22 September 2013

Treasure in Clay Jars

Isaiah 6: 2-8 & 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12

18th Sunday after Pentecost/ 22nd September 2013

In Paul’s time the city of Corinth was known for its pottery.  By Paul’s time the industry was already centuries old with a reputation for exquisite pottery. Strategically located on the isthmus between the Peloponnese and Attica, with easy access to the Adriatic in the west and the Aegean in the east, Corinth was a major city in the Roman Empire, situated on a major east-west trade route, which allowed Corinthian pottery to end up all over the Empire. Most of the surviving vessels produced in Corinth have been found in lower Italy and Sicily.

            Paul knew about the Corinthian ceramic industry.  His “treasure in clay jars” statement here in 2 Corinthians 4 alludes to this.  This was more than just a convenient metaphor. When the church gathered in Corinth and heard his letter read during worship, that allusion to clay jars probably jumped off the page for them. It hit home. We hear “clay jars” and perhaps think of simple, ordinary terracotta pots or containers.  But that’s not the kind of pottery produced in Corinth.  The city was known for developing what is known as the black-figure technique, which emerged around 700 BC, when pottery vases with figures and scenes painted on them were replacing costly metal tableware. The black-figure technique allowed the ceramic pieces to retain that look, metallic and shiny.  Then they were painted, often with red or white paint. This style became very popular. Over the centuries Corinthian ceramics were known for their colorful ornamentation and beauty. It dominated the Mediterranean market for centuries. In this sense, for the Corinthians, there was certainly treasure in clay jars, at least in the making of clay jars.

            That said, throughout the ancient world pottery was ubiquitous. Everyone but the very rich used common clay vessels for everyday use and storage.  The members of First Church, Corinth would have had many jars and pots in their homes.  Today, if you walk around Corinth (or any ancient archeological site) you can find broken pieces of pottery everywhere.  I have a bag of pottery shards that I picked up over the years from Turkey and Greece and Israel.  As we know, fired clay can be very fragile, but it’s also extremely durable.  In Paul’s time, a well-made pot could keep things safe because they were nearly watertight and resisted decay and corrosion. Many clay pots more than 5,000 years old have been found discovered nearly intact.  In 1947 a shepherd boy wandered into a cave overlooking the Dead Sea and discovered large clay containers with a treasure inside: scrolls that were more than 2,000 years old—one of the greatest archeological finds ever.  It’s a discovery that has transformed the way we understand First Century Judaism and the emergence of Christianity.  Those scrolls survived, in part, because they were stored in clay jars.

            Fragile, yet durable and resilient.  Just like you and me.  Clay jars.  Human beings.

            God has placed a treasure, Paul writes, in clay jars. 
            God has placed a treasure in human beings. 
            God has placed a treasure in you and me.

            Now it’s easy to hear this text, especially verse 7, “…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” and come away feeling that the container, you and me as human beings have no inherent value relative to the treasure, that we’re fragile and valueless as broken pottery shards.  I think that’s projecting too much into the text and might say more about us, how we view ourselves, than what Paul is really saying here.

            What is Paul saying to the church?  That we have a story to share, a promise to extend, a message to proclaim which is God’s good news in Jesus Christ.  The story, the promise, the message, the Word that we proclaim and preach and share and embody with our lives is Jesus Christ and what he has done for us and what he continues to do through us.  The message, the story we offer the world is not the Church, but Jesus Christ, “the glory of Christ,” as Paul says, “who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).  “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” 

            And the reason why the Church has a story, a promise, a message to proclaim—and the only way the Church can really tell the story or offer the promise or proclaim the message—is because the light of Christ is shining in our hearts.  And the light shines within us because it’s being reflected back to us from the light of God shining through Jesus, the image of God. Listen again to Paul’s words: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts”—for what purpose?—“to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—where?—“in the face of Jesus Christ.”

            And this is the treasure: the light of God shining in our hearts.  It’s the good news, the gospel, the glory of Christ, the image of God, is illuminating our hearts, enlightening our inner lives, God shining through the center of our lives.  This is the treasure—this knowledge, this truth, the reality that this is so.  In the next chapter Paul puts it a different way, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19a).  This message, this reality, is the treasure.  The treasure is not religious beliefs, dogmas, or creeds; the treasure is not Christianity; and the treasure is certainly not the Church as an institution.  The treasure is God, the light of God, the presence of God, the love of God within us. This treasure is God and with God comes God’s power—the power and energy of light itself, the light that illumines the darkness, the power and energy of love that forgives and restores human life, that shatters the chains that bind us and breaks open the tombs that entrap us, the power of God who gives us a new day, a new horizon, a tomorrow.

            And God risks placing this treasure in the human heart, which is fragile, yes durable and resilient, yet very fragile and easily broken.  It’s the fragility and brokenness of the human heart, often hurting and struggling to survive, that often grasps after whatever power it can get its hand on, in order to be strong or to survive—including the power of God.  Even though God knows the wayward tendencies of the human condition, God still entrusts God’s power to us, God has confidence in us, God hasn’t given up on us. Yet, there’s still something within us that confuses or conflates being God and being human.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this. The story of the Garden, of being banished “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16) is never far from the human condition.  It appears to be our permanent address.  We live “east of Eden.”

