Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul
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17 Mar 2023
Year B, Ordinary Time, 14th Sunday
What was this ‘thorn in the flesh’ that caused St Paul so much distress? (2 Cor. 12: 7-10). Was it some kind of temptation? Was it an illness? Was it the tragic fact that most of his fellow Jews had rejected the Christian gospel ‒ a fact that caused St Paul ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart’, as he tells us in Romans? Or was it the Corinthians themselves, who were in fact a thorn in Paul’s flesh, though he was surely too much of a gentleman to say so, except perhaps in the form of a subtle reproach? The truth is, we just don’t know what was causing Paul’s distress. All we know for certain is that he was distressed. In modern jargon, he was ‘carrying a burden’. Maybe we too have a sense of carrying some such burden: a feeling, perhaps of discouragement or despondency; a feeling that life is meaningless, or that it has been unfair to us, or we have failed to make anything of our lives; perhaps a painful awareness of past mistakes, causing us to be anxious about how we shall be judged in the light of eternity; perhaps even a feeling that God doesn’t care for us. It makes sense to suppose that the thorn in St Paul’s flesh produced similar feelings in him. And if that is so, then it might be useful for us to reflect on how he coped with his distress. Doubtless, for some of the burdens that some of us carry, professional help might be beneficial, and good sense might prompt us to consider seeking it. But there is often a religious, spiritual aspect to the burdens we carry, and that is where St Paul can certainly help us.
It is worth noting that the cause of St Paul’s distress did not go away after he had received the Lord’s assurance. In one sense, that assurance changed nothing. And yet, after receiving it, St Paul was able to face life with equanimity, indeed with confidence. There was a sudden injection of positive thinking. What made all the difference was the Lord’s assurance of grace: ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ You see, it is not so much the burden itself that distresses us, it is the consciousness that it is my burden, and the awful feeling that it depends on me alone how I shall bear it. What one desperately needs is not just assistance in carrying the burden, not just some encouragement. What I really need is for someone else to carry the burden, so that it’s no longer mine. The burden may still be there objectively, but it has become, as it were, no burden at all to me, because someone else is carrying it. St Paul seems to have experienced that release when he heard the words: ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ For from that moment he found peace. Someone else had taken over.
When you understand that everything is in God’s hands; that your well-being in this life and beyond is God’s affair, God’s responsibility, you will be surprised how serene you become even when the objective situation persists. But – I hear a timid voice enquiring – would that apply also to the burden that is sin? Can we cast that burden upon the Lord? Answer: Yes, that burden too. It was part of what St Paul meant when he said in Romans. ‘All things work together for good to those who love God.’ St Augustine was surely right when, in commenting on this statement of St Paul, he hastened to insert the words ‘etiam peccata‘. All things, even our sins, can in God’s hands be made the means of our salvation. All that is required of us is that we face our sins, be humble and penitent, look upon God’s grace and be thankful – then to be free of the burden, for it is no longer ours. Always bearing in mind that this super-sufficient grace of God is part of God’s gracious verdict upon our past. It cannot form part of a plan of action on our part for the future.‘Shall we therefore continue to sin so that grace may increase?’, St Paul asks in Romans. ‘Heaven forbid!’, he answers: ‘We who have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?’ He meant the same when he told the Galatians: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free.’
So every kind of burden can be cast upon the Lord, whose grace is sufficient for each of us. And the thought of it brings release. But it is not just a psychological thing ‒ a subjective feeling that the burden has been lifted. It is rather the perception that the objective facts of the situation have now, in God’s hands, become the means of something constructive. St Paul knows from experience that in his weakness God’s strength is given full scope; it is precisely his inadequacy that gives God room for manoeuvre; his vulnerability is the very means by which God will bring about extraordinary things. I suspect that some who are really suffering are more likely to be irritated by a sermon like this than suddenly freed of their burden. But equally St Paul is not the only one to find a new lease of life in their decision to rely on grace. ‘Cast all your anxieties upon him’, St Peter urges, in his First Epistle, ‘because he cares about you.’ Here, with St Paul, St Peter captures the essence of Biblical spirituality, beautifully expressed by Isaiah: ‘You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you. For he trusts in you.’
Fr Tom Deidun