TRINITY UNITED CHURCH: FEBRUARY 11, 2024
SUMMARY: TREASURE IN JARS OF CLAY
(2 Corinthians 4:1-10)
The Church’s early years after Christ were wild. There was huge persecution as Rome tried to stop this powerful grassroots movement of Life and Love and Hope from thrusting its way forward into every walk of life. The disciples were unstoppable as they went off in all directions with their message of sacred inclusivity and, that, despite ultimately their martyrdom at the hands of a very threatened Roman Empire.
Paul was one of the main influencers, with many missionary travels and pointed missionary letters to those early communities. Corinth was one that he established, and, as Eugene Peterson puts it, ‘they gave him as their founding pastor more trouble than all his other churches put together’ .
We think that church life is complicated today with all sorts of issues and personalities pulling in all directions, well, it was no different then. It’s like we can’t help ourselves:
Before we know it our self-serving ego-agendas just leap out at us to threaten our entire identities and purpose. They say that if you ever find a truly holy church community where everything is always wonderful and holy, please avoid joining it: because you will ruin it! Those ugly, brokennesses of humanity that we all despise, are in us all.
We know that Paul wrote several letters to that troublesome Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, he mentions a first letter, we don’t have that one, which is followed by a second one that we call 1st Corinthians. That’s followed by another lost letter – a painful one in which he apparently addressed some hard issues in the church, writing that he wrote it “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears”. Paul hated how factions and divisions were and are still always allowed to develop among us at our judgemental worst – breaking us down, causing all sorts of conflict and division.
The point that I’m trying to make is that the Corinthian church was filled with all sorts of imperfect people. People like us. And yet, also just like us, they were people into which the treasure of ‘The Gospel’ had been placed! The Gospel was, and is, entrusted to people with all the infirmities, limitations, instabilities, and insecurities of our very finite mortality .
Imperfect people. Just like us. In his song “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen writes of how we should stop trying to be so perfect, because “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” …which sounds very much like a statement in today’s text about our carrying of the Gospel as “treasure in jars of clay”.
Paul was using poetic imagery to describe the flaw at the heart of all reality and, while we should not be surprised when it shows up in us or in everything else, he was making the point that we are never to be defined by it. Awareness of our imperfections and flaws is never meant to cripple us, incapacitate us with guilt, so much as center us, awake in us our patience, humility, …that our world become less judgmental, more inclusive of one another, even with our common weaknesses…
Elsewhere , Paul goes so far to writes of how God’s strength is in fact made perfect in this realisation of our very human weakness. He stresses how there’s never reason for us to judge others because there’s nothing for us to be overly proud– anything and everything that we may be doing ‘right’, anything that is beautiful and sacred and worthwhile in us is all of God and for the glory of God! It’s never just about us!
This ‘Gospel-treasure’ that we have is not the result of our human intellectual ingenuity, some bright idea for us to own and to divvy out to whomever we choose, on our terms – it is purely and entirely the freely given gift of God placed into the centre of us, and humanity and indeed all creation – ever-present, like some pearl of great price, some treasure in a field, just waiting to be discovered , and appreciated, and then lived! That is the perfect treasure that imperfect us are given to nurture and steward and share.
Treasure in jars of clay. Paul is giving us a metaphor in which we are to understand the obvious: that it’s the treasure which is the most valuable thing here, not the container.
Of course, us, as the containers of treasure matter, but it’s never in and of ourselves, the container matters only to the extent of what it is privileged to contain. Our physicality/ our bodies are the imperfect jars that matter because of what we are in our essence – what, in Christ, we are given to possess…
We may think of the terms ‘essence’ and ‘accident’ where the ‘accident’ is the incidental outer shape of things while ‘essence’ has to do with what the thing actually is, on the inside. One definition is that ‘an essential property of an object is something that it must have ina to exist at all while an accidental property is something that we happen to have but could do without’.
Now, not to change the subject, but we are surrounded by so much that is commodity – things we can choose to use or not to use ina to fulfil whatever agenda we may have. By ‘commodity I mean things that can be used, bought & sold, like coffee, copper, or even services like nursing agencies, counsellors, bankers. We are surrounded by so many people and objects and services that exist to serve us either for free or as we pay for their services. Commodities!
And tragically, we so easily tend to see the ‘treasure of the Gospel, our faith in Jesus and all that he represents’, as yet just another commodity for us to use to fulfill our hopes and dreams and plans. When it all works, that’s great, and our faith is strong. That’s what the prosperity cults of our culture feed on! But when things don’t work out as we had hoped they would/should, well, we become upset, think that the Gospel-commodity of Jesus has failed us – we become disillusioned, and we lose faith, perhaps look for some other faith-commodity to satisfy our needs.
But it seems to me that that’s just about exactly the wrong way around! Instead, the treasure of today’s metaphor is not just our imperfect outer selves that need to be served but the holiness/ the godliness/ the sacred ‘essence’ of what has been created within us, our soul-selves! And we, as the clay jars that house the treasure, are the ‘accidental’ commodities that God chooses to contain, to present, to celebrate the presence of sacred treasure which, in Christ, God has placed deep within us.
And so then, what exactly is that treasure? We’ve spoken these last four weeks of our sense of our very best-selves being called out. Surely, the treasure in Paul’s metaphor is just that – our very best selves, that essence of our very best selves, our truest-made-in-God’s-image selves, the Christ-in-us selves, which by God’s Spirit is constantly being called up into our awareness and then given to empower us into right living.
We see what that right-living looks like as the scripturally revealed character of God in action: The prayer of Saint Francis speaks of this ‘treasure’ at work in us as God’s essential peace which we come to know and to live: it manifests as love as opposed to/ the very opposite of hatred. It’s our lives re-configured to bring pardon to everywhere there is injury, faith to where there is doubt, hope to where there is despair, light to where there is darkness, joy to where there is sadness. Then it at asks that we – even with all the foibles and frailties of being deeply imperfect clay jars – be so used by God that we become the channels, conduits, instruments God would use to bring an awareness of that everywhere-present and treasured essence to others.
However beautiful, however impressive our outer selves may be, however much these ‘clay jars’ may grab at our attention, drain our resources as they demand our most extravagant maintenance, even earning our admiration, loyalty, respect, this metaphor stresses how we should make no mistake – that they are still only always made of clay, and so are never be mistaken for the treasure which they contain. They are not forever, they will all ultimately corrupt and fail. They are ever to be depended upon because, ultimately, they will disappoint. The jars not ever to be confused with our God!
The good news is that that means there is room for us to fail. Like those early Corinthians, we truly are not perfect, we have never been, and we will never be. That is not our job.
Our job is never to be looking just to ourselves for ultimate identity or purpose, but, like the psalmist it’s not to the mountains and the hills that we look for identity and strength, but to the Maker, the source of all that is…
And as we do that, so we do begin to get it right!
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