Paul reminds us that while the power of God has been entrusted to us, we must not confuse the container with the content.  Treasure is placed in clay jars “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  When we forget this, we fall all over again.  Don’t fuse or confuse the container with the content.

And, yet, in the long history of the Church this is precisely what happens time and again: confusion and inflation.  It happens in the lives of individuals who think they are God’s gift to the universe, that they hold power by some kind of divine right to rule over lesser mortals, they assume too much power and don’t know how to fuse power with love.  With inflated egos these individuals wreck havoc upon the world.

This confusion and inflation also occurs in the institutional expressions of the Church. There have been far too many times when the Church has confused the container and the content, when the Church has assumed too much authority and power, when the Church viewed itself as the treasure it contained, instead of the container pouring out the power of God’s love to redeem the world.  We can see this in the abuses of the Church leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Despite the Reformation, this is still an issue for both Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, indeed all Churches, whenever they view themselves as the end-all and be-all of the gospel, at times taking priority over Christ.  The Mainline Protestant Church, in decline since the 1960s, self-satisfied with its cultural hegemony, membership rolls, and influence, might be guilty of confusing the Church with the gospel.  In our age, so many people are leaving the Church and giving up on Christianity altogether because they’re beginning to see that the container and the content are not the same.  From the outside, they have looked at us and watched the way we carry on, seeing only jars of clay, without a glimpse of the treasure; or others spent time among us and left because they discovered the treasure that we’re supposed to contain is missing, some communities lost it a long time ago.  People in our day are looking for treasure—real treasure. Have we become too preoccupied with the container?  Are they finding only a container?

It’s natural to confuse the two, content and container.  On the top of one of my bookshelves in the Church House is a blue, clay jar made by Presbyterian potters in Nairobi, Kenya. I keep it there to remind me that there’s a difference between the two.  I need to remember this (every pastor does).  We all need to remember this, because it’s so easy to forget.  When we do, we suffer for it and the Church suffers for it and the power and glory, the treasure of the gospel gets lost.

This text has a special meaning for me.  This passage from 2 Corinthians was read at my ordination, which took place 23 years ago tomorrow. It’s stayed with me as a companion and guide over these years.  It’s a powerful metaphor for what ministry, for what being a Christian is all about.

            However, I noticed something new this week.  Yes, there’s the danger of conflation, of confusing the container and the content.  This is something we must be continually cautious about.  But there’s a problem if we go too far the other way, separating the two too much. I remember feeling at my ordination that this power to proclaim the message does not come from me (and it doesn’t). I’m just a container and the container is expendable (which is true), I’m just a means to an end.  It’s not about me—and it isn’t about me.  I went into a kind of either-or default mode—either God or me; either treasure or container.  I assumed which was favored.

            But I heard or perceived or realized something else going on in this text (and I alluded to it earlier in the sermon). There’s a tendency for verse 7 to stand on it’s own.  But I wanted to see how it connects with what follows.  Verse 8 reads, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…” Linking the two, there was something about thinking of clay jars, fragile, broken shards and these words “not crushed.”  “Afflicted…but not crushed.”  What accounts for this claim?  “Afflicted..but not crushed.”

            Yes, we need to remember that the extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us, the treasure of the gospel is God’s, it does not belong to us, we didn’t create it or craft it.  This treasure, this power belongs to God.  But perhaps we miss hearing what Paul is saying here by worrying too much about confusion and inflation.  In other words, fearful of assuming too much for ourselves, we over compensate by focusing only upon God, the treasure, forgetting that the clay jars are also valuable.  Paul turns to the clay jars analogy to remind them who has the power, but he also turns to this analogy to illustrate his earlier point that “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.”  This is the key verse.

            In other words, the message that Catonsville Presbyterian Church or any church offers the world is that the power of God, this treasure is doing something to us, clay though we may be. There is a power at work within us.  By virtue of your baptism, the power is there. In fact, this extraordinary power—again, that does not belong to us—is alive within us and working through us and allowing us to do far more than we could ever possibly imagine, allowing us to love more deeply than we could ever possibly imagine, enabling us to do more, give more, risk more, accomplish more, forgive more, serve more, endure more than we could ever think possible.  Because, you see, “we are afflicted” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not crushed.”  “Perplexed,” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not forsaken.”  “Struck down,” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not destroyed.”  “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  Jesus’ life and death, life from death, the power of God’s redeeming love, is at work in us.  There is power here, dunamis, in Greek—from which we get the words dynamite and dynamic—a dynamic power at work in us—that’s the treasure—more than we can possibly imagine!  And, to be honest, the thought of this probably scares the heck out of us—or, scares the heaven out of us—as it should.  But just because we shudder at the thought, like Isaiah did (Isaiah 6:2-8), doesn’t mean it’s not true.  It is true and we’re asked as a people, as a Church, to share it, to use it, to live from it, to risk with it.

            This, I believe, is God’s calling for the Church of Jesus Christ, for this particular church: to bear the life-giving power of God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, to one another and to the world, to make the treasure visible, through us, in us.  May it be so!