Sometimes in church, when I begin to read the lesson for the day, I have the heart-quickening feeling that I am going to give everybody who is present a gift. I feel that way now. The words I am about to read to you from II Corinthians express a truth that is especially meaningful and beautiful.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12. "For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake."
"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."
"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 to our mortal flesh."
"So death is at work in us, but life in you."
These verses are, to my mind, among the most encouraging in all the Bible, speaking as they do of the consistency of God's loving care from the first day of creation and including to this present moment. "The God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness,' is the same God who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
That is not a bad thought at all. Imagine that the exact same power that brought light to the cosmos at the beginning of time is now offering light to illumine you, is in fact, shining through you as sunlight streams through a window. It is very hard to hold on to dark notions in the face of such a shining thought.
The subject that Paul is addressing in this letter is his own experience in the ministry. He wants to make clear to his friends in Corinth that he believes that the source of his ability to articulate the gospel is not found in himself. The credit belongs to God and to God alone. "We have this treasure, in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." Now it is true that Paul is writing about the inherent limitations of mortal ministers, a reality to which those of us in my line of work can personally attest, but the point he makes is a universal one, isn't it? Face it. We are all clay jars.
This is not bad news, it is simply the truth, and only the truth will allow us to be free and human in the way God intended. Here is the truth: from dust we came, to dust we will return, and for the time we are on this earth, what we are is somewhat analogous to a piece of pottery. Useful to be sure, but also subject to chipping and cracking and likely to contain imperfections. Earthen vessels have little reason to boast. The most appropriate attitude for them is humble gratitude for the privilege of serving a function in the eternal scheme of things.
You and I are not likely to hear a message like this much of anywhere in our contemporary culture. This is exactly the opposite of the message our culture speaks. Humility is as out of fashion as the hoop skirt. Intolerance with imperfection is in.
I recall a family in a congregation I once served. They were regular attendees at Sunday School and worship, both parents active in committee work. Gradually, they became less and less involved, and then, we did not see them at all. I called one day. "What's going on with you guys?" I asked.
"We started going to another church," the husband said.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Why, if you don't mind my asking?" "Well, our teenage son was having a lot of trouble. We were worried and sad, but every time we came to church people would say, 'How are you?' Maybe it was our fault, we would always answer, 'We are doing great, thank you.' It was as if 'great' was the expected answer. What we needed was a place where we could be more real about what was wrong and imperfect in our very human family."
Where did people get the idea that being human is about being perfect, and since when did that notion ever get wrapped up with Christianity? It is destructive to the human spirit and to the human community to believe that we have to be something we are not in order to be loved by God and accepted by one another. Mortals, by definition, are limited and imperfect. Only God is perfect in action and infinite in being.
I am not saying that is an easy thing to accept the "clay jarness" of human existence, and I am certainly not saying that we will be ushered into the easy life when and if we do. In fact, the opposite is likely to happen. The constant challenges Paul faced in his ministry, teach us not to hope for ease. "We are afflicted in every way," he wrote, "but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed."
What all of this says to me is that we are going to make it, you and I. There is a big difference between being beleaguered, which we will be, and being done in, which we will not be, thanks to the grace of God. What this says to me is that if we are true in ourselves and to God, we will likely have a life that has its share of trouble, but our lives and their troubles will not get the best of us. According to Paul, this resilient strength is made available to us by the mysterious power unleashed on the world by Jesus' death, in the pouring out of his blood and in the breaking of his body. "His risen life is being made visible in our mortal flesh."
This is the mystery at the heart of the Christian religion, but it is the heart of the matter. Our conviction is that God is at work repairing the world through these means. It is the spiritual reality on which we stake our lives.
About us earthen vessels, I have observed a few things. No matter how many gifts and abilities we have, our knowledge and insight are limited to our time and place in history. We are all, every one of us, subject to selfish impulses, riddled with personal quirks, easily misled by delusions our own egos cook up, as well as by the opinion of others. Some of us think erroneously that we are less worthy than we actually are, and others of us are convinced that we are the cat's meow. In reality, there is something good about the worst of us, and there is something wrong with all of us. I love the definition of a saint I once read. "A saint is someone whose life has not been sufficiently researched." There is not a single living human being who is in such great shape that he or she does not need the grace of Christ to make him or her whole.
I am thinking today of someone who came as close as anyone I have known to being a saint in my own life. A saint not in the sense of perfection, but saint in the sense of being someone through whom I sometimes saw the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shine. She was my aunt, my mother's sister, who lived with us for a time when I was a child and who died a long time ago. She was short and stout. During the week, she wore sensible shoes. On Sunday she wore hats. I especially remember a navy blue straw with violets pinned to the brim with a pearl-tipped hat pin.
She was the Christian Educator at our church, and I loved to spend summer days hanging around with her and wandering the halls of the church on exploring expeditions. One Friday, I happened upon a little kitchen near the sanctuary where the elements for communion the following Sunday were already set up. I clearly remember thinking that it wouldn't hurt a thing if I ate just one little cube of bread from one of the trays, which I did. I was not satisfied with one piece of bread and wanted another, so I took another one and then another, and pretty soon, I had finished off most of the contents of the trays. That little feast, of course, made me thirsty, and so I drank a cup of grape juice and then another and so on and so forth until I heard the turn of the doorknob and beheld my aunt standing in the doorway. I looked at her, she looked at me. In that moment I realized that I lived in a world of "infinite possibilities." "I shouldn't have eaten all of this," I said.
"I know," she said. "Let's fix it all back the way it was." We did, and all the time we worked in silence, it was if there were some sort of clay jar over my head pouring out grace. Washing me clean. Helping me become a better human being.
Even today, when I see the bread broken and the cup poured out at church, I remember that there are gifts that are beyond words and that right here on earth. We are invited to participate in the "invisible drama" that is the life and death of Christ. The power behind that it all is God, who makes light to shine in the dark places and dares to place treasure in earthen vessels.
Almighty God, we look not to ourselves, but to our savior Jesus Christ, our only hope in life and in death, in his grace we live with thanksgiving.