Paul had a long and complex relationship with the church at Corinth. He sent them many letters, only a few of which we have preserved in the New Testament. At one point, the relationship between Paul and the church at Corinth became strained. Based on what he says in 2 Corinthians, we know that Paul sent them a passionate and strongly-worded letter that they did not appreciate. They felt it was too much. It came on too strong.
If you ever wonder how Christian communities responded to Paul telling them they needed to be more unified or more humble, or what have you, 2 Corinthians shows us they responded like you would expect them to. They did not take it well. So perhaps to mend fences, he visits in person. Instead of making things better, the visit makes things worse. Things really fall apart.
The Corinthians aren’t impressed by him. He wrote these powerful, fiery letters, but the Corinthians found his physical presence and his oratory underwhelming and uninspiring. They were also, apparently, put off by some sort of unspecified physical illness or impediment that Paul had. They started comparing him to other leaders who had come through, who were much more impressive, who could speak of visions they had of God and ascensions they had taken to heaven. In the time, visions were a standard and widely-accepted source of authority.
Paul refers to these people sarcastically as “super-apostles.” He just doesn’t measure up.
The Corinthians, it seems, did not mince their words. They told him he was unimpressive in person, he was not charismatic. Besides that, he had suffered so many trials and ailments in his life. How could they possibly accept him as an envoy of God? Wouldn’t God send someone more compelling? Wouldn’t God preserve God’s apostle from the absurdly large amount of illness and trial that Paul faced? It’s every visiting preacher’s or new pastor’s worst nightmare. To show up and be compared to others and found sorely lacking.
Paul responds to the hurtful exchange with what he calls a tearful letter. He was, apparently, deeply wounded. A good chunk of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s attempt to defend himself, his authority as an apostle, reconcile this relationship that has gone so wrong.
These verses we read today are the core of his response to their rejection. Paul makes a very bold and risky claim. He says that all of those things that you think disqualify me from being an apostle - the weakness, the illness, the trials- those are what make me an apostle of God. Those are my claims to authority. He turns their logic on its head. It’s a tremendously creative response.
Paul is laying his vulnerabilities bare and saying, “Here I am, broken, weak, and an instrument of God.” Not in spite of his brokenness, but through his brokenness. Because God’s grace works through the broken places.
Paul is not saying God caused his sufferings. He says actually goes a bit out of his way to be ambiguous about where the suffering came from, he uses the passive “a thorn was given to me.” Elsewhere, he will say that suffering comes as a consequence of the work he does, like being thrown in prison because of preaching the gospel, or being shipwrecked as he travels across the sea to visit churches.
His point here is that God works through weakness. He throws out the Corinthians’ logic that said greatness is a sign of God’s favor. He says when I am hurting, God is moving. When I am in prison, God is with me. Through my weakness, God’s power is at work. It’s the same logic- or illogic- in the song “Stained Glass” by Danny Schmidt.
“As the thunder and the hardwood settled back into its place. God removed the veil to show the scars across his face. And some folks prayed in reverence, and some folks prayed in fear, as all the shades of chaos in the glass became a mirror.”
The man rebuilds the stain glass in jagged imperfections in which everyone saw their own struggles laid bare. That’s how I feel when I read these words of Paul. My own pain and imperfections are laid bare. Not only laid bare, but held. Held in grace.
For me, the written word has always been the vehicle of powerful artistic expressions of grace. Danny Schmidt’s lyrics and Paul’s letter are two fine examples of that. These two pieces of written word are powerful because they put weakness front and center. They use a place of pain as their creative wellspring. They create through their words an image of suffering transformed. “When I am weak, then I am powerful.”
Paul’s goal in II Corinthians is not primarily therapeutic. His goal is defending his apostolic authority. But I hope that claiming his weakness in this very creative way helped him heal from the wounds the conflict had caused him.
Wounds on our bodies are sites of tremendous creativity. When we get a cut, the blood clots builds a scab, which is sort of like a protective tent that keeps the wound from getting infected. And then red blood cells create tissue, which then creates softer tissue, and then skin cells start to grow over it. And all the while, blood vessels are growing new cells to in order to come back together. It’s amazing.
I once saw Rev. James Forbes, one of the greatest Baptist preachers of our time, describing how the body healed itself and was so overcome with joy that he spontaneously broke into dance.
In order to heal wounds, the body has to create. And so must our souls. In order to heal from our wounds, we also have to create. Rituals, meaning, written word.
And again, Paul is not trying to be a healer in this text, but out of his pain he creates a brilliant, ironic piece of rhetoric that celebrates woundedness. In so doing, he allows those who read it now to celebrate our woundedness.
This was probably not the intended audience’s reaction. He was criticizing them for siding with the super-apostles. But beyond that first audience, his words can have a different resonance. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God’s power is the force that heals the wounds sustained by living in this world, and not only heals them, but transforms them creatively so those who hurt can also be healers of others.