In our family, it’s called “steadfast.” That quality that doesn’t permit one to give up, whether it is an argument over whose turn it is to wash the dishes, or the decision to follow through on a commitment even when it is hurting you. We do not call it stubborn, unless it is in the affectionate but slight critical family phrase, “Stubborn like Grandma.” We use “steadfast.” It makes that quality of stubborn perseverance a virtue, which, in fact, it often is. Steadfast – St Paul was steadfast. And his steadfastness holds him in good stead. It also serves the gospel well.
On the Defense
Paul is on the defense in this passage from 2 Corinthians 11. He is feeling a bit vulnerable because a group of people with whom he worked, prayed and cared for has not defended him from attack. And his vulnerability pops out in being defensive – no big surprise.
He is writing to the church at Corinth, which he has been working with for some time. Since his last visit, other “missionaries,” possibly from Jerusalem, have encroached on what he sees as his territory and some of the church folks have been drawn to their way of thinking. Competing theologies were a real thing in this time, where the churches did not have anything past oral stories of Jesus and the occasional letter from Paul or other missionaries. When the outsiders have disparaged Paul and his teaching, the church didn’t defend him – and he is hurt.
a. Reminder of his work and character. So Paul reminds the church in Corinth of his previous efforts with them, his credentials and even his character through the trails. This was expected in his culture – even if it sounds a bit off to us.
b. Questions his opponents. 1. Motives 2. Behavior And he questions to the motives of his opponents, trying to show that their behavior in inappropriate when all his has done is for the church. (chapters 10-11) “Is THIS for the building up of the church????”
c. Foolishness and weakness. Paul uses the language of foolishness and weakness to defend himself because it works in both a conventional and a surprising way. Consider the role of a fool in history and literature. The fool in the palace was often the freest person in terms of speech. Fools were free from convention – in fact, their role was to hold up a mirror to power to reveal itself more clearly. Fools used a variety of skills to question and sometimes subvert the values or assumptions of their culture.
As Clopin sings in “Topsy Turvey” in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame…”
It's the day the devil in us gets released It's the day we mock the prig and shock the priest Everything is topsy turvy At the Feast of Fools[i]
“Who is weak and I am not weak?” == Paul models how we relate to each other. We are weak and our weakness affects each other in relationship. “We are all sinners.” “We are all fools.” We cannot sit in judgment on each other or stand by when someone else stumbles – or is attacked.
So Paul will name himself as fool – all the better to turn the expectations upside-down. All the better to name all of us as fools. It’s an good – an unexpected defense. It turns the accusers around and stands their arguments on their heads.
II. Paul’s boasting about his own weakness – claiming his foolishness has another function as well. He boasts in his weakness to show that the GOSPEL is powerfully present despite his weakness. It is an undisguised claim of God’s power. GOD’S POWER to deliver (as in Exodus). THIS is why we have a list of his Labors – his trials. They aren’t listed to give him street cred. Unlike the labors of Hercules, these are not stories that show Paul’s strength – they show his weakness and vulnerability and GOD’S POWER to deliver him.
It is quite a list:
-- floggings (Jewish punishment up to 40 lashes: 39 so not to exceed the limit)
-- 3x beaten with rods (Roman punishment, not usual to treat citizens)
--3x shipwrecked with one adrift a night and day
-- journeys with danger: rivers, bandits,
own people/ Gentiles,
in city/in wilderness/ at sea
false brothers and sisters
in toil and hardship, sleepless nights
hungry and thirsty, w/o food
cold and naked
PLUS! Anxiety for all of the churches, hurting when people hurt…
LESSON from PAUL: Bad stuff happens. But God is with us – and God works through it to do good – to love and serve people.
That Paul endures this long series of trials shows that Paul has put God first – put his service of the gospel first – of frankly, the list would be shorter and he would still have been a leader of the early church. But NOTHING on earth deters Paul. His success is entirely due to God’s power at work in a weak and foolish vessel.
And the secret of his perseverance: “Help will always be given to those who ask for it.”[ii] It doesn’t mean that the trails don’t come, that danger is avoided, that total rescue comes in moments of peril. It means that help is given, that perils can be overcome if you place your trust where it belongs.
And from Paul’s story perhaps we can learn a bit. His story can be ours – of God seizing us and empowering us for tasks we never could have imagined! It’s possible! It helps if we can remember that we too are weak, foolish sinners – who DO have resources in times of trial beyond our own when we ask for help from God. These heroic moments are available to us all – moments when God uses us to transform the lives of others. And, imperfect, weak, foolish and sinful though we are – God’s message of love and grace can still be brought through us – if we are willing, steadfast, and will ask for help. May it be so in us. Amen.
[i] Lyrics by Alan Menken in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
[ii] J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore’s words to Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, among others.