July 5, 2015 2 Corinthians 12: 7b-10 Mark 6: 6b-13
Rev. Catherine Purves
It’s ironic, in a way, that these should be the two set texts for this weekend when we are celebrating the Fourth of July. While we have been remembering our Independence Day as a nation, our readings remind us of our dependence upon God. With parades and fireworks we have celebrated our strength and pride, but our readings state quite clearly that weakness and humility are not bad things, since they provide an opportunity for God to work in and through us. So, what are you prepared to celebrate this morning – Independence Day or Dependence Day? Are you able, with Paul, to affirm that God’s grace is sufficient for you?
Perhaps independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard even to suggest that, since independence, self-reliance, and personal strength seem to be imprinted on the DNA of our nation and its people. I know I was raised to be independent, how about you? I was so independent that I left the state and then the country to get my education. I sometimes wonder if my mother regretted raising me to be that independent, since for all of my adult life I lived far away from her. This is what comes along with independence: separation.
And that is the danger of independence when it comes to matters of faith. If you are independent, then you consider yourself free to “do your own thing” spiritually. You might decide to leave one church and join another. Why not? You might even decide to forego the church altogether as an institution, imperfect as it is, and just cobble together your own kind of independent, idiosyncratic kind of faith. Why not? You could cherry-pick your way through the Bible highlighting portions that appeal to you and your lifestyle inclinations. Why not? After all, you are an individual with particular needs and an independent spirit. Declaring religious independence or freedom to worship as you like is an American thing. It is part of our strength, and we’re proud of it. But now we have to try to make sense of our two readings for this Fourth of July weekend and discover the downside of all of this independence.
We know that Paul was an adventurous soul. He was a church planter who traveled all over the Mediterranean world. Paul was headstrong and kind of driven; he certainly had an independent spirit. In our reading from 2nd Corinthians we see how God reined in Paul’s tendency to want to be a self-propelled evangelist. He was given “a thorn in the flesh.” The word that is usually translated “thorn” could also mean “stake” so he is not talking about something like a splinter. It tormented him. No one knows what this “thorn in the flesh” was, though the Corinthians obviously knew, since he didn’t have to spell it out for them. Whatever chronic ailment or handicap he had, Paul says that it kept him from being too elated. It slowed him down. It reminded him of his limitations. And it made him aware of his dependence upon God and others. Though he calls it “a messenger of Satan,” it is obvious that Paul thought that God used it to teach him a powerful lesson about the downside of independence. Three times he prayed that the “thorn” would be removed, and three times he received the same answer from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
When we try to be independent, relying on our own power, confident in our own abilities, that’s when separation happens. We may drift away from the church. We start trying to make our own way in the world as individuals, apart from God. We convince ourselves that we’re doing alright on our own, and maybe it even looks and feels that way. But we were not made for independence either from God or from one another. We were made to be part of a community of faith, and we were made to live our lives in a close, grace-filled dependence upon God.
This is simply the truth of our existence, but it is not a lesson that we can usually learn when things are going great, or, as Paul says, when we are “elated”. It seems like this is a lesson that only becomes clear when everything falls apart, when the thorn or the stake in our flesh starts to torment us. Then, when we turn again to God, an amazing grace takes over. Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his paraphrase of our text, “Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees.” In desperation-prayer those separations (from God and one another) are overcome, and in the midst of our weakness, we reach out to God and we are filled with Christ’s strength. That is why Paul concludes, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses… for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” The weaknesses remind us that we cannot exist apart from God. We are not independent; we are completely dependent upon Christ.
We see the same thing happening in our Gospel reading from Mark. At first you might think that this is a different kind of story, because the disciples are being sent out by Jesus on their own missions apart from him. They seem suddenly quite independent and powerful. But if you look more closely at the text, you’ll see that this is not a lesson about fledgling disciples being thrown out of the nest to fly on their own. On the contrary, both before and after this incident the disciples are shown to be helpless and hopeless on their own. What we seem to have here is a strange interlude of success in which the disciples cast out many demons and cured many who were sick.
But if we take an even closer look at this text we see that Jesus did several things to remind the disciples that even when they were off on their mission trips they were in no way independent. The first thing that we notice is that Jesus sent them out in pairs. They were never to be lone rangers. This practice continued in the early church as the apostles almost always traveled in twos or threes. Paul was no exception. Interestingly, one of his missionary companions was Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, who was thought to be a physician. Perhaps Luke helped Paul cope with his “thorn in the flesh,” reminding him that he was dependent upon both the grace of God and the healing ministry of others.
Mark goes on to tell us that before Jesus sent the disciples out he “gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” The power that they had to heal was not their own. It was always Jesus acting in and through them; it was his authority (not their faith or strength of will) that could cast out demons and heal the sick. They were commissioned and sent to preach and to heal, but they were never free agents, and there was no separation between themselves and Christ. They remained fully dependent upon him.
The conditions that Jesus set for their mission also kept them constantly aware of their dependence upon God. Jesus ordered them to take nothing for their journey – no food, no money, no extra clothes. They were to rely upon the hospitality that was offered to them, trusting that God would provide. So we see that they were bound to Christ and forced to depend on God’s grace. They were also taught that they must work together and that they were to be part of a community of faith that would support them, a community that would be made up of the people who received the good news they preached. This mission, that appeared to be a great adventure and a very successful endeavor for the disciples, was actually an exercise that taught them how very dependent they were. Its purpose was to convince them that couldn’t live independent lives; they couldn’t be separate from Jesus or from their fellow believers. It showed them that this was how God’s grace worked, and, by placing them in this situation of weakness, it proved to them that God’s grace was more than sufficient for their needs.
So, I invite you today to recognize and to celebrate our Dependence Day. Like the disciples and like Paul we are completely dependent upon God. We are not independent individuals who have faith. We are part of a community of believers who are, like it or not, dependent upon one another. This is how we live with the “thorn” or the “stake” in our flesh. This is how we cope with our own weakness.
We must learn to rely upon Jesus, to trust one another, to receive help when we need it, and to find strength in the power and authority of Jesus himself. We can’t afford those separations that an independent spirit seems to crave. That is not the kind of people we were created to be, and we are incapable of living that way. You will, like Paul and the disciples, probably have to learn this lesson the hard way by experiencing your own weakness when a “thorn” pierces your flesh. Let it be for each one of us as it was for Paul. Remember how Eugene Peterson described it: “Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; [but] what he in fact did was push me to my knees.” When we are on our knees, those false separations will fall away, and we will be convinced, as Paul was, that God’s grace is sufficient.