II Corinthians 12
II Corinthians 12:1-10: While Paul has been boasting of his sufferings as providing extraordinary credentials for being an apostle, he will in the beginning of this chapter change the topic. He continues to argue for the integrity and legitimacy of his ministry, but this time comparing his spiritual experiences with those of others.
Paul asserts that nothing really is to be gained by boasting, but as long as some have boasted about their wonderfully deep and ecstatic spiritual experiences, Paul will offer testimony to his own. Paul now boasts (in the third person) of a mystical experience. He remembers quite precisely when it happened. Seeing the different levels of heaven, sensing being taken up, and hearing secret revelations are typical elements of Jewish mysticism that will be more developed in later centuries. (New Interpreters Study Bible). The rival apostles claimed to have visionary experiences in which the risen Lord spoke to them and revealed the secrets of the heavenly world…. Paul too had such experiences, but he did not parade them. His criterion asks what builds up the church, not what impresses, fascinates, and entertains people. (People’s New Testament Commentary). How do we share some of our own spiritual experiences with others in ways that are not off-putting? Paul shares because some have accused him of not being spiritual enough. It strikes me that in our day and time the danger is usually appearing “too spiritual,” and not grounded enough in reality. To be more credible today, do we need to talk about our spirituality in more “earthy” terms?
Paul could be as “spiritual” as any “super apostle,” but he does not want to claim more for himself than what his everyday words and actions would warrant. The Christian spiritual life is intended to be embodied in the ordinary, is meant to affect our daily words and actions. Yet Paul’s experiences were exceptional. He interprets some kind of personal hardship as something that kept him grounded even as he has these extraordinary spiritual experiences. Paul had not always welcomed this “grounding” experience, but had come to see it as something that helped remind him of the sufficiency of God’s grace. There has been a lot of speculation about this “thorn in the flesh.” While the Corinthians were aware of it, we are not. Some have speculated that it was a moral struggle, or the persecutions he suffered, or the worry he experienced in his ministry, or some kind of physical affliction (migraine headaches, leprosy, malaria, a speech impediment, a chronic disease, an obvious physical malady). The best guess is that it is some sort of obvious physical condition that could impede his ministry, but again, no one knows for sure. Whatever it is, Paul has wanted it gone, but its on-going presence in his life reminds him of God’s grace, and of the sufficiency and power of that grace. He returns to the theme of chapter 11, lifting up his hardships. It is his experience of hardship that Paul knows God’s grace most deeply, not in the ecstasy of mystical experience.
I admit I love verse 9, but in its context, I also need to admit that embracing the difficult side of life, its hardships, disappointments and sufferings as arenas in which God’s grace can also be experienced, is not easy. Not all suffering is a gift. Most needs to be alleviated, but some cannot be avoided. Hunger is a kind of suffering that should be alleviated, but until it is, we who seek to change the world need to be open to the suffering of the hungry. Can we find God’s grace and strength in the midst of suffering, a grace and strength that lead us to change the suffering that can be changed? All life ends in death, and we cannot avoid that. Can we find God’s grace and strength in the face of unavoidable suffering?
II Corinthians 12:11-21: Paul considers all this boasting foolish, but he has been forced into such foolishness by the challenge of other teachers and by the Corinthians themselves who have been influenced by these other teachers. Instead of standing up for him as they should have, they bought into the questioning of the super apostles. If they had paid close attention, they would have seen the signs of a true apostle in Paul’s ministry, and some of those signs were extraordinary. Paul downplayed them in order to deepen the faith of the Corinthian Christians. The only thing they did not get with Paul was the burden of supporting him financially, to which Paul says “Well… EXCUSE ME!”
Paul again asserts his deep love for the Corinthian Jesus community. Some have accused him of being crafty and deceptive. He may have been accused of socking away money from the offering he was collecting all the time making his own way financially while working at a skill. Paul protests his innocence. Didn’t he conduct his life with scrupulous honesty?
While Paul has been defending himself, and his ministry, he argues that he is really making a case to God. He also argues that all he has done and continues to do is for the benefit of the Corinthian community, for building them up. Are they being built up, or is the result of their listening to these other teachers “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, disorder”? Have they been led astray into “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness”? These lists are somewhat rhetorical, but the point Paul is making is that the Corinthians need to look at their lives and the results of the work of these other teachers.
II Corinthians 13
II Corinthians 13:1-10: Paul apparently has already visited twice and admonished some in the church for their behavior. Some accuse Paul of being too gentle, and here he assures them that when he visits again if things have not improved, he will not be lenient. Paul invites them to remember that Christ is powerful in their lives. Paul seems to be playing with words – Christ was raised by the power of God and he will be powerful in correcting Corinthian Christians when he arrives, as “powerful” as he needs to be to build them back up.
Paul calls the community back to faith. However they may have strayed, Christ remains in them, and all they need to do is pay attention to that. When they rediscover the Christ in their community, they will also know that Paul has not failed them in his ministry to them. If he has failed in any way, been weak in any way, it has only been for the benefit of the church. Paul prays that they may become perfect – “that it will all come together in your lives” (The Message).
Paul ends his letter with words of encouragement. “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” For Paul the God of love and peace lives among them especially as they live in love and peace. The letter concludes with familiar words of blessing. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The Message: “The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.” May it be so with you!