June 10, 2012
2 Corinthians 4:5-12; 16-5:1
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Sometimes we forget what the Apostle Paul put himself through to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which had so transformed his life. He spent 20 years traveling thousands of miles by land and by sea to start churches in cities all over the northern lands of the Mediterranean Sea. Grant and Gail can tell you that is a large area as they recently traveled there. Paul’s cruise ship did not have all the amenities and comforts of a modern one, nor did he really know the places where he was going. He started churches and wrote follow-up letters of encouragement and thanks to those letters and the work of the Holy Spirit, we are still being encouraged to this day by the one who could not stop proclaiming the Gospel, even when it landed him in prison several times. Hard as Paul worked on this mission, courageous as he was, there were still some low moments. We read a several weeks ago the opening of 2 Corinthians, a scripture which alludes to Paul’s despair over life when Paul reminds himself and the Corinthians that the hard times help us to be comforters of others when they go through difficult days. This passage is similar in that Paul is speaking of trials and talking himself and the Corinthians into trusting that our weakness, our suffering, our dying is purposeful, because through it, the light of Christ and the eternal hope of our resurrection with Christ can shine more brightly through the cracks in these our fragile earthen vessels.
Listen for the Holy Spirit speaking to her church through these words from 2 Corinthians:
2 Corinthians 4:5-12; 16-5:1
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.
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (NRSV)
Old clay jars were often used to store valuables in Paul’s day. The jars were dispensable. The valuables were not. 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. These bodies of ours are like clay. We can sculpt them. We have influence over what goes in them and how strong they are, but ultimately, they will wear down. They will get dropped and broken in the hardships of life. Over time entropy has its way and we fall apart. The Corinthians thought that was bad. They did not approve of weakness at all. In fact, they thought the Apostles’ weakness was a sign that God was not with him.
Now, the average life span was about half what it is today. People in the 1st Century knew few people who lived long enough for their bodies to slowly fall apart. Many did not survive childhood, and to live beyond 50 was rare. Paul was one of those. Anyone who is close to or beyond 50 can tell you that the body at 50+ even more so at 75+ is not like the body at 25. This will be evident when seminary intern Marilyn and I arrive in Montreat on Thursday evening to join the youth. All the teens will be still going strong. Jenny may still look good, but Chip Schaaff, I predict will be a little haggard by sleep deprivation.
These bodies of ours are falling apart. Some people prop them up with plastic surgery, but the fact remains, we are aging. And Paul says, this is good. It’s not the jar that really matters. It’s what is in the jar. In the book Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir, she uses the term low pot to refer to the feeling of emptiness. We say our glass is half-empty or half-full to tell people whether we have a pessimistic or optimistic view of life.
Paul uses this metaphor of the earthen vessel, the clay jar, a useful but expendable item, to point to the greater value of Christ’s living in us. It is not the outward appearance of things, but what’s inside. He says that our apparent weakness is an opportunity for God’s strength to shine through. In fact, you have to wonder if a shiny beautifully glazed, fully adorned and perfected exterior is problematic for an effective witness to God’s goodness and power.
Some of you may remember that this text is one of the ones we read at Gretchen Frueh’s memorial service. Not only did Gretchen value this scripture, she helped us as she was dying to see how God renews the inner nature while the outer nature wastes away. There were very hard days for Gretchen as there are for anyone who has a terminal diagnosis. It did not seem a slight momentary affliction. In fact slight momentary afflictions are kind of like minor surgeries. You know the truth about minor surgeries, don’t you? Minor surgeries are surgeries happening to someone else. If it is happening to you or someone you really love, minor is not the adjective of choice and momentary is not the length of time.
Paul says, “While we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake.” Is that how you think of your life? You are always being given up to death and it is for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in you. Richard studied this passage in depth while working on his PhD. He tells me that the Greek word for death here in verse 10 is a rarely used one. It is the root from which we get our word nekrosis, corpse. It is a graphic word there in verse 10 as in rotting flesh, gangrene. We are always carrying in our bodies, the dying flesh of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be seen.
This reminds me of a story Sherry Robinson told me about a conversation she had with one of our younger Peace participants, not quite school-aged, but very bright. Sherry was putting the plants outside after worship, working hard as the members of the Property work crew do each Sunday while some of us are enjoying fellowship time, and this little one approached her and asked why. And she said that the plants needed God’s sunshine so they can grow, just like little boys need to play outside she said, so they can grow. To which he replied, you’ve already grown a lot and she said, “Yeah, do you think I’m old?” And he said, “Yeah, because look, my skin is nice and smooth, and your skin is wrinkly.” She said “Yes, and what does wrinkly skin mean? He said, “That means you’re old.” Sherry told that story at the last Ministry Team Leaders meeting and all of us were laughing so hard we almost cried.
It’s not the temporary tent of our earthly bodies, but the permanent home we have with God. I must say that as I watch my mother age, I am so amazed at how little she complains. Her arthritic knees lock when she stands for a little while, and I see her grimacing as she tries to get them unfrozen to move again. Her feet and toenails require the untrained but careful attention care of my hands every time we are together. Her neck locks as badly as the knees, and she is three inches shorter than she used to be. But all of these weaknesses are opportunities for the light of Christ to shine through her weakness, her increasingly fragile body. She spoke to me this visit of the grace required in letting other help her when she is unsteady on her feet. She says, “You know you are old and frail-looking, when everyone in the airport offers to get you a wheelchair.”
Henry Nouwen, author of the Wounded Healer, says in his book The Inner Voice of Love that we must learn to acknowledge our own powerlessness in order to fully receive the power of God. The more we focus on divine power, the freer we become in accepting our own weakness, which ultimately makes us stronger, calmer, healthier people.
The lyrical phrases “afflicted . . .but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” remind us of the reality of suffering but tell us that suffering never gets the last word. In moments of deep pain, there is always hope. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, says Paul in Romans 5. Only one who has suffered and maintained hope can make such claims with integrity.
In our short life as a new church, we have experienced the strength that comes in weakness. The strength of relationships less than a decade old, formed in a church that wasn’t always sure it would survive. The strength that comes from trusting God’s ability to provide when we are not sure how we will build a church home with the resources we have available. The strength that comes from a spirit of gratitude and generosity, such that all of us feel compelled to do our part in giving and serving, instead of being pew-sitters, consumers of religious services.
Beyond brokenness is the capacity to not only be a greater comfort to others who suffer, but to shine the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on in chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians to refer to his “thorn in the flesh” which he describes as some physical infirmity given to make him more humble, to keep him from being too elated. He prays for the removal of this problem, but God says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul then says he is content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, because when he is weak, then he is strong.
Why do we try to cover all the cracks in our clay jars? Why do we try so hard to dress up our clay jars, so no one can see the holes? Why do we waste so much energy working to hide our brokenness? Brokenness is a reality for all of us who are honest with ourselves. And beyond brokenness is the power of God to live and shine more brightly because of the gaps in our lives, where there is no room for pride. When all opportunity for pride and boasting is removed from us, then the real life of Christ in us is made visible.