2:55 PM 7/5/2015 — Normally, on a Sunday, I choose to speak to you about the lesson from the Gospel; but, today I'd like to do something different, and talk to you about today's second lesson, which is taken from chapter twelve of the Blessed Apostle Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The Missal only gives us four verses of it to read; but, in order to understand it properly, it needs to be placed in context.
He begins the chapter by telling about all the revelations and visions he has received; and, if, when you get home today, you were to crack open your Bible and look at this chapter, it would probably seem bizarre at first reading, unless you understand that this is very much a letter written in anger. Paul’s authority as an Apostle has been challenged in Corinth; and, in the verse which ends today's reading he tells the Corinthians that he’s used to persecution for the sake of Christ, which is a very stinging thing to say to fellow Christians. He even describes, in the previous chapter, how he’s endured persecutions far worse than what the Corinthians have dished out, describing how he escaped from the King of Damascus by being lowered down in a basket through a hole in the city walls, almost as if to say, “I’ve cracked tougher nuts than you.”
The sarcasm of this letter would be amusing were it not for the fact that Paul is insulting the Corinthians in a very vicious and painful way. Paul started the Church in Corinth during his first missionary journey; but, having moved on, he was followed by other Christians who claimed that Paul wasn’t a real Apostle because he wasn’t one of the twelve in the company of Our Lord. They then began to replace the true faith that he taught them with a more Jewish oriented version of Christianity that maintained all the Jewish rituals and dietary laws. In fact, throughout many of Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament we see him returning again and again to this tension that existed in the early Church between the original Jewish Christians and the Gentiles converted to Christ by Paul. So he sets out in this Epistle to defend his credentials as an Apostles, and insults the Corinthians by comparing the resistance they’ve shown him to the persecutions he suffered at the hands of a pagan king. It’s twisting the knife just a bit, but justified in his mind since, as he tells us later on in the Epistle, this will be the third time he’s had to go back there and straighten them out, taking him away from efforts better spent converting people in new cities.
And because he regards their resistance to him a personal insult in itself, he gets very personal in this letter, and speaks about what he calls his “visions and revelations of the Lord” (12: 1), since they represent the personal contact with our Lord that he believes qualifies him as an Apostle; but, he does so in the third person, as if speaking about someone else, in an almost sarcastic sham of humility. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago …” (v. 2), blah, blah, blah …. He’s talking about himself.
Now, I’m not going to parse the vision he describes—he doesn’t bother to interpret it himself in the letter—and there’s no need to try to pull the veil back from it any more than he does himself. He’s mentioning it only because his opponents have come into town telling everyone what great and eminent Apostles they are and how they have had all these visions and mystical experiences that make them great Apostles, not unlike the folks who pop up in the Church from time to time, claiming to have received these locutions or those visions, hoping to get us to chase after them and embrace some new devotion; so, he counters this by speaking of his own mystical experiences in the third person, alluding to the fact that a true Apostle of Jesus Christ speaks about Christ, not about himself:
It would not be vanity [he says], if I had a mind to boast about such a man as that [speaking of himself]; I should only be telling the truth. But I will spare you the telling of it; I have no mind that anybody should think of me except as he sees me, as he hears me talking to him (2 Cor. 12: 6 Knox).
He would later say the same thing to the Galatians in a much more familiar passage: “… God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” The true man of God rarely speaks about himself: he speaks only of our Lord. Or, as St. John the Baptist said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
These false teachers who have blown into town undoing everything Paul has accomplished claim to be Apostles because of their own greatness. Paul, on the other hand, claims to be an Apostle for the opposite reason: because he is nothing, and everything that he has accomplished has been done through Christ in spite of Paul’s own weaknesses. And to emphasize the point, he speaks of his own “thorn in the flesh,” some kind of perpetual and chronic suffering that he has begged the Lord to take from him, to no avail. And exactly what this “thorn in the flesh” is has vexed Christians for centuries. He doesn’t identify it for us. It could be a physical illness, or a specific temptation that he is forced to constantly resist, or it could be the false teachers who are always following him around and undoing all of his missionary work. We don’t know what it is, but we don’t have to in order to understand the most important point of all:
Three times [he says] I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Cor. 12: 8-9 NABRE).
What makes Paul a great Apostle is not all the wonderful things he has done, but rather the fact that he, Paul, has done nothing, and everything that has been accomplished has been done by Christ using him, Paul, as nothing more than a docile instrument. Sixteen hundred years later, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, would make this idea the theme of his entire life, expressed in his most famous prayer, and I remember it because my own father, knowing that death was near, directed that it be printed on his funeral holy card:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me. I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.
What’s important for us to remember, I think, is that living the Christian life in the challenging world of today is a struggle only if we choose to see it as one. For St. Paul, St. Ignatius, and for countless others down through the centuries, living the Gospel was never a matter of will power or heroic resistance in the face of temptation; it was a matter of surrender. We become nothing so that Christ can become everything. Young people striving to live a chaste life, rich people striving to live a charitable life, poor people striving to live an in-envious life, husbands and wives striving to live a loving life, everyone striving to live a Christian life in a very anti-Christian world. How is it done? And the secret is that it is not done by us. As our Lord said to St. Paul:—as he says to all of us—“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”