Paul, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.* Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power* is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Scholars have argued at length about what this “thorn in the flesh” means. It seems likely that Paul is referring to some physical ailment. It is clear that Paul does not wish to dwell on the details of this ailment, more on the fact that God has allowed him to suffer in this way in order that he may know his dependence on God. “A thorn in the flesh was given to me,” he says, and it is clear that this means given by God. As any human being would, Paul has prayed that God would free him from this particular suffering, but he has come to understand that this struggle is part of his life and through it he can learn further his reliance on God.
Paul believes that Christ has spoken to him with words that have comforted and sustained believers over the centuries “My grace is sufficient for you,” Christ said to Paul, “for power is made perfect in weakness.” The point for Paul is that he is in solidarity with Christ in his weakness. Paul wrote about what Christ did in his letter to the Philippians, saying that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) Jesus died on the cross, was utterly weak at that redeeming moment, and God, in the resurrection, restored creation through Jesus’ death. Weakness, suffering, vulnerability hold us in solidarity with Christ and it is there that Christ sustains us, so Paul says. “My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says.
“Take only your staff with you for your journey,” Jesus says.
If we are to take this idea seriously, this idea that we are to share God’s love, to witness to our faith, more in vulnerability than strength, being open that we are frail and finite human beings, rather than putting on some show of power or achievement, we might well reflect on what this grace, this staff is for us.
What is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit for us? If we are to go out in vulnerability to share God’s love, what is Jesus’ staff for our journey?
For each one of us this will be different. It may be that we have grown up in the Christian faith and that we cannot articulate any more than that – our faith is part of who we are. We cannot imagine being without it or the church community that is dear to us. It may be that we were or are being blessed at a difficult time in our life – that we find God’s love and healing in a vulnerable place, in an illness, in a bereavement, in a time when we are out of work or when we are coming to terms with retirement. It may be that our reflection on scripture has led us to know our story to be woven deeply into the story of God, or it may be that one particular passage from the gospels or one particular psalm is what we hold onto as our sign of God’s grace in our lives. It may be that we know God in music or nature and that we cannot put into words any more than that. We are made by God and God will have woven into our being a way for God’s love to reach us, for God’s grace to sustain us. There will be a staff for our journey.
Rowan Williams, in his little book Being Disciples, is exploring the problem of trying to understand God and hitting a sort of brick wall in the attempt, and he writes this:
“Out of this sense of a ‘brick wall’ before our intelligence, this sense of confusion and loss where our understanding is concerned, faith grows in its true meaning. It appears not as a system, a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply as a form of ‘dependable relationship’. You may not understand, or have the words on the tip of your tongue, but you learn somehow to be confident in a presence, an ‘other’, who does not change or go away. You realise that when the signposts and landmarks have been taken away there is a presence that does not let you go. And that is faith, I would say, in a very biblical sense. … The loss of understanding of what we know and how we know, is part of the difficult business of learning to question at every level who we are. But we are somehow set free to face all that and live with it by the conviction that we are not ‘let go of’.”
You realise that when the signposts and landmarks have been taken away there is a presence that does not let you go.
There is a dependable relationship.
“Take only your staff with you for your journey,” Jesus says.
“My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says.
But he does ask us to go. To go out into the world, each with our own physical and emotional frailties, each knowing that we are flawed and often fail God, but to go with that sense of inadequacy for it is precisely there that God can sustain us and it is precisely there that God can reach others with God’s love and healing.
Sharing our faith is not easy. It can often seem like a place where, as Rowan Williams puts it, “the signs and lampposts have been taken away.” But there, there is the presence that will not let us go. That is the staff for our journey. And sharing that presence is our task. That just one more person, perhaps, might know the great love of God in Christ, might know their sins forgiven, might be free from their fears, might know that presence that, also, will not let them go.
 Rowan Williams Being Disciples pp24-5.