|Rembrandt - St Paul in Prison|
- 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Psalm 48 •
- Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Psalm 123 •
- 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 •
- Mark 6:1-13
The Epistle for this Sunday is hard to understand, because it appears out of context. It is an excerpt from Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, part of a longer passage in which he is arguing against making personal religious experience the basis of spiritual authority. By speaking of himself in the third person, he discounts his own profound religious experience, despite ‘the exceptional character of the revelation’ that was given to him on the road to Damascus.
This is not because he underestimates its important in any way, but because he does not want ‘boasting’ about it to make anyone ‘think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’. It is not his one-off encounter on the road to Damascus, but his whole way of life as a living instance of the grace of God, that must prove his faith in Jesus. Indeed, to keep him from ‘being too elated’ he draws explicit attention to ‘a thorn in the flesh’ that constantly reminds him of his real life.
We do not know what this ‘thorn’ was, but its role was to keep Paul mindful of this fact: the discipleship to which he was called was not a matter of elevated mystical elation, but ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships’ borne for the sake of Christ. Paradoxically, it is only when we fully acknowledge our own weakness that we are properly aware of the strength of God’s grace within us.
The Gospel passage from Mark resonates with this important truth. Even Jesus, in whom the grace of God is brought to perfection, must confront ‘insults’ in his ‘own country’. Those who knew him as a boy dismissively discount his message to them in the synagogue. They cannot look beyond their own assumptions, and see the prophetic voice the boy they knew is now revealed to be. This rejection is a prelude to instructions about discipleship. At the heart of discipleship, we might say, is a balancing act. True Christians must avoid the temptation to seek self-affirmation either in persecution or in popularity. That is because both turn spotlights unto ourselves, and away from Christ.