A Sermon for Sexagesima
Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday
2 Corinthians 11:19-31
by William Klock
A few minutes ago we sang a hymn—one of my favourites, and one that speaks to our lessons this morning:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
'twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
as thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
for thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
always thou lovedst me.
A few years ago I quoted this hymn in another sermon. I wanted to acknowledge the author, but couldn’t remember who it was, so I looked it up in the hymnal. Ah! That’s why I didn’t remember the author—it’s attributed to “Anonymous”. And yet, it’s fitting that these words be anonymous. They were written by a humble soul who knew that everything that makes us good Christians, good followers of Christ, and even what brings us to Christ in the first place is not anything within us. The only reason we came to faith in Christ was because God drew us to himself and the only reason we continue in Christ and bear good fruit in our works is because his Holy Spirit has grafted us into Christ, who gives us our life and vitality, enabling us to live as new men and women. As Christians we’ve accomplished nothing we can truly call our own; the credit for it all goes to our gracious God.
Our collect reminds us too that we should thank God for our blessings when we so often want to pat ourselves on the back. We prayed earlier: “Lord God, you know that we do not put our trust in anything we do: mercifully defend us by your power against all adversity…” Every once in a while we need a reminder that anything good that we see in ourselves comes from God—we can’t be good on our own. In Galatians 2:20 St. Paul wrote:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Think back to last week’s lessons. They reminded us to fight the good fight, to run the good race, and to labour on for God. The problem, though, is that when we see we’re ahead of the pack in the race, when we land that knock-out punch in sin’s face, and when we see the full harvest bins after our long day of work in God’s fields, we all too often start to feel a bit too confident in ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back. We congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We start feeling pretty good about ourselves. We’re like those workers who laboured all day and then resented that the men who worked for only an hour and were paid the same denarius that they were. We forget that our good works are not our own. We forget that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” and we start taking credit for the things we’ve done as if we’d done them on our own. We might even start thinking that God or our Christian brothers and sisters owe us something. That’s when we need the reminder found in our lessons today: the reminder that the Church is not built on our strength, but is built on the strength of Christ working through weak and sinful people. If we remember that and if we understand it, we truly understand the Grace of God. We need the reminder that we’re not supposed to trust in anything we do. In fact, it reinforces our humility so that we can say with Paul, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
In our Epistle lesson, St. Paul shows us his example of what it means to do everything for Christ while not trusting in ourselves. He shows us in practice exactly what we prayed in the collect.
In his second letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul had to address them in regard to false apostles who were deceiving the church there and undermining the teachings that he’d given them. In order to one-up the true apostle, these men were going around the church boasting about their credentials. St. Paul warns the Corinthians against parading around their credentials—that’s not what the Gospel is about. But St. Paul needs to show them how the Gospel can beat the false apostles at their own game. He takes an almost sarcastic tone with these people. Look at verses 19-21a:
For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
When Paul had been at Corinth, he’d taught the people to value meekness and love, but now these false apostles are there and instead teaching the people to value pride and self-righteousness. Paul had come as a humble and Christ-like servant. These teachers have come to fleece the people and to make slaves of them so that they can advance themselves—and then they point to their achievements as evidence of their godliness. It appears that they even bad-mouthed Paul—pointing to him as an example of weakness, because he wasn’t as successful or boastful as they were and because he valued humility instead of pride.
I’m reminded of the purveyors of prosperity teaching who think they have to drive around in a BMW as a sign of their spirituality, despite the fact that their worldly prosperity has been gained at the expense of the sheep in their care. I’m reminded of a pastor in the town were I went to University who taught his congregation that devotion to Jesus meant first and foremost devotion to him, their pastor. The people in his church were like his slaves: volunteering to clean his house and cook his meals. On Saturday morning all the students would be there mowing his lawn and washing his cars.
