**The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on February 25, 2018. You can listen to the message here.
Verses 7: But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
The Apostle Paul just got done talking about the glorious light of the gospel as he and other believers proclaim Jesus. Now, the Apostle talks about the very common vessels which proclaim the good news. Jars of clay. In most homes in the ancient Middle East, there were common earthenware vessels or vases. These were inexpensive and easily broken. Stored in these vessels might be common everyday items for that day and sometimes human waste. These would be contrasted against metal vessels or glass ones. Metal could be repaired and glass could be melted down and used for another purpose. The earthenware vessels were cheap and again, easily broken and often when they were broken, they were discarded. Consider the contrast that Paul is using as an analogy here to himself and us. Human beings are frail and we are easily broken but God delights in empowering us to share His gospel and kingdom values. This relationship and exchange proves the surpassing power and glory is from God as He works in and through the ordinary and easily broken to change the world.
The word glory gets thrown around a lot. Let’s define it. Glory is ‘high renown or honor won by notable achievements…magnificence or great beauty.’ This would be like when you get a new shirt or new clothes. When you go to work and people notice you and compliment you, you may feel a little bit glorious.
We may feel like jars of clay which would be the opposite of glorious. Ordinary and easily broken. How can we as believers make a difference? Because God is at work, shining his light through all of us as the jars of clay that we are and showing His glory in this strange way.
Verse 8-10: 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 manifested in our bodies.
These verses are incredible. This is not a man writing talking about his surrender to Jesus and subsequent happy life where he becomes affluent and everything starts going amazingly well in his personal life. These are the words of a man going through hell on earth in some of these circumstances and writing to a church that he loved but would identify with this grief, pain and suffering. From this writing, it almost seems like he is on the razor’s edge, doesn’t it? He is saying he would absolutely fall into despair if not for knowing Christ.
Paul has to die to himself. Die to his own personal desires to carry forward what God has for him to do and the message God has for him to preach. This identifying with Jesus’ death in the body, as Paul puts it, allows Jesus to be fully manifest in his life to carry him forward even in the darkest of times and most painful of experiences.
Paul went through a lot of painful experiences while on his missionary journey’s sharing the gospel. Here is a summary (a resume if you will), in his own words, of the suffering he went through for the gospel:
“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” From 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.
Who wants to sign up?
Verses 11-12: For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
In doing Paul’s work and with the Corinth church joining him in sharing the gospel, death is all around in very specific ways as a consequence of the message they are trying to get out. They are challenging Greek and Roman gods and religions. They are challenging the notion of empire as they are bowing their knee to Jesus and not to Caesar. Death is all around and their physical bodies may succumb at any point and with any persecution incident that may arise. Through living through these trying times, Paul and these early Christians can contemplate and greatly identify with Jesus’ death. Paul ominously notes ‘death is at work’ and could come seemingly randomly at any time but Paul adds that life is at work too. Believers have been awakened to the gospel. Their spiritual lives in Christ are being renewed by this holy message. There is bad news all around for the believers but at the core of their souls, there is better news. The greatest of news.
Verses 13-14: Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence.
At the beginning of verse 13, Paul is loosely quoting Psalm 116:10 and therefore is identifying himself with the faith of the Psalmist while under a lot of suffering.
The Psalmist writes in that same chapter, verse 3: ‘The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.’ Then the Psalmist goes on by saying that he called upon the name of he Lord.
Obviously Paul was familiar with this Psalm and most of the Old Testament. He was communicating to these fellow believers that striving to have faith among incredible suffering was nothing new but had been a struggle for fellow believers before.
Then Paul mentions the hope of the resurrection. There is a reason why we as Christians trust in Christ and proclaim His holy gospel. God will raise us also with Jesus and we will be brought into His presence. Resurrection is a gateway to immortality in the presence of the true God.
Evangelicals have been criticized for being escapist, rightly in my opinion. In preaching and teaching, there has been an emphasizing on getting out of this world rather then trying to make a difference here and try to implement Jesus’ kingdom values in our lives and communities of faith. To be fair, Paul sounds a little escapist in his verse. However, we should consider the context. We talked about Paul’s persecution and everything he was going through. Going through this intense of suffering and painful experiences, it may be understandable for someone to greatly look forward to their own resurrection and being in the presence of Jesus post-mortem.
