O Lord, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, and strength to follow on the path you set before us; through Jesus Christ, Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
Physical bodies and eternal glory
7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.
10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Down, But Not Out – Clay Pots
For the next three weeks, we are going to dip our toe into 2 Corinthians in a series called “Down, But Not Out.” And we are going to consider the situation the Apostle Paul found himself in when he wrote this letter to the new church that had been started in Corinth. We are going to work really hard this morning to figure out what Paul was saying to the ancient audience he wrote this letter to, and what Paul might be saying to us today—what God’s word might be specifically saying to each one of you today.
Now we never want to turn our brains off when we are reading scripture, so let’s first consider the context of the letter. It’s important to look at what’s going on in the surrounding scripture and not just pull out a few verses, and it is also important to know what was going on historically. The context can add many layers of meaning. So, I want you to know that Paul is writing to the Christians at Corinth where a dispute has developed. Apparently, Paul’s authority and his mission have been questioned, and he is writing to defend his missionary work in the face of this criticism. There is conflict in the church about whether to follow Paul’s teachings or whether to follow another group of leaders that Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles” in chapter 12 verse 11. It seems that these so called super apostles that are attacking Paul were probably Jewish Christians who boasted about some kind of exalted state of spiritual experience – things like visions and performing miracles, ornate speech, elaborate scriptural interpretation. And these super apostles apparently were arguing that Paul was weak and not a legitimate disciple of Christ because of the sufferings that he had gone through. They argued that all the trials that Paul had experienced showed that he was out of favor with God and that his teachings should not be followed. There was a schism in the church – there was a question about how they would follow Christ and who their human leader would be.
One scholar wrote that it is in 2 Corinthians where we see Paul at “his most vulnerable, that we learn about some of his most demoralizing experiences, and that we hear some of his most moving rhetoric on the power of Christ to work in and through our own weaknesses.” (Longennecker and Still, Thinking Through Paul, 141). And it is this very topic that we will consider over the next three weeks: the power of Christ to work in and through our own weaknesses. We will think about this idea of being knocked down, but not being knocked out. We will try to grasp how in the world the power of Christ is at work in and through us even when we are knocked to the ground by the trials of life.
I was raised that when I was knocked down, I should get right back up. Although I didn’t ride horses, I was taught that when you fall off the horse, you do what? You get right back in the saddle, so to speak. We taught our boys that when they got hit by a baseball, they weren’t supposed to rub it! Right? Maybe it’s an American thing—we are supposed to be tough and keep a stiff upper lip even when we want to cry! In our culture the appearance of weakness is to be covered up and avoided at all cost. And so we pretend that we are not weak.
But you know what, those things do hurt. In fact, there are a lot of things that go on in our lives that hurt. There is not one single person in this room who hasn’t been hurt or suffered in lots of ways. We know from reading Paul’s letters that he faced more trials in his work for Christ than we could ever imagine. Turn over to 2 Corinthians chapter 11, and check out what Paul says about his suffering.
23 Are they ministers of Christ? I’m speaking like a crazy person. What I’ve done goes well beyond what they’ve done. I’ve worked much harder. I’ve been imprisoned much more often. I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times. 24 I received the “forty lashes minus one” from the Jews five times. 25 I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea. 26 I’ve been on many journeys. I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. 27 I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes. 28 Besides all the other things I could mention, there’s my daily stress because I’m concerned about all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
And yet through all of this – through all of that suffering — Paul says this in 4:8:
8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.
We are in trouble—but not crushed
Confused—but not depressed
Harassed – but not abandoned
Knocked down—but not knocked out
Even through all of those things Paul went through, God did not abandoned him, and in fact God is even working in and through these things he has gone through!
Now remember these super apostles are saying that these troubles that Paul experienced show that Paul has been abandoned by God. They argue that Paul is weak, and therefore, he should be disregarded – they argue that God is surely not using someone who has failed so many times. Surely if God was with Paul, God wouldn’t allow him to beaten, imprisoned and shipwrecked. But Paul says the opposite. Paul says that it is in his weakness that God is revealed. It is in his weakness that God is revealed. And it is even in this suffering that he identifies with the suffering of Christ.
