King’s Acre Church, 6 July 2003
“Butterflies and Thorns”
Aren’t the butterflies lovely? I gather that we have June to thank for them, from a Girls’ Brigade event yesterday. But it works out very well, as they fit in with what I want to say this morning.
I’ll come back to them in a minute, but meanwhile, St Paul. He, we are told, had a “thorn in his flesh”. Nobody knows exactly what this may have been. It could have been some kind of physical affliction – his eyesight is thought not to have been very good, since when he wrote to the Galatians in his own handwriting, he had to make the letters very large. Or it could have been a psychological thing – panic attacks, perhaps, or fits of depression. Or it could even have been external enemies, and goodness knows, he had enough of those. Nobody knows quite what he means by “thorn in the flesh”, although the expression has entered our language.
But the point about Paul’s thorn was that for him – and I do stress that this is strictly from his point of view, and not necessarily true for everybody – for him, it helped him trust God more. If he couldn’t manage on his own, he simply had to trust God. It wasn’t because he wanted to suffer in this way – quite the reverse, he had asked God three times to take it away, whatever it was. But he reckoned that God was saying that if he, Paul that is, had the thorn, he was simply going to have to trust God, no matter what he felt like. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul goes on to explain that he doesn’t really want to boast about his strengths, about what a great person he is, because that’s not what’s important to him. What is important is what God has done, and continues to do, in his life. And while the things that happen to him help him to trust God, he’ll rejoice in them, no matter how hard life is. For when he was weakest, then he felt strongest as he trusted God most.
Well, it’s not easy, is it! Yet Jesus seems to have rather expected his disciples to do the same. He sent them out with just one another for company, two by two. No bread, no bag, no money in their belts, no extra tunic – they were amazed they could wear sandals, I shouldn’t wonder. They had to trust God to provide for them, and what’s more, they had to trust God to cast out evil spirits and heal the sick and so on and so forth. Again, not easy, but they seem to have done it. And you may remember that we are told they came back rather excited that they could cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and he said that was all very well, but what mattered was that their names were written in the book of life. All the same, the disciples had had a valuable lesson in trusting God.
So what about butterflies? Well, think how a butterfly is made. How does it start life? And how does it go on? The actual butterfly bit, the beautiful bit, is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.
And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again.
It’s just as well, I think, that butterflies and the like aren’t sentient. Imagine how awful it would be if they were aware what was going to happen to them! Think how terrified you’d be if you knew it was going to happen to you. To be completely remade into something utterly different. Something so different that it uses a totally different medium to move about in, the air. Caterpillars are creeping creatures, that move on the earth and on plants, and the larvae of things like mayflies and dragonflies are water insects, that can’t breathe in the air. Even more different!
But, of course, in a way the same sort of thing is going to happen to us one day, when we die and, we believe, are raised from death in what St Paul describes as a “spiritual body”, whatever that means. He’s not very clear, but then, he is trying to describe something that won’t go into words. We believe, then, that we will be raised from death. But for many of us, that’s some day. We prefer not to think about that sort of thing until we must, and usually God gives us the strength to deal with it when we have to. It’s a scary thought, but it’s not the whole, nor even really part, of what trusting God is all about.
You see, if it were just about being changed and raised once we are dead, what has been called “Pie in the sky when you die”, then there isn’t much point. Of course, there isn’t much point if we are not raised, but if it’s only about the next life, not about this one, then it’s a bit futile, too. It’s both. When Jesus promised us abundant life, eternal life, it was to start now! We can start to be changed right now this minute. Just as soon as we say “Yes” to Jesus’ offer to change us.
That, too, is scary, of course. We are comfortable the way we are and yet, paradoxically, we don’t always like ourselves very much. It’s one of those contradictory things, that until we can accept and like ourselves exactly as we are, it’s really difficult to allow God to change us. If we really don’t like ourselves very much, we’re apt to self-harm in one way or another; we get anorexic, or vastly overweight, or we get into destructive relationships, or whatever. Before we can allow ourselves to be changed, we have to be happy with what we are! I know a young woman with anorexia, for instance, who simply can’t bear to look at herself in the mirror, and if she knows she’s going to have to, she has to brace herself, and prepare herself to look, but she simply hates catching a glimpse of herself unawares. Mind you, so do I, but that’s because I can’t understand who this fat old woman is who persists in getting between me and the glass. But for my friend it’s far more serious. It’s something she finds really difficult, but she knows that until she can bear to look at herself, she probably won’t get better. You have to accept yourself as you are, and then you can be changed!
That was what St Paul found – he really hated his “thorn in the flesh”, whether it was something physical, or something emotional, or even something external, a person he couldn’t stand, or something. We don’t know. But we do know that it wasn’t until Paul could accept it, and accept himself with it, that he found any sort of peace. He realised that Paul-with-the-thorn could trust God in a way that Paul-without-the-thorn couldn’t, and he was happy with that. We don’t know what happened later – I Corinthians is really quite an early letter, and it’s quite possible that later on, the “thorn” was taken away from him. Certainly it wasn’t anything that he, Paul, could do anything about, though.
It’s really, really hard, I find. It’s hard to realise that God loves us and accepts us exactly the way we are, and yet longs to help us change and grow and fulfil our potential and become the person we were designed to be. It’s one of those paradoxes in which Christianity abounds.
But then, a caterpillar doesn’t need to berate itself because it isn’t a butterfly. It has to concentrate, if caterpillars can concentrate, on being the best caterpillar it possibly can be, and eating as many cabbage leaves as it can, and then, in the fullness of time, it will be changed and become a butterfly.
Remember Hans Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling? The duckling wasn’t like his fellows – but that’s because he was going to grow into a swan, and they were merely farmyard ducks. Quite different… but the cygnet had to suffer quite a lot before he became happy with himself, and then transformed into a swan.
So it’s all about trust. We have to trust God that we are loved and accepted just the way we are. We have to trust God that we can be changed to fulfil our potential, to become the person God created us to be. Sometimes that can be as scary as it would be to be changed from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Sometimes we find that circumstances do not change, but from them, we learn to trust God more.
Maybe we need to learn this not only as individuals, but also as a Church. As we celebrate our birthday next week, and wonder what the future holds for us, maybe we need to remember June’s butterflies, how they had to be totally dissolved from the caterpillars they once were, to become a chrysalis, and ultimately a butterfly. Maybe we need to remember St Paul’s thorn, which, like the piece of grit round which an oyster forms a pearl, enabled his love of, and trust in God to grow and grow. Amen.