July 8, 2018

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year B

I Could If I Wanted To, But I Won’t

I know a person who stayed up late on a Saturday night to make four dozen homemade cupcakes for her daughter’s fourth birthday party. This person iced a two-toned rose, using pink and purple icing, onto each cupcake. Then she got up early the next day, preached a sermon at two church services, came home to host the birthday party, and still finished all the family laundry that night.

On behalf of someone like that, I would boast. I won’t boast on my own behalf. Now, if I wanted to boast about really rocking it a few weekends ago, I could. But, I’m not going to. I don’t want anyone here to think any better about me than they should.

That was an attempt at my own version of what the apostle Paul does in today’s second reading. That is, Paul tries to convey his humility by telling us what he’s not going to boast about, but could boast about if he wanted to. He starts by speaking in the third person: “I know a person,” he says, who “was caught up to the third heaven.” This person was mysteriously transported to Paradise, where they heard things no mortal could repeat.

Readers often suspect that Paul is referring to himself here. Paul writes that he wouldn’t use experiences like this to boast on his own behalf. But then Paul almost can’t resist adding, “But if I wish to boast . . . I will be speaking the truth.” (In other words, if I wanted to boast about this experience, or one similar to it, I could.) Paul explains that he’ll refrain from boasting—even though he has grounds for boasting—because he doesn’t want anyone to think too highly of him. (They really would think too highly of him, because the revelations, he tells us, really were that exceptional!)

Now, this passage from Second Corinthians is definitely tricky, but the gist seems to be that Paul has had some ecstatic encounter with God, and some extraordinary insight into divine mysteries. But, he doesn’t want to boast about them, because he wants to be different from teachers who do boast about the exceptional visions and revelations they’ve had. Paul wants to “boast” instead about his weaknesses and hardships. The problem is that he can’t show us that he’s not boasting about these experiences unless he tells us that he’s had these experiences, which can come across like boasting.

Paul deals with a similar dilemma in other passages to the Corinthians. When he advises the Corinthians on whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul admits he has the advanced knowledge that no idol represents a god who actually exists. So, eating food sacrificed to an idol is perfectly fine, part of the liberty given to those who know there’s only one God, one Lord. But, Paul says, exercising this liberty might damage the faith of so-called “weak believers” (1 Cor 8:11). Therefore, Paul says people should keep this superior knowledge to themselves and just not eat meat sacrificed to idols. Funny thing is, he just told us he really does have the superior knowledge he acts like he doesn’t have.

Similarly, when Paul encourages the Corinthians to value intelligible teaching above speaking in tongues, he just happens to mention, “I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor 14:18). Paul prefers that people speak intelligible words, words of encouragement and consolation, than speak in tongues, uttering sounds no one understands. As Paul puts it, “Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves” (1 Cor 14:4), whereas those who speak with intelligible words build up the gathered community. But maybe to convince the Corinthians that he’s not just jealous of spiritual gifts he doesn’t have, Paul mentions the fact that he speaks in tongues more than any of them.

In his letters to the Corinthians, it seems like Paul really wants us to know that he chooses to speak words that encourage and console us, rather than showing off his gift for tongues. Paul wants us to know that he’ll meet us wherever we are in our faith, rather than lording his superior knowledge over us. Paul wants us to know that he simply wants to be seen and heard as a human being, rather than admired for his vision in Paradise, or for mysteries unsuited to mortal ears that were revealed to him.

But to communciate all of this, Paul has to admit that he can best anyone at speaking in tongues, that he knows something many early Christians did not, that he’s experienced visions and revelations well beyond our sphere.

To let us know he boasts only of his weakness, Paul has to let us know what he chooses not to boast about. In practice, though, I’m not completely sure Paul avoids boasting.

I have my own struggle with an intractable type of arrogance: I admit, I can host a birthday party with homemade cupcakes, preach a sermon, and get the house clean all in one weekend. But, I’ll mostly feel bad about all the things I didn’t get done. I’m apparently incapable of making a daily to-do list that I’m actually capable of completing. I find it very hard to be honest about my own limits. This summer I’ve been trying, just as an experiment, to make to-do lists that are manageable with a day’s work. I’ve tried cutting the lists to ten items, to eight, to six. But those six items always include at least one or two things that could probably take a whole day in themselves.

Years ago I had a roommate who observed the Sabbath rigorously. One Lent, I joined her in this practice. On those peaceful Saturdays, I remember thinking, “Wow, God has given me enough time to do everything God truly invites me to do.” But then, of course, I went back to my prideful ways, insisting I had time for so much more. I see this addiction to outsized to-do lists as a rebellion against the God who has given me enough. So far, this tendency to pile task upon task has been a lifelong struggle, with some occasional breakthroughs.

I believe that Paul models for us the very real and constant struggle to rely on a God who is sufficient for us. Paul may have wrestled with the need to boast, to prove his credentials, even as he tried not to rely on them. Paul may have wrestled with the need to be admired, even as he wanted just to be humbly known. Paul’s struggle reminds us that sometimes our strengths are our weaknesses, if they lead us away from communion with each other, or from trust in God. But God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

So while Paul has left us a record of his boasts, in the form of things-he’s-totally-not-going-to-boast-about, he shows us how to struggle with our own personal weaknesses and strengths. Even if we don’t win these battles, God’s grace breaks through us as we are seen, and heard, and known.