a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Foolish Faith”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
2I 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.
6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,
7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, 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.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Of course we seem foolish to follow a Savior who was powerless to prevent his own political execution or even get his own religious leaders to support him. It seems foolish to have faith in a God who doesn’t seem to have the power to make everything perfect for us. Throughout history doubters and atheistic philosophers have laughed at Christianity and a crucified Savior who taught us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, forgive seventy times seven, and that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Is our faith foolish? It doesn’t promise us the kind of strength we value the most. It doesn’t promise us perfect health – or that we will be physically strong and powerful. It doesn’t promise us economic power. Despite what many televangelists promise, all their little prayer cloths and trinkets they want you to send them an offering for won’t magically grant you fabulous wealth. It doesn’t promise us that all our decisions will be perfect, that our lives will be endlessly happy, or that our particular political party or even our nation will be forever the most powerful in the world. God does not promise that and faith in God doesn’t deliver that.
Paul talks about the foolishness of faith. He shares an intriguing story with the people of Corinth about weakness and strength, power and powerlessness. He tells about someone he knows [ *cough* Paul himself ] who has been “caught up in the third heaven.” Not sure what that means really. I have heard the phrase “seventh heaven” but to be honest that is a cosmology I am not familiar with. Paul admits he doesn’t know if the person was “in the body” or “out” when he was caught up in what must have been a powerful heavenly experience. The man “heard things that are not to be told, no mortal is permitted to repeat.” So I can’t even imagine how powerful a spiritual experience that must have been. Paul tells the story not to brag about himself, but to say if he were to boast it wouldn’t make him a fool, for he would be telling the truth.
In fact, Paul says, the only thing he will boast about is his “weaknesses.” Who boasts about their weakness? Paul has had “revelations,” but he won’t boast. We don’t know all of his revelations but the one he does talk about is pretty impressive. It’s the one where he encountered Jesus Christ. That was when Paul went from persecuting followers of Jesus, and even seeking to have them killed, to being a follower of Jesus Christ and even to establishing communities of followers all over the Roman world. That’s a pretty powerful revelation to transform a person like that. It energized him through beatings, jailings, shipwreck, and being run out of town by the authorities on at least one occasion. Was he foolish? Or was he moved by the power of one who chose not to follow the world’s definitions of power, wisdom, and value!
Paul says he boasts only about his weakness. One of those was a “thorn in the flesh.” There are lots of speculations about the nature of this thorn, but Paul never says another word about it, so let’s not bother either. Let’s just add that to the checklist which says following Jesus is no guarantee of physical power or perfection or even good health. That is to say neither good health nor poor health are signs proving one’s faithfulness. They just aren’t. When you hear people say it is God’s will that someone has some disease, you don’t have to say anything, but you don’t have to believe it either.
Paul says God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul himself adds, in his words to the Christians in Corinth: “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ.” Then he adds this almost triumphantly: “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” I would be fooling you if I told you I fully understand this. I don’t.
Clearly this is a spiritually statement that changes the perception of what it means to be strong, what it means to be weak and what it means to follow Christ from what we value so much in our times. What does it mean to say, “when I am weak, then I am strong?” Clearly it ties in with what Paul understood God to mean when God told Paul, “my power is made perfect in your weakness.” Many deeply spiritual people have found this to be a profound path to greater spirituality. I have always been amazed at the strength people of faith have shown when they are going through tough times. I am always awed by people who have dealt with disabilities. Some were life-long. Other times the pain or disability come upon us at some point in life, and some were temporary and others were a thorn in their flesh until their death. I feel like a whiner and a weakling spiritually when I hear people speak of their situations with faith, and with courage and with patience. I doubt I could ever be that strong, and I pray I never have to find out, as I have never really suffered in this life, certainly not as many have suffered. So I can’t testify personally to what Paul means when he says, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
This wasn’t the first time Paul had talked to the Corinthians about foolishness and weakness versus wisdom and power. The Corinthians were clearly very into power and wisdom and being spiritually superior to one another. In the face of that Paul said of himself, “We [ meaning Paul himself] are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.” [ 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 ].
Richard Floyd, [ “The False God Called SUCCESS,” SSD, ucc.org, July 5, 2018 ], wrote, “Through the eyes of the world Paul was clearly a failure, a loser. He was a poorly dressed, sometimes hungry, often homeless indigent with a crazy tale that he had been touched by the living God, and had been called to tell the world all about it.
“It should give us pause as we trace the gradual evolution of being a Christ-follower from Paul’s day to ours In our day ‘Christian’ has come to mean respectable and successful. We even have something called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’! But Paul wasn’t prosperous or successful. He insisted that the Gospel is a scandal! Somehow we have taken the scandal out of the Gospel.
“The philosopher William James once wrote a letter to H. G. Wells saying that our “national disease” is ‘the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship’ of SUCCESS. He went on to say: ‘That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success – is our national disease.’”
Richard Floyd asks, “Can we reclaim the measure for true success that Paul used? Can we stop admiring the obscenely wealthy, and instead admire those who love God and their neighbor, who are kind and compassionate, who care for the poor, and whose hearts burn for justice for all?” I would ask, more than admiring those who love God and neighbor, who are kind and compassionate and care for the poor and work for justice for all, can we be the ones who do this? All too often people admire this kind of devotion to real Christian values but never take up their own cross to follow Christ and work at these things.
This should matter to us not only as individuals but in how we do church, how we create a community that seeks to follow in the way of Christ. There are lots of strategies or “secrets” for church growth success. Over the years that has ranged from tent revivals, to busses, to small groups, to praise music. But beyond “strategies” we must come to the realization that we are the church of Jesus Christ. When we understand that we will realize all the great strategic methods for success are dependent on our connection with and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Now remember, the fact that people don’t pour in to our pews isn’t a sign we are not in fellowship with Christ. Many times in church history, when the church has found and spoken the truth it has lost people, because they don’t want to hear “that foolishness.” Free slaves? Foolishness. Let women speak in church and be ordained? Foolishness. “Allow gays into the church, affirm that they are welcome to participate fully and be ordained? Foolishness. Work for justice for refugees, reject arming everyone with guns for security, preach that “America First,” is not a Christian attitude? Foolishness.
But remember, when Jesus began to speak things that were hard for the crowd to hear they began to leave and not go around with Jesus anymore. And Jesus turned to the disciples and asked them if they were going to run away too. They replied, “Where would we go? You have the words of life” [ John 6:68]. Jurgen Moltmann the great theologian of the last century put it simply, [ The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 361, ] saying, “The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ is its secret.”
I think we can take comfort knowing that the one thing that is clear about the people Jesus hung out with. As much as most of us admire or wish we were rich and powerful, we aren’t. And as much as we may worship at the altars of power and wealth, Jesus hung out with people more like us than the powerful and the rich. He hung out with the leper and the sinner. He hung out with foreign women and little children. He didn’t use religion or race or nationality or any of the other controls we use to value people. He was so foolish he said, the last shall be first and the greatest among you will be servant of all.
I know! Foolish stuff, right? But if we truly want to be faithful to Jesus Christ it will look foolish to all those who believe power and riches are the way. Paul said it best. “I am a fool for Christ.” May we be able to say that too.