SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN
III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT, BOSTON
JULY 5, 2015, THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
From St. Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. The voice of God speaking to Paul:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (12:9)
The Church in the city of Corinth, to which Paul the Apostle writes two of his letters, was inordinately interested in what today we might call “spirituality.” Perhaps this was because Corinth was a seaport and an important trading center, to which people from all over the Mediterranean and even further, came to buy and sell. And with their goods they brought also their gods and their sacred mysteries and esoteric beliefs.
Religion was a mess and a mixture in the ancient world. Greece and Rome had their public cults - a pantheon of many gods and the occasional divine Emperor - but this was mostly for show. Some believed in the official religion. Some didn’t. A few people were attracted to Judaism - its faith in one God alone and its strict morality were thought to be noble. Judaism, however, did not seek out converts, and the proselytes we hear about in Scripture are few. Most people at the time were drawn to one or even more of the various cults and teachings and spiritual practices that were part of the religious atmosphere of the ancient world. Gnosticisms, secret knowledge, magic, mysteries, the cult of Mithra - these and others were part of the ancient melting pot of religion, and the pot seems to have been very much on the boil in Corinth.
The Corinthians were fascinated by and seem to have put their trust in “special effects,” spiritual pyrotechnics, so to speak. In no other New Testament church do we see a group of people so obsessed by spirituality. Spirituality . . . for its own sake.
Paul himself founded the Church at Corinth. He knew and loved the people there and he wrote to them as much out of affection as out of alarm. In his first letter he addressed the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Glossalalia. Some Corinthians did this. Others didn’t. And, as happens inevitably in such a situation, those who did looked down upon those who didn’t, and the result was spiritual pride, division, enmity, and suspicion. All things which are exactly the opposite, as Paul points out, of what faith in Jesus Christ is all about. God sent His Son to bring us together, to create unity and peace. A spiritual gift, such as speaking in tongues, is a good thing if it builds up the body. It is bad, even sick, if it tears it down.
Love is the criterion, Paul tells the Corinthians. It is by love that any spirituality should be judged. Together with faith and hope, love is the will of the Father, love is the working of the Spirit, and love is the way of Christ. What is not of love is not spiritual, nor is it Christian.
In the Epistle this morning we heard from Paul as he wrote a second time to the Church at Corinth. It would seem that they have cleaned up their act or, at least, addressed the specific complaints of his first letter. And yet there remains that fascination with “special effects,” and this is the background of the passage which we heard only a few minutes ago. Some people at Corinth had had visions and heard special revelations, and they claimed, just as before, that this gave them a greater authority than others. Some even claimed that it gave them a greater authority, in fact, than that of Paul himself, their founder and their father in God.
When Paul addresses this problem, authority itself is not his interest. It never is. For Paul authority, like spirituality, is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and he points out that as far as visions and revelations are concerned, he’s had plenty. His attitude is facetious. The man he speaks about - “the one caught up to Paradise, to the third heaven, who heard things that cannot be told” - that man is Paul himself. If such things confer authority, he tells the Corinthians, then the authority is his. But they don’t. The authority of a Christian is not something secret and mysterious, not an elation or a spiritual high, rather it is the grace and power of Christ at work, active in a Christian’s life. Spirituality is a side-effect - almost beside the point - and this is the reason Paul makes a statement which is startling and changes the focus of his argument completely. “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9), for it is there in one’s weakness, in one’s incapacity, in one’s powerlessness that the power and grace of Christ are truly known. There - not in some “spiritual” elation - but there in the living of life.
Paul mentions one of his weaknesses. He calls it a “thorn given me in the flesh,” and over the centuries there has been much speculation as to just what this thorn (or “stake” in another translation), just what this was. This is not important, and it is none of our business. Paul mentions it only to show how God deals with it - not by taking it away, for which he had prayed - but by giving him the power and the grace to live with it and overcome it. Christ’s power is made known in the living of life. Paul’s weakness is an occasion for God’s strength.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness … For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Good brothers and sisters, this was the truth for Paul, and it is equally the truth for you and for me.
Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (I Cor. 15:57)