sermon for 5 July 15 (2Corinthians12:2-10; Mark6:1-13)
I may not be much, but today that’s all you get.
I mean, I could have more insight or experience. It might be helpful if I had funnier stories or connected this more directly to your life. You may wish I had a nice deep baritone voice or was more suave and eloquent. You’ve got reason to be frustrated that I’m not more spiritual, that my faith may seem like a dry confidence, that I won’t suffer saccharine schmaltz. Maybe even if I could just get to the point and not be so complicated!
Which is all to say, again, that I’m not great, but really I’m not the point.
This is the situation for the Corinthian congregation, too, though Paul’s diatribe about it is played from the opposite direction. He says he’s bolstering his credentials in foolish farce. From that angle, I could also assert that I’m pretty smart about this stuff and study it hard, that I pray about my sermons, that I’m really careful on my words. I’m dedicated to you and refuse to play favorites because I’m utterly passionate about connecting all of your lives to Jesus and the big picture of God’s kingdom, so dedicated to it that for your sake I sacrifice other opportunities and possibilities, even interrupt my own selfishness and the good of my family to keep at this work. I wake up in the middle of the night concerned about you. Besides that, there’s the detail that genealogists in my family say there’ve been Lutheran pastors in every generation since Martin Luther. I could lay those credentials in front of you. But, with Paul, I agree that a pile of foolishness, a heap of malarkey, that really those credentials don’t amount to a hill of beans.
The situation in Corinth two millennia ago seems to have been that some so-called “super-apostles” showed up and began distracting the congregation from God. With self-commendation, they claimed to be more rigorous, more elite, holier. They used the fanciest rhetoric, and in delivering this allegedly fancier product thought they deserved a richer paycheck. In this boastfulness, they poo-pooed not only Paul but his preaching, the very God he was proclaiming. They claimed that he was weak compared to their own super-apostle-ness.
(That name “super-apostles,” by the way, gives an interesting parallel for today. We’re distracted by superheroes, not only in summer blockbusters but as such a constant part of our culture. We’re fed this image that even regular heroes aren’t good enough, that to rescue us, we need superheroes. At some point, that’s got to give us the impression that the problems are too big for us to confront, that we ourselves are too weak to resolve the dangers facing society and we need somebody better to swoop in to save us.)
So against the claim that he’s inferior to the super-apostles, Paul goes into a long list. He says that if he needed credentials, if it were important to judge by human standards, he’d have those guys whipped. Today’s reading has spiritual stuff with heavenly visions and maybe an out-of-body experience. Earlier he describes his heritage and quintessential Jewish ancestry.
Another mark of success in ancient culture was mastering adversity. (That, too, might parallel the battles our superheroes have won and the villains they’ve overcome.) Again, Paul says his list takes the cake:
“with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once…a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked;…I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (11:23-28)
Yet none of that list is what qualifies him to be a minister, to preach to them.
What qualifies a preacher is Jesus himself. Except even that needs some clarification. It’s not that Jesus appeared to me in a dream or put it on my heart or any of that. That would still be to claim the authority for myself.
That proximity is one of the sticking points for us. We think of those disciples sent by Jesus in the gospel reading, as if he gave them special powers or a lesson, or as if they had extra insight from being so close to Jesus. We’re apt to think of it like a game of telephone, where the message gets tainted. We don’t want an intermediary. We don’t even really want Jesus, imagining that God somehow will show up to speak directly to you.
But the point of all of this is that God _is_ showing up to speak directly to you, but today that voice sounds like mine. Christ is speaking in me to build you up. It doesn’t take super-apostles. In another letter Paul says that any different message, even if delivered by an angel from heaven, would be a cursed lie. You get me.
And this is God’s message for you: that in Christ you have been set free from those strivings by human standards. The false hierarchies set up to make some ready to boast and others feel excluded, those distractions and errors and jealousies and gossip and quarreling, all of that is forgiven, and just plain ended. Done. Over. You are a new creation in Christ. That is the message. It’s a message we cling to especially when we know we need it—when we’re weak or hurting or oppressed, certainly when we’re dead. The message, though, is harder to sink in when you think you’re doing fine on your own and that your credentials measure up pretty good.
You belong to Christ and in him you are set free. In his grace you are secure, and in him is where your confidence can rest. The bad news is the rest doesn’t matter. Worse is that you have to hear it from the likes of me, and that’s all the message I have. The good news is that’s all you need.