Verse 15: For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Grace is such a crucial element in Paul’s presentation of the gospel. By proclaiming Christ, Paul obviously had the message of mercy- we escape the eternal consequences of our sinfulness. In other words, what we deserve is not what comes about because of the work of Jesus. Grace is a different aspect of the gospel from mercy. Grace is unmerited favor. We get or inherit what we don’t deserve. Things are even better then merely being spared certain consequences. We inherit something, the kingdom of Jesus, in which the author of Hebrews exclaims that followers of Jesus are co-heirs with Christ.
Writing here, Paul says as grace extends to more people it will increase the thanksgiving to God. This is amazing. Paul and his fellow believers are going hell and suffering to get this gospel message out so more and more people can experience this radical grace. So the whole world, prayerfully, would experience the grace of Jesus. Even within this context and first century world of suffering and pain, it would translate to greater thanksgiving for who God is and what He has done on our behalf.
CS Lewis in his famous sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’ talks about how God views us which is vitally important, at the heart of what grace is and should elicit a lifestyle of thanksgiving:
“I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall ‘stand before’ Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”
Verse 16-18: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The early Christians and Paul are not losing heart even though they may die at any time and their body wastes away as the years go by. Compared to eternity with God, Paul compares the intense persecutions to a slight momentary affliction. Believers in Christ are focused on the whole picture. A transcendent God and His kingdom that has broken and is breaking into the world. Christians believe in a kingdom unseen and a heavenly realm and God as a Spirit. This is the eternal weight of glory. Each Christian, by following Christ, has this weight that becomes a part of our spiritual DNA. The Spirit opens our hearts and makes us mindful of what really matters.
So how does this matter to us today? How does an early Apostle and missionary’s intense commitment to spreading the gospel while experiencing some of the worst persecution imaginable fit in with believers today? What about us being jars of clay and sensing deep in our souls this weight of glory while desiring everyone to experience God’s grace?
This matters because we are not all that different from Paul and those early Christians. Thankfully, we don’t experience the same persecution they did but we still have pain and grief in our lives. We still have struggles in trying to comprehend the fleeting reality of life and our inevitable deaths.
The gospel that the Apostle Paul is still relevant to ourselves and our culture. The vital message of grace being still life changing and the avenue to find hope and peace with God.
Thesis: Even though we may feel ordinary and have the same frailties as any human being, God can still work through us as we seek to bring His message of grace to this dark world we live in.
Like Paul and the Corinth believers, we feel afflictions in our lives. We sense death and decay around us in our bodies and in our culture. If we are honest, when we turn on the news these days, some of the words that Paul uses here in this passage may come to our minds. The stories circulating in media can be perplexing and tempt one to despair when we consider our culture. A lot has changed in the world since Paul and the Corinth church existed but the capacity for darkness has not.
We have yet another school shooting that has happened in Parkland, Florida. Grief, outrage, suffering and unspeakable pain is broadcast through our televisions and social media feeds. In April, it will be 19 years since the Columbine massacre in 1999. This keeps happening in our culture. Not just at schools but at country western concerts, at churches, at movie theaters and other places.
The big debate in our culture right now is about guns. Obviously a contentious issue. We are not going to wade into the gun debate from the pulpit here at Seed Church as we have people from across the political spectrum that attend here and we want everyone to feel welcome. Ultimately, we are about Jesus and we want everyone whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist or communist to hear His gospel. The Bible obviously doesn’t speak about guns. Whether you are for gun rights generally or favor more restrictions and regulations are firearms, maybe we can all agree on one thing this morning. There is something at the spiritual core of our society that is really, really wrong. At the spiritual center of our society is something dark, perverted, twisted and evil.
Like Paul dealing with forces of darkness in his time and even forces of darkness in the spiritual realm like what Brian Bailey talked about last week: Satan literally blinding people to the truth of the gospel, we have these forces wrecking devastation in our culture. People are blinded to avenues of hope, peace and justice.
Nothing is going to be the one silver bullet to such a complex problem and there are many areas that need to be addressed to get to a place where are society is healthy however since we deal with the spiritual here at Seed, we should deal with this aspect of the problem. Doesn’t it seem like one of the issues at the center of this massive problem is the general devaluing of life? I mean, students getting continually gunned down in schools sometimes just warrants a few days of media coverage and then everyone moves on and it happens again. What does that show about what we value?