So Paul’s steps in and says, “Indulge me, folks. I know you don’t believe me that those who boast in themselves are fools, so let me prove my point.” The fact is that Paul could beat these false preachers at their own game. So Paul reluctantly counters this with his own story—notbecause he wants to boast, but because he has to stand up for what’s right. Basically the false apostles are saying that Paul’s a spiritual wimp. He has to respond even though he doesn’t want to. But be careful. I think we have a tendency to respond like St. Paul does, but we tend to do it out of pride. Think about it; if Paul thought that to assert himself this way was prideful, how much more prideful is it for us. I don’t think that any of us can even come close to Paul’s experiences! When our Christian gentleness is taken for weakness, when our self-control is taken for indifference, and when our humility is taken for inferiority, it just might be time for us to defend ourselves like St. Paul does, but notice that he’s not asserting himself—he’s asserting his God-given office. Look at his response:
To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (11:21-29)
Here’s the Christian race and fight, the labour through the heat of the day that we focused on last week. If anyone had a right to brag about his work for the Kingdom it was St. Paul: five Jewish and three Roman scourging; a stoning; three shipwrecks; the dangers of travel in rough country, danger from robbers, crowded hostile towns, desolate wildernesses, and all sorts of dangerous sea voyages. He denied himself for the sake of the Gospel; he willingly endured weariness and pain; sleeplessness; starvation; voluntary fasting; cold and nakedness; his clothes were worn out and tattered. And on top of all that he’s constantly burdened with the responsibilities of the churches he’s planted and still oversees from a distance. He had a real burden for these people and it made his life difficult.
Paul plays the game of the false teachers and he beats them hands-down. And so then he warns the Corinthians:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. (11:30-31)
All the hardships that he’s endured show that he’s a real apostle who has suffered for his Lord, but now he’s saying that there’s something he can boast of that’s even more important. Those other things could be interpreted as being “works of Paul,” so he says, lets look at the works of God. Let’s not focus on me. Let’s focus on God’s work in my life. So first he tells a humiliating story of how God taught him to be humble:
At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands. (11:32-33)
What a humiliating experience. I think that’s why he uses this account. God used the experience of having to be sneaked out of Damascus in a basket let down from a window to teach Paul a lesson about humility. Maybe he went into Damascus full of himself: “I’m Paul the Great Apostle!” We don’t know if that’s the case, but he left very humbly—and that’s his point: Lest I think of myself too highly and lest I take too much credit for my good works, God always finds ways to remind me that Paul is Paul and God is God.
Then he goes on to tell about one of his visions. The unique thing about being an apostle was that Paul and the other apostles received God’s direct revelations in a special way that no one else then or since has ever experienced. The apostles could speak with full authority, because they spoke for God. And yet they didn’t let their office go to their heads. They remained humble servants of the people. That couldn’t be said of these false apostles in Corinth, who claimed to speak for God, but who were full of pride and fleeced and abused the people. And so Paul reminds them: I’m not an apostle because I deserve to be. God doesn’t speak to me because I’m ‘so awesome’ or because I’m ‘so spiritual’. I’m just a sinful man whom God has graciously chosen to be his servant. He even goes on, saying in verse 7:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (12:7-9)
We’ve all met people who take pride in their God-given gifts, as if somehow God has given them that gift to lord over people or to give them some special status “I’m special! I’m a pastor!” or “I’m special! God speaks to me!” Paul’s attitude about himself in light of his gifts was the opposite, and he’s not too proud to tell them that God even had a way to keep him humble. He describes it as a thorn in his flesh. There’s no way for us to be certain what that thorn in the flesh might have been. In Galatians he talks about what is probably the same thing and there it was something that would have made people scorn and despise him and that delayed his journey. Some interpreters have said that this was a particular sin that he struggled with and I can see how that makes sense. Other interpreters think that this was most likely some kind of physical problem—some say epilepsy, extremely bad eyesight, a speech impediment, or some kind of crippling handicap. Whatever it was we have no way of knowing for certain. What’s important is that it was something that kept Paul from being prideful. It was something that kept him from claiming that all the success he’d seen in preaching the Gospel was his and not God’s doing.