Paul uses some great metaphors in today’s scripture. The first one I want to mention is the clay pot. Look at verse 7: “we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.” In Paul’s day clay pots were used to carry water and other goods. Clay was common and cheap and potters could make it into pots — some had beautiful decoration on them, but most were just ordinary, useful vessels. Most were plain and humble. But clay jars were also fragile. If you have any of these clay pots around your house, you probably know that. If you drop them, they break into lots of pieces. Even bumping them with something can cause them to break like the one that I have. Paul uses this metaphor of the clay pot to describe our human bodies. We are useful vessels, but we are fragile vessels. We are here on this earth for a limited time, and our bodies will eventually wear out. Our bodies and our souls are bumped and broken; we are battered and cracked and even big chunks of us get knocked off sometimes.
But for Paul this brokenness and this hardship that he experienced was a good thing. Because the power of Christ works in and through our weaknesses. When we are weak, God’s power in us stands out like a bright light.
And that’s the other metaphor Paul uses — light. In verse 6, he says:
6 God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
In the creation story, God created light to shine in the darkness. And Paul writes that God is the one who shone the light of Jesus into our hearts. And because we have that light within us, it is through our weakness that God shines in the world. It is through all those cracks in our clay pots that the light can get out and shine through to the world. It is in our weakness that people will say, that person is so weak there is no way he could do that without God’s power. It is in our weakness, that people will say it could only be God working in that person’s life. It is when we allow the light of Christ to shine on us that we are able to become God’s people in the world — to let our lights shine so that others might know God.
But I’m afraid that we don’t like to admit that we are weak and that we need help from God or from our church family. And so we create this façade of perfection. We pretend that it doesn’t hurt when we get knocked down, or when we fall off the horse or when we get hit in the head with a baseball. And I’m afraid we would like to imagine the church is a place where there is only joy and peace and happiness – where hard times don’t happen because God is on our side. Sometimes I feel like we think we have to wear a mask even in the church so that others don’t suspect that we are deeply troubled, confused and harassed. But that is not reality. Jesus never promised his followers a life of ease, in fact he warned them of just the opposite – Jesus warned them that they would be harassed and persecuted as his followers.
In my reading this week, I came across a story I want to share with you that will bring this into reality. This is from Rev. Adams who is quoted in your bulletin:
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.”
One of the main criticisms that people have of the church today, is that we are not authentic. We are fake. We try to pretend that when we say “yes” to Jesus our lives become perfect. Some say we are hypocrites.
The other main criticism of the church is that we are judgmental. We come across as looking down on people because of what we consider to be weaknesses or failures. But it really is not our job to judge others. Instead the message we ought to be sharing with people is that we are ALL these broken, fragile, messed up clay pots. That we are easily broken, but gosh we are also useful for God. We can even bring glory to God when we allow God to work in and through us. Did you know that God can and will use your junk for a good purpose? Our message ought to be that we are all in need of a savior… and that savior is Christ Jesus, our Lord!
We are never abandoned by a God who continually creates new things out of our lives even when they appear to be clay pots that are so broken they just need to be thrown away! God has big plans for us clay pots. We are fragile, but we are so useful to God because of all that we have experienced.
So. What does that all mean to us here today? How can we use our broken lives to shine the light of Christ on others who are just as broken as we are? These metaphors are not just pretty words of light and clay pots. These words are a challenge – that each of us would find a way to take off this mask of perfection and get real with one another. I pray that we would admit our weakness, and admit we are real and flawed people. Like Paul in 2 Corinthians, maybe we should be vulnerable with one another and accept the idea that Christ can work in and through our weaknesses. Maybe it would help us grow in our faith. Maybe it would help us share God’s light with people walking in the darkness.
Paul bragged about his weakness. It even helped him to identify with the suffering of Jesus. Today we are going to break bread together. We are going to remember the weakness of Jesus’s body. And we will remember how his weakness brought glory to God and salvation to each of us. It is in our weakness that we are able to reflect the greatness of God.
Let us pray.
God of light, we admit that we are weak and flawed and broken. We really are like fragile clay pots who get bumped and battered along the way. But God we know, too, that you can use that for good. We know that you want to use us. So give us a character of humility and vulnerability and submission to you, Lord. And fill us with your Spirit to recognize when and how to use our weaknesses for your glory. Amen.