2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Every year about this time I'm fascinated by a transition in my town that may appear to some as wholly unremarkable. Around the first of May the grocery and hardware stores in Hastings erect small greenhouses and start selling the perennial and annual plants that will adorn our yards throughout the summer. This time of year it's a mad scramble because our window for planting is so short, given that we have only two seasons in Nebraska, winter and summer. By mid-June the prices on all the petunias and leftover tomatoes are slashed, and by the end of the month these very plants, now dry and forsaken, are packed up and moved away. And soon, within a matter of days, there's a new game in town: fireworks. The earlier obsession with emerging life now gives way to an infatuation with the very things that take it away.
As you can probably guess, I am not a big fan of the Fourth of July, not because I am unpatriotic – a claim that could probably be leveled against me with some fairness – but because I have never enjoyed as entertainment what in most parts of the world is a source of sheer terror and dread: exploding bombs in the sky, and their scaled-down versions in the streets and back alleys of our towns. Even as I write, the Black Cats are popping and bottle rockets are screeching, disrupting the quiet of a mild summer evening.
Yes, you can call me an old grump, but I think my frustration is warranted. I do not doubt that the teen-aged boys on my block could spew forth some talk-radio litany about freedom and independence if asked what all the commotion is about, but the truth of the matter is that they couldn't care less. They are simply fascinated, in their testosterone-driven way, with these things that go boom.
As I read our epistle lesson for this week, I cannot help but think that Paul experienced a similar frustration with the people of Corinth, those for whom he had recently been a shepherd on the narrow path of the Christian faith. Though he had tried his best in his previous letter to impress upon these believers the virtues of humility and servanthood, time and again he was beset by the same old problem: their fascination, borne of an incomplete break with the mystery religions of their past, with so many things that go boom. One of Paul's objectives in writing this second missive is to try to direct the Corinthians' attention away from so much that glitters and beguiles, and to encourage them to think faithfully, in the manner of Christ.
We saw earlier in this epistle that Paul chooses to shy away from an authoritarian approach in his communication, and it is certain that this is less a rhetorical strategy than an attempt to embody his own sound theology. Paul was an apostle of the divine Son who emptied himself and took on the form of a slave (Phil. 2:8). It would therefore be entirely out of character for him to lord his knowledge over this fragile flock, compelling them to listen and to obey his words. Nevertheless, this approach is precisely what seems to have persuaded the Corinthian church, in Paul's absence, to heed unfamiliar voices and reconsider his legitimacy as a true apostle of the Lord.
The problem lies primarily with the delegation that had been sent from Jerusalem to take over the leadership of this fledgling congregation and to discredit the one whose labor in the Spirit was responsible for their existence. To bolster their authority, these men brought with them a signed and sealed letter from the mother church validating their legitimacy as true apostles who had known Jesus "according to the flesh." But the Corinthians, it appears, were not so easily swayed by an elaborate missive from parts unknown – they wanted proof, and in a form that would impress them most. What about spiritual gifts? Have you had visions? Though Paul had tried from the start to mitigate this infatuation with the fantastic, the men and women of this congregation seem to have been incapable of rising above their perennial weakness. Can you give us something that goes boom?
So in writing this second letter, the Apostle is caught on the horns of a dilemma: how to model the humility of Christ while at the same time "boasting" of his own legitimacy as a visionary, and thus re-establish his authenticity in the hearts and minds of this congregation. His approach is subdued right from the start as he utilizes a common rabbinical device, speaking of himself in the third person. The Gnostic leanings of the Corinthians are perhaps reflected in the great care he takes in avoiding any specifics about his mystical experience: it is not clear whether he was taken up to "the third heaven" in his body or out of it, the latter being the only legitimate means of rapture among most Gnostics. What matters most, however, is that the Corinthians come to realize that such extraordinary ecstasies cannot – must not – be regarded as ends in themselves, for to do so would mean eclipsing the true, though paradoxical, power of Christ.
Again, I cannot help but think that Paul has the Christological hymn of Philippians 2 in mind as he writes, but in this instance he is using it as an ethical model for himself. Just as Christ became weak, emptied himself of the "third heaven" that is equality with God, so must Paul – or anyone else so inclined – also resist the temptation to rest securely in the elation of his vision. Unlike those of the Jerusalem delegation who cajole the Corinthians with accounts of their mystical experiences, Paul can boast only in his weakness – that is, only in Christ, the slave, in whose life, death, and resurrection he has found his truest vocation. Unless one's rapture in the third heaven can become incarnate, can become enfleshed, even amidst the thorns, then it is not worthy of the Son of God.
This spiritual weakness, Paul wants to say, is the most impressive boom of all.
I do not want to give the impression that Hastings, Nebraska, is brimming with empty-headed revelers who are content only to chase after the next cheap thrill. On the contrary, I have found here some of the finest examples of Christ-like weakness and humility that I have seen anywhere in the country. I am thinking especially of my experience just this past weekend at our annual Flatwater Folk Festival, an event that has come to represent for me the best that my town has to offer.
Anyone familiar with summer music festivals knows that their perceived success depends upon a stellar lineup of musicians, all polished and practiced in presenting a flawless performance to those who have paid their hard-earned dollars to come and hear them. That is how most of these events tend to go. I am happy to say, however, that I saw very little of this last weekend. Indeed, what made my experience so positive was the consistency with which our local performers – all very accomplished in their own right – insisted on sharing the stage with their struggling students, those who were just one or two years into learning the guitar or banjo. The local heroes, in other words, considered it a part of their responsibility as mentors to embody, to make incarnate, their sustainable vision of an inclusive community.
It occurred to me as I watched and listened just how uncommon this really was, especially among musicians who tend not to enjoy sharing the limelight with anyone, students or otherwise. But there it was, what I considered to be a kind of earthly vision, an example of human beings setting aside their own selfish inclinations toward shining alone to look out after the needs of others. It was, in other words, an instance of vulnerability made manifest for the world to see, and hear, thorns and all.
From a worldly perspective, the music was very good, but short of spectacular. There were some who sang just a little off-key, and others who knit their brow to make sure the tune came off just as they practiced it. The performers would not have received rave reviews in any of the big-city newspapers. But what we all experienced that afternoon transcended mere entertainment, for we were blessed to listen to these choirs of dusty angels relating their own versions of Paul's third heaven, and all from a make-shift stage poised between two old barns amid the cornfields of Nebraska. We heard the sound of community then and beheld in its sublime imperfection an earthly vision of a little-known but all-too-accessible spiritual truth: that in weakness – in vulnerability, selflessness, in sharing one's passion freely with another – lies the key to discerning the inscrutable power of God.
And that makes a big enough boom for me.
Of Related Interest
1. For more information on the annual Flatwater Folk Festival visit the Prairie Loft Center website.
2. "Recycled art" (photo 2) is the work of local artist Sally Buss.
3. Festival photos courtesy of local artist/artisan and trusted friend, Jack Sandeen.