I remember a trumpet player who visited our church when I was in high school. He played for about fifteen minutes on Sunday morning and was really, really good. When he stopped to take a breather he told a little bit of his story and in the course of that story explained that because of an accident he had no feeling in his tongue, but somehow God had enabled him to continue to play the trumpet even though it should have been impossible for him to do the things he did with the instrument. He saw it as his ministry to travel around and help churches in their worship. After his last song—which was exceptionally challenging for any trumpet player, let alone one with no feeling in his tongue—he set his trumpet down and as he walked to his seat simply said, “I wish I could do that.” It was a simple expression to say that his success wasn’t his own; it all belonged to God.
One of my friends in the Diocese of the Southeast told me once about a colleague of his who embarked on a church-planting adventure. He wanted to make sure he wasn't building a personality cult instead of a church, so he decided to start out his work by preaching a lengthy series of sermons through Leviticus—probably the single most potentially uninteresting and boring book in all of Scripture, since it deals almost entirely with the intricacies of the Mosaic Law code. It would be a bit like preaching from a legal textbook. He did it because he wanted to ensure that as he started a new church, God was doing the actual work, not him; he wanted to be sure that the people were hearing God speaking and not himself.
I'm inclined to think that St. Paul probably had a physical problem like that trumpet player had that would have impeded his work in the ministry had it not been for God. He kept praying that God would take it away. I imagine that his prayer went something like this: “God this problem is something bigger than I can handle. It’s painful and I don’t want the pain anymore. It’s humiliating and I don’t want the humiliation anymore. It’s impeding my work for you. If you would only take it away I could do better work for you.” And God responded: “Live in my grace. That’s all you need. People will see me working through you, doing the things you could never do on your own. You’ll be a witness for me to the people you meet.”
Paul brought together that running of the race and fighting the fight that we read about last week with the deepest of humility. If anyone had a right to boast and be prideful it was he. But he wasn’t prideful at all and he wasn’t self-reliant. He trusted in Christ to do everything for him and by him—and Christ did it all. St. Paul did his best, but ultimately it was not he doing it, it was Christ working through him.
Again from our hymn:
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
’twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
as thou, dear Lord, on me.
There’s something very profound in those words. One of the things that troubles me is that as a pastor, I see Christians all the time who live their lives with a lack of confidence—doubting their ability to accomplish the tasks set before them or fearing that they aren’t able to do what they know they need to do. Friends, that’s a trick of the enemy and it’s one of his favourites, because if he can get us to doubt, he can get us to step out of the race and out of the fight an sit on the spiritual sidelines. But if we would only remember that it was not we who reached out to take Christ’s hand, but he who reached out and took ours, we would be able to go about the work of the Kingdom with confidence! I know it runs contrary to worldly wisdom. The world teaches us that success comes as you recognise your own dignity and as you take pride in yourself. But the Gospel reminds us that it’s through humility that we enter the Kingdom—as we trust in Jesus and not in ourselves—and that it’s through humility that we build the Kingdom—again, as God works powerfully through weak and sinful men and women like us. Jesus took your hand in the first place. If you or I had taken his, we could always let go. But that’s not how it works. Jesus took your hand and he took my hand and his grip on us will never fail. The weaker we are, the strong he will be. Brothers and sisters, let that knowledge give you confidence to run the race and fight the fight, trusting not in your power and ability, but wholly in his.
Let us pray:
Our Lord, thank you for the grace and mercy you have shown us. We thank you that you have called us and drawn us to yourself, even when we were dead in our sins and still your enemies. We thank you that through the shed blood of your Son, you have cleansed us and made us a holy people. We ask that you would never let us forget that it is by your blood we have been cleansed and by your power that we live and work. Let us never take pride in ourselves or in our good works. Remind us always that we only live and do good through the life we have in Jesus. We ask this in his name. Amen.