03 June 2018

Jars of Clay


2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

There is another life alive within us.  So don’t lose heart.  That’s the message.  That’s the claim Paul is making to the church in Corinth—a church conflicted and confused, a church struggling with competing factions, one group judging the other, one group thinking itself superior to the other. 

He wants to turn their attention away from the polarizing divisions tearing the church asunder.  He wants them to remember what matters most: serving Christ.  And he doesn’t want them to be discouraged by the enormity of the task before them as servants of Christ. 

It is only by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry.  It’s only because of grace that we are part of the church.  It’s only because of God’s mercy that we are part of this remarkable work.

And the work of the church—whether it’s in Corinth or Catonsville or anywhere—is never about the work of that particular church.  In other words, it’s not about us—it’s never about us.  For the message of the church and the work of the church is not about the church.  The church exists for the message and the message is always Christ.  “For we do not proclaim ourselves;” Paul said.  “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  Slaves, servants…slaves, servants to one another because of Christ, because of the message, because of what we discover about God in and through him.  “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 6).

To know this, to experience this light reflected in the face of Christ, to know the beauty and goodness of that light, to know that face reflects the deeper light of God, that is the treasure.

Corinthian pottery.
And this treasure is entrusted to us, to you and me, to ordinary women and men and children.  A treasure in clay jars.  Clay pots.  Earthen vessels.  This was an appropriate metaphor for Paul to use with the Corinthian.  They were very familiar with clay and pottery. Corinth was known throughout the Mediterranean for its pottery production. They knew that the pottery business could be lucrative. They also knew just how fragile a material it was, easily becoming worthless.  They lived surrounded by broken fragments of pottery.  It was commonplace.  You can walk through the ruins of Corinth and still find broken pottery everywhere, which is true for most archeological sites from the ancient world. 

We are jars of clay.  The treasure of Christ is entrusted to you and me, to fragile human beings, we creatures of animated clay, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  God risks the treasure in us, knowing that we are easily breakable.  And, yet, God knows we are worth that risk. 

What’s entrusted to us, through the Holy Spirit, is power—dunamis, in Greek.  From which we get the word “dynamic” and “dynamite.”  This is remarkable, if you let it sink in, that God’s power is at work in us, fragile creatures that we are.  A power entrusted to us in love.

But we need to remember our clay-ness.  A lot of damage and hurt has occurred in the history of the world because we’ve forgotten our clay-ness.  What is entrusted to us, what is operative in us doesn’t belong to us.  We don’t possess it. We’re invited to be stewards of it.  But it’s not ours. You and I contain that which cannot be contained.  We contain the uncontainable. The power is not ours, but God’s.  We can’t generate or earn this power; instead, we receive it, we allow it to operate in us. 

Why is this so critical to know? Because during times of hardship, and challenge, and confusion, we need to remember that another life is alive with us.  So, take heart.  This is a very assuring thought.  We can take comfort in knowing there’s another power at work in us, the very life of God shining through us because, in the Spirit, we are in Christ and Christ is in us.

That’s why Paul could say with confidence, writing from his own experience as someone who experienced shipwreck and suffering and abuse and public ridicule, this remarkable summary of the Christian life:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed.”

Why? 

Because “we are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). This is a marvelous example of Paul’s mystical understanding of Christ.  Christ is not only a historical figure who lived and accomplished something in the past on the cross.  What was operative in the life of Christ is now operative through Christ in the life of his followers.  If God’s power of life and death were operative in Christ, and if, through the Spirit, we are alive “in Christ,” as Paul loved to say, then that same power and process of life and death is active in us.  Paul says, “For we the living are always being delivered over to death on account of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made manifest in our mortal flesh,” in our bodies.  So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:11-12).

This entire text means a lot to me.  At my ordination, 28 years ago, the preacher, the Rev. Dr. Ansley Van Dyke, used these verses as his text. I have a blue clay jar on the shelf in my study, not made in Corinth but Kenya, to remind me what has been entrusted to me in my calling.  It reminds me that there’s another life alive within me—and not only ministers, of course, it’s in all of us.  It is so easy to forget this.

It’s particularly valuable to remember when we find ourselves in challenging situations, when we’ve reached our limits, when we’re conscious of how fragile we really are as human beings.  It’s good to remember when we are afflicted and driven to despair.  And it’s especially good to remember after a trying week of relentless rain, devastating floods and rising water, sore backs, and smelly rugs needing to be tossed.

Yes, it’s good to remember our capacity, to claim the hidden strength and resources we carry within us—often more than we suspect.  And, then, there are times for us to acknowledge that we are not strong enough, that we are weak and fragile. There are times when the only recourse we have is to fall into another’s arms and be supported and held, to fall into God.  There are times when we need rest in that deeper power, the deeper life at work in us. 

When we gather at the Lord’s Table, a lot is going on.  But one thing seems especially relevant for us today.  When we go to him, he gives us his body and blood as source of life.  We confess our hunger and thirst for what we don’t have, but desperately need—or what we don’t think we have or have forgotten to be true: to be in Christ, to partake of him, we discover his life is living in us. Thanks be to God.