PROPER 9, B
2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10
In Mark’s Gospel we heard two stories today. In the first one, Jesus returns to his home town to preach in the synagogue. We can assume that the stories of his ministry have preceded him, but the wonder at his wisdom and power is quickly replaced by contempt when the congregation realizes that this Jesus is one of their own. Well, how can he be the one? The elders still remember seeing him running around the village in diapers or naked. How can someone they have known for years as the local carpenter now come to them as a Rabbi?
Jesus responds with his own disappointment clear. “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, and among their own kin and in their own house.” Remember that just recently his family had shown up where he was preaching and healing in Capernaum to take him home because they thought he had lost his mind.
So Jesus leaves them to preach among the other villages. And now when he sends out his disciples two by two to spread the word and heal the sick, he tells them, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet. . .” This is based on the Jewish practice of shaking off the dust of non-Jewish territory when they travel through it.
Jesus is telling his disciple several things at one time. If people refuse to hear you, move on. Treat them as you would non-Jews, not blaming them or blaming yourselves for not succeeding with them. Your job is to testify to the truth and not be discouraged by any failures, but just move on to the next opportunity.
Isn’t this good news? As one commentator noted, “evangelism is not ‘to get them on our side’ or even ‘to grow the church,’ but simply to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us. This is an action performed out of love, not competition or anxiety.” We don’t need polished words, sophisticated theology, or clever dogma to speak of our faith. We are simply called to speak truth in love, from the heart, in our own words, and never be ashamed.
The best news is that we are not held responsible for the response to our ministries in Christ’s name, but only for our own faithfulness to the task. So why is it so hard for us to witness boldly and faithfully?
One of the commentators told this story about a woman who worked in a bookstore. She waited on a Hasidic Jew one morning, who asked to know about Jesus. She showed him the section of the store with books on Jesus. “No,” he said, “Don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.”
The woman reported that, “My Episcopal soul shivered.”
But she gulped and told him everything she could think of. Such God-talk, especially outside of church, makes most of us anxious and we worry about knowing the right words. Most Episcopalians would rather talk about anything else, even sex or their salary, before talking about what they believe about God or Jesus.
But Jesus has made it very clear, in sending the disciples out and in many other places, that telling the story with words is part of our job as disciples. The good news is that we are not responsible for the response to our words. Like the sower, we don’t have to be successful, we just have to sow the seeds.
And there is more good news in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The passage we heard today was written as part of a longer message against the so-called super apostles who were having some success in Corinth. They boasted of their personal spiritual experiences and used that personal experience as the basis for their authority. This is a phenomena that is still current in our times and can be found on TV most any week you care to tune in.
This somewhat explains the convoluted way he talks about a vision he had. He distances himself from it by saying someone else had the vision. So he might boast about someone else but not about himself.
As one commentator noted, “Just as he had earlier affirmed that he regularly spoke in tongues but refrained from doing so in public because it did not benefit the entire community, now he alludes to his powerful vision without directly describing it. Such inward experiences deepen his faith, but they do not constitute a basis for his authority over the church. That authority rests not upon what he has experienced in an inward, private way, but on the manner in which he is living the gospel in their midst.”
Paul then goes on to describe a “thorn in his flesh,” given to him by Satan, but that keeps him from being too elated by his spiritual experience. In other words, this thorn keeps him humble, keeps him grounded, and prevents him from thinking too highly of himself (as, by implication, the super apostles do).
Now there’s always been much speculation about what this thorn might be, but once again, Paul does not describe it. In the days of my youth I heard it said it might have been epilepsy. More recently I’ve heard folks speculate that Paul might have been gay. Really, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Paul was not perfect either. Clearly this was some sort of spiritual glitch in his character that he had to struggle against and that reminded him that he was like the rest of us. What Satan intended for harm is transformed by God’s grace to blessing.
When Paul asked God to remove this thorn, three times, his request was denied and he claims that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
And Paul concludes, “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.”
Not only does this tell us that we can be disciples in spite of our weaknesses, but that we must be; that our weaknesses make us better disciples than any sort of perfection would; that being a wounded healer is more important and more effective than being perfect, because God can transform our weakness into power. What we do in our weakness can transform others through the power and grace of God working through us.
All God asks us to do is to be faithful to God and to be willing to talk to others about that faith. We know how to live out our faith in the world. We just have to go do it and share it. We don’t have to do it well, we won’t be graded on our performance, and we may never know if we made an impact, but that’s OK. We just have to walk the walk and talk the talk, knowing that God is with us. AMEN