If the apostle Paul were to sum up today's rather dense second reading, I think he could simply say: "I'm not going to tell you what I'm talking about." This passage is frustrating—if not a bit infuriating—to read, because Paul is so vague about two main things: first, the details of what sounds like an extraordinary spiritual experience; and second, the precise nature of what he calls the thorn in his flesh.
Now, Paul says he "knows a person" who had this spiritual experience, but many commentators agree that Paul is referring to himself. According to this account, God somehow whisked Paul away to the third level of heaven, or Paradise. There, Paul could enjoy a fuller vision of God and hear direct communication from God, which he couldn't bring back to earth. Some descriptions of this experience include the words "ecstatic," "extrasensory," and "esoteric." Part of me really wants to hear more about what such a close encounter with God can be like, and about what God whispers that human language simply can't capture or share. But Paul doesn't elaborate.
Similarly, Paul doesn't let us in on the details of the thorn in his flesh. We don't know if it's something physical, like a chronic illness, or if it's something psychological or spiritual, or if, as some have argued, the thorn refers to Paul's external enemies—perhaps especially his opponents within the church. Part of me really wants to know more about what this thorn is, what struggle Paul decided to accept and endure for the rest of his life. It might help and encourage us all to know that even Paul lived with personal challenges or enemies that resemble the irritants or impairments in our own lives. But Paul keeps his own thorn imprecise and private.
Well, if Paul isn't going to tell us what he's talking about, what is this passage really trying to tell us? To find out, it helps to look at the wider context. Today's reading comes from a larger section in which Paul expresses his frustration with the Corinthians for the way that they boast. So, Paul decides to beat the Corinthians at their own game of boasting. But while Paul begrudgingly plays their game, he doesn't want people in the beloved community to play that way ourselves.
We're probably already familiar from own lives with some rules of the game of boasting that the Corinthian church members seem to play. It sounds like they boasted about three main things: their ethnic identity, their achievements in ministry, and their experience of visions and revelations. In the larger section of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes on each of these grounds for boasting in the Christian community, objecting to them all.
Paul starts by pointing out that he is just as Jewish as the Corinthian leaders are—by language, by national identity, and by pedigree. Paul writes, "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I" (2 Cor 11:22). Paul doesn't think his ethnic identity is a worthy reason to boast—but he's sure not going to let other people get away with boasting on these grounds. He descends to the level of his enemies to beat the Corinthians at their own game of boasting.
Another reason the Corinthians boast is because of their achievements in ministry. Perhaps the various ministers have track-records of accumulating dozens of converts; perhaps attendance at worship keeps growing; perhaps they keep logging more miracles and healings. Perhaps they keep racking up credentials, awards, titles, or skills. To this tendency to boast based on achievements, Paul offers another way of measuring success. Paul asks, "Are they ministers of Christ?" And he answers his own question, "I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings." Paul keeps track of his ministry record not in terms of conversions, church growth, or wondrous deeds, but in terms of sufferings. At the time of this letter, Paul's ministry record is up to 45 lashings, 3 beatings with rods, 1 stoning, 3 shipwrecks, etc. Paul keeps track of the times that his ministry landed him in prison, provoked hostility, and got him lost or stuck. When it comes to boasting of labors in ministry, Paul beats the Corinthians at their own game.
Finally, we come to today's passage. A major reason that the Corinthians boast is because of their seemingly special, privileged revelations, visions, and spiritual experiences. They seem to believe that their direct, personal encounters with the divine are proof of their authority within their church community. Revelations, visions, and spiritual experiences are what make them superior to others. Paul, however, doesn't agree that such experiences prove anyone's superiority. Nevertheless, he confirms that he himself had such an encounter with the divine fourteen years ago—probably midway between his dramatic conversion and his planting of the church in Corinth. He was swept up to Paradise for a vision and private speech from God. Paul can beat the Corinthians at this game.
But then, Paul decides to stop playing. Instead, Paul tells us that he will refrain from boasting anymore—as he puts it, "so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me." Paul wants simply to be seen and heard, not to be valued and respected for his ethnic identity, for his ministry accomplishments, or for his intense relationship with God and the risen Christ. Paul asks this community to see him and hear him as he is, not through the many grounds that he could boast on if he really wanted to.
Just before this passage, Paul said, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (11:30). So many spheres of our lives tempt us to boast from or simply cling to the same things that the Corinthian Christians valued: parts of our identities—especially those that attach us to special groups; achievements and credentials that make us most proud; or even our encounters with the divine or our experiences of spiritual rebirth. Paul tells us that the Christian community is no place for feeling superior because of group identities, feats of ministry, or seemingly advanced spiritual experiences. Rather, the Christian community is a place for us to be seen and heard as we are, and known in our weaknesses and struggles.
Paul plays the game of boasting simply to show us how empty and absurd it is. And, in some times and places, we may find ourselves playing the game too. But we know the game for what it is: a way to feel connected in a community, a way to get a promotion at work, a way to transcend this world's limits through spiritual experiences. But how much better it is, Paul claims, to simply be seen and heard and known, here and now, as we are, thorns and all.