Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:1-12
Treasure in Clay Jars
4 Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 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.
7 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. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 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. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Some movies are famous for how they end. I’ll describe a famous movie ending—you tell me the film.
- A man rides a horse along a deserted beach, rounds a corner, and sees the top half of the Statue of Liberty lying in the sand.
- A large wooden crate, labeled top-secret, slowly wheels down an aisle in an enormous warehouse filled with countless other such crates.
- A frustrated husband walks out into the setting sun, telling his wife that, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
None of those movie endings make any sense if you haven’t seen the rest of the film. There’s a bit of that going on in this morning’s Scripture lesson. Let’s see how we got here.
Paul had sent his coworker Timothy to Corinth with the letter we call First Corinthians. He hoped to end at least some of the backbiting and immorality running rampant there.
When that didn’t work, Paul paid a hasty visit to Corinth himself. He got about as far as Timothy did. Worse yet, someone in the congregation, let’s call him Mr. X, did or said something that left Paul hurt and insulted.
Paul said nothing at the time, but pressure-cooked all the way from Corinth to Asia. Once there, he wrote a letter calling out the congregation in general and Mr. X in particular.
The letter caused quite a stir. First, the Corinthians did as Paul asked and publicly rebuked Mr. X.
That was a huge, hurtful, deal. In a society where honor and reputation mattered above all, some chose suicide over public shaming.
Paul knew that. Part of the reason he wrote 2 Corinthians was to urge the Corinthians to make Mr. X part of their community of faith again.
For some, it was too little too late. Paul’s critics took him to task for being mild-mannered in person but nasty in his letters.
History is full of examples of leaders who would vent their feelings in an angry letter but then never send it. Paul should have given that a try himself.
Once the telephone came along, though, it was easy to dial and spew. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a phone call like that or, sad to say, been the person doing the spewing.
Letters were one thing, and calls on a landline another. Now, in our always-connected age, rudeness has gone 24/7.
There are any number of articles telling Christians what they should never do on social media. As it turns out, the same rules apply in our everyday lives, too. Let’s look at a few.
- Thou shalt not add a smiley face to an insult or end a lengthy harangue with “JK,” just kidding.
That’s not how it works. We’re trying to get away with being unkind, and the Bible won’t let that stand. Proverbs 26: 18-19 says, “Like a maniac who shoots deadly firebrands and arrows, so is one who deceives a neighbor and says, ‘I’m only joking!’”
- Thou shalt not start a discussion online that should happen in person.
If you aren’t sure if you should say something in person or virtually, you have two choices. Zip your lip or talk about it in person, even if it’s hard. Brother Paul could’ve taken that one to heart, as could many of us.
- Thou shalt not misrepresent the gospel.
People should be able to hear our conversations, read our letters, listen to our phone calls, and scroll through our Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter accounts and see what Jesus is like.
A little later in 2 Corinthians, Paul makes just that point.
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we’re ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.
- Finally, thou shalt not be too proud to apologize.
Sometimes we just get carried away. Sometimes we realize after the fact that we must have sounded like a jerk to the other person. We should have the humility and grace to say that we’re sorry.
In Second Corinthians, Paul comes close. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” he wrote, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and doesn’t come from us.”
Clay jars were a common sight in the Roman Empire. Called amphorae, they had two handles and were used to ship wine and olive oil, among other things. When full, each weighed over 200 pounds.
A lot of amphorae ended up in Rome. Since wine and oil that seeped into the clay would, over time, turn rancid, the Romans didn’t reuse those clay jars. They just tossed them.
Mount Testaccio is in the middle of Rome. It’s over 100 feet high and about half a mile around. It’s also what’s left of about 25 million broken amphorae.
When he compared himself to a clay jar, Paul said he was a worthless, throwaway container. Sometimes, he knew, a chipped, cracked, or flawed jar can get in the way of the treasure that is the gospel.
The same is true for you and me. For one thing, we’re all bound by our time and place in history, which can’t help but shape what we know and understand.
We all have our selfish blind spots and personal quirks, too. Our egos cook up crazy ideas and schemes, many of which do far more harm than good.
Some of us think too little of ourselves, wrongly believing we’re less worthy than we are. Others of us think we’re the cat’s meow when, really, we’re a lot closer to the cat’s litter box instead.
All that’s to say that clay jars have their purposes, but still are flawed. There’s something good about the worst of us, and there’s something wrong with all of us.
Paul had no illusions on that score. No stranger to affliction, confusion, and conflict, Paul told the Corinthians that he carried Jesus’ death in his body so that people could see Jesus’ life at work in him even more clearly.
Paul then added, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
Who we are on the outside wastes away like an old car driven into the woods and left to rust. That didn’t bother Paul. He saw physical problems, as well as spiritual and emotional struggles, as everyday ways we share in Christ’s suffering and death.
Likewise, moments of joy and delight, of forgiveness and reconciliation, open a window through which we catch a glimpse of resurrection life.
Our rusting away isn’t the whole story, Paul said. Inside us, where it matters, God renews us day by day, the Spirit nurturing its gifts of love, joy, patience, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
May others glimpse those gifts in us, people whom God calls as ambassadors of the gospel. May they also find them in our letters, conversations, phone calls, online presence, and all the witness of our lives.