“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)
And if you think that sounds bizarre, did you catch the story that made the MSN news page this week – “Priest Kicks Family Out of Church Before Mom’s Funeral”
The story was about the parish priest of Saint Mary’s Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland (USA) – a Father Michael Briese – who apparently got so upset with the congregation who had gathered for the funeral of the late Agnes Hicks that he threw the entire gathering (reportedly, some hundreds of people) out of the church building and on to the street, such that the family had to carry the casket with them as they looked for somewhere else to hold the funeral!
Apparently, the problem was that a family member knocked over Father Briese’s chalice! “That’s when all hell broke loose,” said the deceased’s daughter. The priest “literally got on the mic and said, ‘there will be no funeral, there will be no mass, no repass, everyone get the hell out of my church.’”
I know people think I can be embarrassingly extreme in way I box and prance about sometimes but, take encouragement, I have yet to do anything quite as extreme as that! Of course, nobody has knocked over my chalice yet either, so who knows?
There was a great quote from the funeral director too, who claimed that “Briese was calling the funeral attendees “crackheads, prostitutes and thieves. I’ve been a funeral director for 30 years”, he said, “and I have never experienced anything like that.”
He needs to get out more, doesn’t he? He’s been living far too long in the refined environs of Charlotte Hall, Maryland. Church leaders haven’t always been well-groomed, genteel, and softly spoken, which, of course, brings me back to Saint Paul.
I’m not suggesting that St Paul made a habit of throwing people out of his church, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did do that occasionally. Most certainly he had a penchant for coming out with statements that you never saw coming, and today’s reading is surely one of them – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Where did that come from?
Now, I know that most of us are probably familiar with this passage and so we’ve always associated this statement with Saint Paul. Even so, if we didn’t know it was Paul, and if you just heard someone read that to you, not knowing who had said it, what would you think? You’d probably assume these were the words of a Hindu mystic, wouldn’t you? Where is the ‘third heaven’ anyway? I thought there was only one? And since when did the Apostle start having out-of-body experiences?
I tried to read this passage as if seeing it for the first time. My first thought was ‘could this really be Saint Paul?’ to which came the obvious reply, ‘of course it is! Anyone wanting to imitate Saint Paul would not say something so out-of-character!’
Or perhaps it isn’t out of character for Paul to speak of bizarre experiences of the numinous and the holy? After all, he refers numerous times to his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus – an ecstatic experience that completely changed his life. This was another life-changing religious experience. Perhaps he had a lot of them? Even so, why talk about them here? Indeed, why talk about them at all if they were purely private affairs that nobody else would ever be able to understand?
This bizarre act of sharing is followed by what is possibly an even more bizarre and more personal revelation from Paul, where he talks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
“to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
What is he talking about? Even more so than before, Paul is deliberately vague.
Christian people have speculated for thousands of years over what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was. It was, he says, literally, “an angel of Satan sent to beat me up”, but what does that mean?
Some suggest, rather mundanely, that it was his poor eyesight that was the issue, but that hardly explains why he spoke about his problem in such veiled terms. Others have suggested that perhaps he suffered from epilepsy, which would indeed have been a deeply embarrassing condition for a man in his position and might well have been the expected outcome of all the hits he took to the head.
Others suggest that his struggle was with his sexuality. I think even Calvin saw it that way. Calvin paraphrases Paul “to me has been given a goad to jab at my flesh, for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptation according to the flesh.”
If Paul did struggle with his sexuality or with his sexual identity, that could explain a lot of things, including why he was so reluctant to talk about his struggle openly. The bottom line though is that we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, and so we have this bizarre testimony where Paul is sharing with us something that is deeply personal, but which is so personal that he can’t actually tell us what it is!
Now … I appreciate that if the role of the preacher is to help people understand the Scriptures, you might be feeling rather dissatisfied at this point. You could be forgiven for expecting that a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 might help you understand what Paul was talking about with his mysterious visit to the third heaven, and that I might help to shed some light on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was.
I confess that when it comes to understanding exactly what Saint Paul was talking about here, I haven’t got a lot of wisdom to offer. I do think that I’m on firmer ground though when it comes to understanding why Paul said what he said, and I think the ‘why’ question, in this case, may be even more significant that the ‘what’.
This dialogue is part of Paul’s attempt to defend himself against his many enemies by displaying his spiritual credentials. Paul had a lot of enemies. Indeed, he had so many that he must have wondered sometimes whether he had any real friends.
Paul probably managed to make enemies of all of the Jewish peers that he’d grown up with and studied the Torah with. If most of his fellow Jews hated him, it was the Romans who eventually killed him, so he didn’t have many friends there either. The opponents we read about most of the time though in his letters are his Christian enemies, and that’s where I suspect it hurt him the most.
