One of the impacts of the last year of dual pandemics of COVID and racism is that each time we come to a national holiday, we must take a new look at it. We did that on Memorial Day, and today we do it with the fourth of July celebration of the independence of the US. The words independence and freedom are controversial terms these days. Some claim that independence gives them the right to not wear a mask, or to not be vaccinated, or to claim election fraud with no evidence just because they can, or to participate in an armed attack on the capitol. Where is this coming from, where is it going, and how do we heal it?
Paul’s testimony of being caught up to the third heaven reminded me of a reflection I heard from Diana Butler Bass about the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. She spoke of QAnon supporter Jake Angeli. Remember the guy dressed as a shaman, who sat on the desk of the president of the Senate, and said a prayer? She told his story to argue that the main division in Christianity is no longer between conservative and liberal. It’s more complex. It includes those referred to as nones, the fastest growing category of religious participation in the country. It consists of those that have no religious affiliation who currently represent about 26% of population. Many of the nones consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. A large swath of the group is keenly interested in mysticism and pre-Christian forms of religion. But that group is divided in significant ways. One side nourishes their commitment to more traditional forms of Christianity with these pre-Christian forms. Heck, some of us share many of their values. Celtic Christianity is an example of a pre-Christian form. This is one side of the nones.
But today, there is another side. Since Trump, many people attracted to pre-Christian symbols are white supremacists, including members of QAnon and other conspiracy theories. Jake Angeli is one of them. Butler Bass wonders if others of the insurrectionists might not also have been radical nationalist white supremacists, a faction of the spiritual but not religious. If so, it represents a dangerous new division in Christianity.
Paul knew that his testimony about an out of body experience sounded a bit fringy. That’s why he told it in third person. It’s part of a longer section about his credentials as an apostle, which some questioned because he had not known Jesus in the flesh. Teachers arrived in Corinth whose teachings differed from Paul’s. They claimed to represent the true Jesus, and the true apostolic tradition, and called Paul an outlier.
In defending his apostolic credentials, Paul had to thread a thorny needle. He didn’t want to come off as arrogant. But neither did he want to accept the charge that he lacked apostolic authority. So he spoke of boasting about his weakness. With skillful rhetorical flourish, he described both his credentials and his weaknesses. He didn’t boast about his credentials because he didn’t want to exploit them; he simply mentioned them as facts. Instead, he boasted about his weakness, specifically about a thorn in the flesh. He saw the thorn as a way to keep his arrogance in check. That might be helpful advice for those who are enamored with some of the exotic leaders of these new religious and political movements: Watch out for people who claim to have had exceptional experiences but aren’t facing their thorn in the flesh. They’re among the most dangerous, because people are so susceptible to their deceit. We want to believe that exceptional experiences and miraculous healings are possible, and that they won’t cost us too much! When leaders present an image that looks like that, people want to believe them! Might that be part of the attraction to conspiracy theorists?
How many of us have had parts of our lives that we don’t like, and have asked God to take away? Being gay, being fat or skinny, being black, white, or brown, having a disability, being poor, being rich. Thorns in the flesh come in many forms. Paul says they can keep us from being arrogant. He speaks about the danger of boasting about credentials and exotic experiences. Instead, he boasts in his weaknesses. The paradoxical spiritual truth is that when we’re weak, we’re strong. Celebrities often present as strong, and are famous during their lifetime. True heroes usually aren’t exalted above others during their lifetime. They usually have as many critics as followers. Their warts – or thorns – are there for all to see. Their thorns moderate people’s adulation of them.
Of course, many of us go overboard here: we take our own warts, and other people’s criticism too seriously, and fail to fulfill our life calling because we don’t think we are good enough. Jesus met resistance in the hometown crowd who knew him too well. That led him to utter the now common place phrase, Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house. But we don’t always remember that when we’re experiencing criticism from without or within. We’re skeptical that we could be prophets or heroes. When that happens, there’s little room for miracles of faith. In Nazareth, “Jesus could work no miracle, apart from a few. Their lack of faith distressed him.”
In the tradition of so many other reluctant prophets, we use our weakness as excuses rather than opportunities for God to show grace. I’m too young, too unprepared, too old, too weak and sinful, too busy and preoccupied, too homely, too nice. If only I could fly to a far-off place and some other time, in disguise, armed with stirring rhetoric and bright virtue. If only I could seize the pulpit or get the ear of the boss, or be a holy subversive on the board of directors. Then, then I could prophesy. But not here. Not now. Not me.
Jesus may have felt weak when his old neighbors teased him cruelly about his power and accomplishments. Their resistance to him and his message weakened his power to heal them. To say God’s grace is sufficient doesn’t mean it can overcome resistance or a disability. It says we can be okay even with them. Jesus pulled off the balance: he wasn’t boastful, and knew that he could and must fulfill his mission.
Jesus wanted the disciples to know that as well. So he sent them on a journey where they would meet resistance and wouldn’t have enough resources apart from God’s grace. It was a training mission – an extended ritual of initiation. Jesus knew they had to face the need for faith in God’s sufficiency. They weren’t being trained to attack and defend, but to heal and respect, to shake the dust from their feet when they met resistance. Jesus’ instructions didn’t mean they had to always live like that. But Jesus knew that everyone needs at least one experience to convince them of its truth. Indigenous cultures know this too. They accomplish it through initiations and rites of passage that expose the initiate to the threat of death to once and for all heal them from the fear of death.
Has Western Christianity lost the power of its rituals by focusing more on protection and salvation than on faith and courage. Baptism, communion, confirmation, and marriage are sacraments – our rites of passage. In their best expressions, they have power to embed faith and courage in people. But the church has cast commission and call as exceptional and heroic, rather than normal and common. Most of us are not expected to courageously bear our thorns in the flesh. Few are challenged to step outside the usual range of commitment to accomplish something transformational. Contemporary sacramental practice is too antiseptic to embolden us to live in a way that risks death.
No wonder the nones seek ritual elsewhere! Friends, we must restore the power of our sacraments. Maybe we need to take a journey like the disciples did to find a space where only God’s grace will be sufficient. May God bless us with weakness so we can find our strength.