1 Corinthians 12:9
February 16, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
We’re spending a little time with the Corinthians this Gesimatide, and man, were they a hot mess of a congregation. In Paul’s first epistle to them (which wasn’t even the first time he had to write to them) he had to address over a dozen different problems ranging from divisions, to factions, to winking at sexual immorality and affirming incest, to taking each other to court, to conduct in worship, to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper. If there was ever a church problem, Corinth probably experienced it.
I wonder what St. Paul would have to write to St. John’s. Would he see divisions and factions? Would he find people winking at sexual immorality or affirming it? Would he find lawsuits or pettier squabbles among our members? How do you think he’d address the way people behave in worship? Or how we treat the Lord’s Supper? What might he commend? What might he condemn?
Until we discover St. Paul’s first Epistle to St. John’s Chicago, we are left to speculate about how he would address our specific situation. Who knows whether Paul would direct us to do Divine Service 4 more often or less?
The ironic thing about the Corinthian congregation was that with all the problems they faced they were still boasting! Boasting about accomplishments, about spiritual experiences, about status and clout.
In one respect, boasting arises out of divisions and troubles—if there are factions, then each faction struggles to assert its superiority. In the case of a Christian congregation, who’s version of Christianity is more authentic. At the same time, boasting is also a cover for weakness and trouble. It’s a diversionary tactic that we use not only to fool others, but to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re stronger than we actually are.
But in another respect, boasting also leads to divisions. Boasting is a zero-sum game, that is, for one person or group to increase, another must diminish. Boasting hardens lines of division and fractures the body of Christ.
Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a phenomenon highlighted in the study titled, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” In other words, people who gain a little bit of knowledge or skill in a certain area become overconfident in their abilities and their assessments of themselves. Conversely, after gaining a fair bit of knowledge and skill, you become aware at just how deficient you are.
My own biography speaks to this effect because I never had as many answers as a pastor than I did when I first graduated from the seminary. And there is no time in your life when you are smarter than when you are a teenager. Once you learn a thing or two, you know everything. It’s only at the end of your life when you can say along with Socrates, “There’s only one thing I know, that I know nothing.”
“Your boasting is not good,” Paul flatly states in his epistle (1 Cor 5:6). If anyone had reason to boast, it was Paul. He lays out his resume in today’s epistle and checks all of the right boxes. He is the most Jewish of Jews, a learned Pharisee, descendent of Abraham, follower of Christ. And his reward? Nothing to boast of: suffering, hardships, shipwrecks, criticism, “many sleepless nights…And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (1 Cor 11:28). I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve lost sleep over issues in the church.
And if experience is your thing, Paul knows this guy who got access to a vision of paradise, who saw and heard things more glorious than anything Hillsong could manufacture. But he doesn’t boast of this experience.
What kind of boasting would St. Paul find at St. John’s? Boasting about our building, our school, our prestige? Boasting about our size (past or present)? Boasting about our worship?
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated (1 Cor 12:7). It’s an interesting coincidence that the graph for the Dunning-Kruger effect looks something like a thorn. After a rapid increase in confidence corresponding to very little knowledge or skill, there’s a sharp, pointed turn and precipitous drop. For Paul, though, this is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s the devil at work. But—and this is a big but—Paul is using the language of divine providence. This messenger from Satan was given to him by God. His suffering he counts as a gift. You might ask why, if Satan was defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, he’s still allowed to wreak the havoc he does. Answer: God uses Satan to pop Christian egos when they get too inflated.
But the Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t fall back down to zero confidence. The freefall slows and finally hits a minimum before starting to creep back up again. The bottom of that curve for a Christian is boasting in weakness.
Imagine if we put out on our sign board: “The biggest bunch of losers in Northwest Chicago.” Or, “We’ve tried and failed so many times we’ve lost count.” Or, “You won’t find any poorer excuses for Christian than inside these doors.” Imagine what it would be like if we actually believed that we are poor, miserable sinners. Imagine if we boasted in our weaknesses?
Sound foolish? Foolishness is what this faith is built upon. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor 1:18–20).
See, we need to be brought to our knees before we can be lifted up. Your thorn will be different than Paul’s, but when you feel the devil harassing you, that is not the time to boast in anything but your weakness. Martin Luther commented: So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”
This is nothing other than to confess what the Lord told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If that’s not lovely, sweet good news, then I don’t know what is. So lean in to your weakness because
God’s Grace Is Sufficient for You
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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