After having grown up in the same area for the first 22 years and then going off to college, marriage and seminary studies in Texas, at age 28 I returned to my home town as a pastor. We built a home less than a mile from where I grew up, and I began to serve for 11 years in a community where most people remembered me as a child.
I have often joked that, like Jesus, I returned to my home town, but that I actually had more success in preaching than he did in Nazareth! Here is what happened to Jesus after he preached in his home town: (Luke 4:28-30) All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Hey, nobody did that to me in New Jersey!
For me to (seriously) say that I was more successful than Jesus Christ and that my teaching was more truthfully excellent is as ridiculous as the Corinthians saying that the pseudo-apostles who had come into the church were greater than Paul because they were more slick and outwardly popular. It is valuing appearance over substance, the outward beauty over the inward reality.
If you think about the life of Jesus, though there were moments of apparent success and large crowds at various times (especially when Jesus was doing miracles), ultimately they turned against him and affirmed his crucifixion. That does not appear to be success. He was beaten and reviled.
In our reading today (the thoughts which form a unit with the next passage scheduled for tomorrow), Paul takes on a unique communication device of writing from the perspective of his critics. They considered him a fool and a failure, and so he went along with them to brag about his “failures.” Yes, he had plenty of rough experiences, even though his genetic and historic credentials as a Jew were as good as any of his critics, likely even superior.
After stating this, he admits that it is certainly true that he has suffered greatly. And he gives a litany of experiences that would have killed almost anyone – beatings, deprivations, enemies and dangers galore! And he adds to this the mental agonies he endured in worrying about what was happening in all the fledgling churches.
He says that this boasting does elevate his weaknesses. But how is that a good thing? Recalling an early experience that set the standard for the craziness that would mark his like, he reflects on the experience of escaping the city of Damascus in a basket! It set a tone … a paradigm … that ministry life was going to be rough, but God was going to be faithful in the midst of it all.
This was likewise the story of Christ’s incarnation. His journey was marked with opponents and much suffering of all sorts. It was more often very difficult than it was glorious. It ended on a cross.
So, what is more like Christ: magnificent successes in measurable components of the material world, or identifying with Jesus in a life of suffering in a world hostile to the gospel?
We too are living in a hostile environment, though less than what many fellow Christians experience in remote corners of the earth or what has oft been the common experience of thousands of martyrs over the years. Being hated and reviled should not be a surprise, and it is not a mark of failure. It can even be seen as a success. We might need to remember this more and more as our culture is daily flying off the rails of our Judeo-Christian past.
2 Corinthians 11:16 – I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.