8th Sunday after Trinity
2 Corinthians 4 7-15
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but 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. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
We live in a celebrity culture. Magazines, blogs, Instagram accounts and television shows present us with people to follow. The red carpet is an object of fascination in the 21st century, but the culture of celebrity is nothing new. People have always engaged in versions of this kind of behaviour.
In the 2nd letter of Paul to the Corinthians Paul has found himself in the midst of a popularity contest that he never signed up for and his opponents have raised questions about his ministry.
In the first few chapters of the letter Paul defends his ministry and consistently brings the focus back to Jesus. We see it once again in Chapter 4.
Paul begins this section with a metaphor. He says: “We have this treasure in jars of clay.”
The treasure refers to the Gospel – the message of Jesus saving and redeeming this broken world through his life, death, and resurrection.
The clay jars refer to the carriers of the Gospel. That term is not very complimentary a clay jar or pot, that is all, yet it is a beautifully descriptive term for basic humanity. All of us, in one sense, are nothing but clay jars, although perhaps some of you have a little finer clay than others, Clay can be made into beautiful, fragile chinaware, which, of course, cracks easily and some of us have cracked already! Others are more rough and rugged made of mud, baked in the sun (or half-baked sometimes). But this is our humanity. The bottom line is we are nothing but clay jars. The image of clay jars doesn’t refer to grand Grecian art pieces or fine pieces of pottery. Rather, here Paul is talking about a cheap and very humble pot. Paul might even be referring to cheap night-time oil lamps that were thin and delicate so light would shine through them.
Paul is highlighting that the clay jar is cheap, humble, and simple. This metaphor isn’t to denigrate the messengers of the Gospel. It isn’t saying they don’t count for anything. Rather it is to accentuate the treasure of the Gospel.
There is a saying from a Rabbinic tradition: “Just as wine cannot keep well in silver or gold vessels, but only in the lowliest of vessels—earthen ones—so words of Torah do not keep well in one who considers himself to be the same as silver or gold vessels, but only in one who considers himself the same as the lowliest of vessels—earthen ones.”
The clay jar is a good image for Paul’s ministry as the jar is a humble instrument which carries the true treasure. This is food for thought for us in a world where we see Christian celebrities, and church leaders on the TV and there is the temptation to gaze at the jar itself rather than the treasure.
It is obviously God's deliberate programme that his mighty power be displayed through clay jars. A jar, pot, or a vessel, is made to hold something. This is a beautiful picture to use, because basic to our humanity is that we were not designed to operate on our own. We were made to hold the message of the gospel as I have already said, but to hold the gospel we have to hold someone; and that someone is God the Holy Spirit. The mystery is that God designed us this way so that his wisdom and power might be made visible.
We see that not only are Paul and his co-ministers clay jars, they are cracked pots full of stress fractures, but nonetheless held together by divine glue.
Sir Oliver Franks was the British Ambassador to the United States during the Cold War. He used to send messages back to Britain in the Diplomatic Bag. Everyone knew this bag held all the important stuff. If there was something very important or sensitive Sir Franks wouldn’t trust the Diplomatic Bag he would put the message in a brown envelope and put it in the post. It was a double bluff, the messenger isn’t important it is the message every time.
Here is Paul highlighting that we are God’s double bluff, because the message of the gospel is vital to humankind God has chosen fragile vessels that will not take centre stage.
Paul then goes on to describe what life was like for a genuine disciple, which mirrors Jesus’ death and resurrection.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
I like the graphic way William Barclay translates these verses:
We are sore pressed at every point, but not hemmed in; we are at our wit's end, but never at our hope's end; we are persecuted by men, but never abandoned by God; we are knocked down, but not knocked out.
Notice the weakness of the clay jar and the transcendence of the power of God. Here is the weakness of the pot. Paul says “We are sore pressed; we are at wit's end, we are persecuted, we are knocked down." and here is the power of God, "We are not hemmed in; we are not at hope's end; we are never abandoned and we are never knocked out."
This is the way God expects us to live. The remarkable thing, and the place where we struggle is that it takes the weakness in order to have the strength. That is what we do not like. We want to see the power of God in our lives, but we want it to come out of untroubled, peaceful, calm, circumstances. We want to move through life protected from all the dangers and all the difficulties. We want to go through life in our little boats, gliding through all the difficulties. But of course we are all well aware that life is not like that. There will be difficulties and afflictions and persecutions and sometimes we will be sore pressed and feel at our wits end, knocked down but never knocked out.
There is a well-known fable that illustrates this better than I can:
An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck.
One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.
At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.
Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments.
But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.
‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.’
The woman replied ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side?’
‘That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.’
Our clay jar may cracked and under pressure but never it will never be completely broken. God will use it for a purpose, to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world.
Like Paul and the disciples we are not completely protected from life and all it throws at us. Christians get ill, Christians can get cancer, Christians can have financial collapse, and Christians can go through separations, divorce, problems of every kind. Here is the good news. The treasure within us helps us to have a different attitude, a different reaction and demonstrate the love, joy and peace of the Holy Spirit that can only be explained as God at work in us. Of course this is not automatic, it requires a close walk with God, it requires faith that all things will work together for good if we love God. It requires the firm assurance of eternal life and the absolute belief that we are never ever alone. We are just cracked jars but God will give us the power to minister out of our brokenness.