I have no idea what Paul is talking about when he mentions the Third Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). Our modern conceptions of heaven do not usually imagine a hierarchy in heaven. But this leveling is a new idea. There are texts in the Bible that imagines heaven as a layered cake where each layer brings us closer to God. Paul, in today’s letter to the Corinthians, is playing a game. He’s boasting about himself. He does this first by name dropping that he knows someone who ascended to the third heaven. Paul doesn’t give us any details but that’s because the third heaven isn’t the point. Paul is boasting because his opponents are boasting as well.
We don’t know much about Paul’s opponents. Pau was one of several different missionaries traveling throughout the Roman Empire. These missionaries all had different thoughts (and experiences) about what this Jesus thing was all about. As these missionaries wandered around the Roman Empire, they would form new faith communities. When a different missionary entered these faith communities later on, big disagreements would start. We don’t know what Paul’s opponents were like since we only have his descriptions to fall back on (and he is not an unbiased observer). Paul described his opponents as boastful, braggarts, who only wanted to see influence and gain power. They bragged about what they knew, who they knew, and why the Corinthians should follow them. Paul is never one to back down from a challenge so he plays their game as well. But instead of boasting about his strengths, he boasts about his weakness.
Now when was the last time you boasted about what you can’t do? We usually don’t describe that as boasting. Instead, even our humble brags are about pointing out how awesome we are. Paul, however, feels compelled to talk about his weakness. Weakness is defined as something we can’t do. But weakness can also mean something else. As Professor David Fredrickson writes, “To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you. [Weakness – in the ancient Greek], on the other hand, means coming undone. It frequently referred to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define: “human weakness,” which might be thought of as the failure of resolve or the lack of fortitude in the face of despair.”
Paul is boasting about coming undone. Paul is saying that he has been given a power that isn’t about having strength over the people around you. Real power and real strength, as Jesus defines it, is about loving others to the point where we personally come undone. We rarely want to become undone and there is a danger when the relationships we are in causes us to fall apart in unhealthy ways. Yet, when we are in a healthy relationship with each other and with Jesus, we are drawn closer to the one that brings us a full, connected, and generous life. When we boast about Jesus, we’re pointing out how he is giving us a new identity: one that celebrates us, loves us, and unites us with the world and every bit of heaven.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/8/2018.