As we find him here, Paul is battling for the hearts and minds of the church in Corinth against fellow Christians, and while he doesn’t name names in this letter he does use a sarcastic term to refer to his opponents in this same chapter of his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul refers to them as the ‘super-apostles’.
“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.” (2 Corinthians 12:11)
The term ‘super-apostles’ is a disturbing one, as when the word ‘apostle’ is used in the Gospels, we know exactly who it is referring to. It’s referring to one of the twelve disciples, and the term is generally used only of the twelve disciples.
In the Gospels there were only twelve Apostles. After the death of Judas there were only eleven which was why they drew lots to elect a replacement (Matthias) and bring the number back to twelve. Even so, they were a deliberately fixed group made up of persons who had lived and moved with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Paul would later claim that he too was an Apostle since he too had met with Jesus (on the road to Damascus), but since this happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus you can understand why some people responded to Paul’s claim to be an Apostle by saying, “well … yeah … sorta”.
We need to appreciate the situation this created for the first Christians in Corinth. They had discovered Jesus and they wanted to follow Jesus but none of them had met Jesus in the flesh or heard his words first-hand. Hence, when the community was unsure as to how best to follow Jesus, what did they do? They couldn’t refer to the Gospels because they hadn’t been written. The best recourse they had was to talk to someone who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry and had heard what He’d had to say first-hand. In other words, they looked for an Apostle.
Paul – whether those he was arguing with at Corinth were people claiming to represent the twelve in Jerusalem, or whether they really were Peter and James and John in the flesh – Paul did experience an ongoing tension with the twelve Apostles, and that must have made it almost impossible for him to have an effective ministry.
The issue, of course, was always the same. The issue was how inclusive the church of Jesus Christ was supposed to be. I’m sure that, in theory, everybody (even the super-apostles) agreed that the church’s doors were open to everybody. In practice though, Paul believed that his opponents wanted a church for Jews only, where non-Jews were treated as second-class citizens, and that wasn’t good enough.
One of things I most admire about the great German saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was how early he drew the line when the Nazis started to exert their influence in Germany a century ago. When the church ruled, in 1933, that Jews were no longer allowed to be ordained as Christian priests. Bonhoeffer said, “the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ”, and there he took his stand.
It’s exactly the stand Saint Paul took. Of course, Bonhoeffer’s opponents would have said that the church was not rejecting Jews but only barring them from ordination. Bonhoeffer would have nothing of that. There were no second-class citizens in the church of Jesus Christ, which was exactly what Saint Paul was saying of non-Jews!
The issue doesn’t have to be race. The church has a long history of making second-class citizens of people, and we continue to do so today, regularly, on the basis of gender and/or sexuality! In whatever form it comes, the church that excludes people is not the church of Jesus Christ! As both Paul and Bonhoeffer and others have discovered though, this is never an easy truth to proclaim.
The thing I love about Saint Paul was that he stuck to his guns! Despite everything, Paul never backed down on his belief in the inclusiveness of the church of Jesus. When you think about the things that Paul had to battle with, this was incredible!
Paul had to fight against everything he’d been brought up with – with his belief in the Jews as God’s chosen people, where there was no place for the ‘uncircumcised’. Paul had to rethink and reinterpret all of that.
Secondly, he had to deal with the emotional pain of being a traitor to his own tribe. Little doubt Paul’s Pharisaic family would have disowned him, and who knows what happened to his first marriage?
Finally, having left his Jewish tribe and joined the Christian tribe, Paul must have never felt fully accepted there either. I don’t think he ever entirely resolved his issues with ‘the twelve’, and yet he continued to push for an inclusive understanding of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus, even though, prior to the cross and resurrection, Paul had never met Jesus, and Paul must sometimes have felt, deep down, that compared to the original twelve Apostles, he was radically underqualified to give the final word on Jesus, even with all his intense spiritual experiences.
Some years ago, I read an excellent book by Steven Pressfield, entitled “Do the Work”, where the author suggests that we have two great assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity. We like to call them ‘daring’ and ‘persistence’ or use other similarly noble terms but Pressfield suggests that we call them what they are – the stupidity to attempt things that we should never attempt, and the stubbornness to persist with them, despite the fact that common sense is screaming at us to give up.
What was it that empowered Saint Paul to display such an extraordinary degree of stubbornness and stupidity? According to his own account, it seems that he had some deep experiences of Jesus (whether in the body or out of the body, who knows) – experiences that empowered him for the long haul.
May God give us grace to enjoy similarly deep experiences of Jesus, so that we might be empowered to be as stupid and as stubborn as was the blessed Apostle.