“2 I 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.3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.6 But 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, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep[a] 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.[b] 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] 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. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
-2 Corinthians 12: 2-10
2 Corinthians 12: 2-10
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
July 5, 2015
You must be 54 inches tall to enjoy this ride. That is what the sign says as you wait in line for the Tempesto. It is the newest roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Virginia. We will be there next week for vacation, and Phil measures the kids every couple of days to see if they can go on it with him. On the Tempesto, you ride in a rail car that swoops you over 15 stories straight up into the air and, just before you crest over the top, you fall all the way back to earth, backwards. Then it glides into the air again until it crashes you over the top into twists and turns and loop-de-loops at over 60 miles an hour. The whole hair-raising experience lasts less than a minute. The Tempesto: you must be 54 inches tall to enjoy this ride. Or a fool.
Most of us know this passage from the Corinthian letter, or, at least, we know the part about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. But did you realize he is describing his own Tempesto? He writes that, one time, he was caught up into the third heaven, Paradise itself. He doesn’t want to boast too much so he tells us this in the classic way of, “I once had a friend, let’s call him Gaul” but, as he continues, it is clear that he is talking about himself. In the little he says about it, it must have been amazing; an experience so heady and elevated that he cannot even repeat what he heard there. Just after this high-flying experience, Paul experienced something that kept him from “being too elated,” literally, “from being too up in the air.”
And that experience is his infamous thorn in the flesh. For centuries we have conjectured what this thorn was. Was it the threats from his enemies or was it blindness? Was it sexual temptation or the effects of malaria? All these and more have been guessed and that is just what they are: guesses. We will never know what it was, but it seems clear that the Corinthians knew because he references it as if it is common knowledge. What we do know is that Paul experienced something so amazing that he was in heaven’s clouds and then this thorn sent him crashing back to earth again. His life’s Tempesto.
We have probably experienced that moment ourselves. Our lives have offered us some amazing views from the top and yet there is that painful thing that keeps us sliding back to ground level. Perhaps, like Paul, we have even prayed for it to be taken from us, this thing that keeps us from cresting over the top. It is terribly difficult to live with the thorns we have, when what we really want is to race from strength to strength, not deal with this continuing weakness.
That is how it has been in our country for the last few months. We celebrated our nation last night with fireworks and friends and we rightly should. We live in one of the greatest countries the world has ever known. Of course we know we are great in power and in wealth but we are great in so many other important ways as well. The obvious one is that we have shown the world that democracy is not just an experiment but that it can survive and thrive. But think of the ways that don’t make the evening news. For example, did you also know that Americans are the biggest givers in the world? It’s true. We as individuals give more away, locally, nationally and around the world, more than any other people. We truly are a great country.
Sadly, these last few months we have been forced back to earth with the news stories of racial attacks and even the burning of black churches. Can you imagine, in 2015, the burning of black churches? We watch and listen and we slide back to earth. For race relations are our countries’ thorn and that swing from heaven back to earth is our Tempesto.
There is a surprise here. When Paul experiences his stomach churning fall from the heights, he comes to realize that he is proudest, not of his heavenly experience, but he is proudest of his thorn. He writes, regarding the visit to heaven, “I will not boast…but I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” Why will he boast of his weakness? Two reasons. The first was this: his weakness put his life into perspective. It was only because of his thorn that he realized he had done nothing to deserve heaven just as he had done nothing to deserve the thorn. At the end of the day, he could not pat himself on the back congratulating himself on being so amazing, but neither could he castigate himself for being a waste of space. The elation of being caught up and the pain of the thorn, they were both just part of the ride he was on. And he was not in charge. God was.
And,second, his weakness forced him to rely on Christ and, because of that, his weakness made him strong. Because there were both these incredible mind-blowing highs and these heart-sinking lows, he became more aware than ever that he was not alone. Instead, something was holding him fast on this bumpy ride. It was Christ who kept him secure. Paul decided if he only experienced visions and elation, he would never have known he needed Christ’s care. It was his weakness that showed him who was really holding him. Because of all of this, Paul says he stopped praying for his thorn to be removed and he started boasting about it instead.
The Tempesto: these amazing highs and terrible lows of life. Can we get to the place Paul found? Can we be grateful for the lows of the thorn and, even more than that, can we find our strength there? Consider what it would mean for our life, for even the life of our country, if we heralded our thorns, certain that Christ was using our greatest weakness to make us strong. For that is exactly what he will do if we let him. In this Tempesto of a life, in the middle of the highs and lows, we get the privilege of knowing we are not in charge. And that is a very good thing. For we cannot run this ride. Only Christ can. It is gospel news that he is in control of it, and he can make even our weakness, in his name, become our greatest strength. Amen.