Unborn children, are their lives valued? How about elderly people that come to be seen as a burden to take care of rather then as members of the family? The dehumanizing element is everywhere. It is in our politics where if you are a liberal, you are tempted to view conservatives as the enemy. As an evil group of people that is going to destroy the country. If you are a conservative, you are tempted to view liberals similarly. We dehumanize people we disagree with on policy. As a side note: social media seems to be pushing these things farther and farther. As long as America exists, there will be disagreements about politics. That is in the nation’s DNA however there is a way to do this without turning the opponent or friendly competition into Hitler or Satan incarnate.
With race, we have long had problems. Stereotyping people of another race irrationally. Our economic system where there are winners and losers and how do we treat those losers? How are lower classes viewed? All of this becomes a system of dehumanization. When we get online, we can cycle into our own groups and vent our outrage and righteous fury at the other groups we believe but, may never say out loud, are inferior.
Now, you are probably thinking to yourself that you see all this going on. We see the contentious in the media and online. We see these dark elements in society and you say to me or more say to yourself, ‘I’m just a jar of clay.’ ‘I am ordinary.’ ‘I’m not a celebrity and I’m nobody special.’ Yes, and look around the room. So are all of not most of us. We are easily broken, frail, weak and sinful so therefore spiritually weak.
If we are jars of clay and this is our status, what literally can we do about this massive perverse darkness at the center of our culture? How can ordinary people make any kind of a difference? Can you really do anything about school shootings, these horrific tragedies and crimes, and the sheer rage that impacts so many in our country right now?
Moreover as Christians we do sense this weight of glory that Paul talks about. We know and believe that this life is not all there is. We know that God’s Kingdom is breaking through and one day will be fully manifested when Jesus comes back. There is something at is transcendent to this world and universe that we find ourselves in. We attempt to have the perspective of the unseen, of eternal things, as a guide to find hope and meaning today. But often times this weight of glory we turn into a burden. We shame ourselves and feel guilty that we cannot do more to bring this message of Christ’s gospel to this culture of ours that at times seems to be spiraling out of control. We beat ourselves up and proverbially keep telling ourselves that we are just ordinary. An earthenware vessel and nothing more.
Fortunately for us, Paul doesn’t just stop with our description as jars of clay. He also says, ‘…to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’ We always forget that God’s kingdom values are often upside down from this world’s. As kids when you picked your kickball team at recess, you would often want to choose he very best player first, right? You would pick the person who could kick the ball the furtherest or could play great defense. Well, God doesn’t always choose the most talented or most gifted. A lot of the time He chooses earthenware vessels. Billy Graham was not technically one of the greatest speakers ever but he ended up preaching the gospel to more people then anyone else in history. Some scholars believe Moses may have had a speech impediment. Jonathan Edwards, the well known Puritan pastor and giant in American history, used to reportedly read sermons monotone. Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she said, “Today, I’m not going to the back of the bus.” They were all jars of clay but God had them do extraordinary things.
Again, in reality we probably will not attain the heights of those people. This will cause us to feel ordinary. But in the end, with God’s work and with this weight of glory that we sense as Christians, are we really ordinary? Is the person sitting next to you ordinary? Here is CS Lewis again from his same sermon:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Here is what we can do. How many people do you engage or interact with on a daily basis? Your family members, your literal neighbors, your co-workers, people at the grocery store, others you meet at a party or volunteer work that you do. What if you let Christ empower you with His grace in your daily, ordinary interactions with others? Paul says in this passage ‘….as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving.’ Who is that one co-worker that really pisses you off? How can you show them grace this week? How about grace to your spouse and kids?
The goal being that it would exalt and overwhelming attitude of thankfulness to God. When we receive grace, unmerited favor or things that we do not deserve, it tends to move us into a posture of thanksgiving.
Let’s be idealistic hippies for a moment. What if we became a community that received the grace of Christ and in turn were empowered by the Holy Spirit to give grace to those in our lives? What if others were inspired by this display because they saw the hope and meaning in life that can come by living this way for Jesus? And what if this perspective spread across our culture so at the center of our culture was not a dehumanization of the other but a perspective of thankfulness that they are our neighbors in this place live? What if the scorn, hyper partisanship and rage that exists in our culture right now was replaced by a thankfulness to God because of His grace? A thankfulness that we are alive. A thankfulness that we live here in this country. A thankfulness for God that loves us, died for us and rose again.
It’s a dream. A pipe dream probably but with God, anything is possible. It starts here with us. The jars of clay extending grace and celebrating the value of thankfulness.