God has shone in our hearts
In one of his comedy routines Jeff Foxworthy, himself a son of the deep South, used to talk about how Southerners went through terrible weather events. Especially things like tornadoes. He said that the news channels somehow seem to know how to find the most stereotypical Southern person they can get in front of a camera, and then just let it roll. Like the woman who says right on cue, “I looked up just in time to see the Jones’ house fly right over our house. All I could think of was, ‘Carolyn’s still got my Casserole dish!’”
Have you ever seen one of those glass casserole dishes break up or explode? Those things are timeless, it seems. How many generations have used them? But under the wrong conditions, they can also completely come apart. They’re a little fragile, it turns out.
All the talk of a “treasure in clay jars” or “treasure in earthen vessels” in 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 is fascinating. Some scholars observe that Paul was making more of a point than our contemporary, English-speaking ears might pick up. Because you would never have put anything of value, certainly not any treasure, in a clay jar back in Paul’s time.
You know those thin plastic storage containers so many of us keep in our pantries? The one that if you take Evelyn some soup in it, you just look at her and say, “Don’t worry about returning that bowl and lid when you’re done”? The thing that is made to maybe be reused a few times, but is ultimately considered to be a “disposable”? That was the clay jar of Paul’s day.
You didn’t have to be rich to get one, and if you broke yours you could easily get another. They weren’t meant to be permanent storage solutions, much less fortresses where you would hide something. No, he wanted us to hear the exaggeration or the absurdity of the notion. He seemed to say that something God considers to be treasure can indeed be found in a fragile vessel prone to breaking.
Us. We are the earthen vessel. We are the clay jar. We are a humanity entrusted with the good news of Jesus’ saving grace and transformative love. Has it ever struck you, the near irony that the way God has chosen to entrust this treasure is us?
Just last week, we observed Pentecost. We focused on the Holy Spirit. This week, on Holy Trinity Sunday, we saw all three. One was more subtle than the others in our scripture text. God the Father and Jesus Christ were more on display. But God has shone in our hearts with the power of the Spirit. The church at Corinth was beginning to see some cracks in the clay jar. Viewed as an earthen vessel itself, the church’s weakness and imperfection was on full display as we dive into Paul’s letter to them.
We should consider how complicated just being a Christian was back in Paul’s time. We can be tempted to think it’s pretty complicated these days, too. We might be right about that. Christianity doesn’t have the upper hand in our culture anymore. Far from it. But we’re not under the persecution that first century Christians were. Make no mistake about that. If you think Christianity has some challenges these days, you have no idea how difficult it was back then.
Have you ever participated in an egg-toss during a picnic? You know that thing’s going to break. The shell of that egg is going to fail because it’s being asked to stand up to unthinkable elements. Namely speed, height and sheer physics interact with the eggshell as it hits someone’s hand. The only question is whether you’ll be the one who just tossed the egg or the one who was trying to catch it when it finally breaks.
That is the picture the apostle paints when he thinks of you, me or himself being entrusted with God’s sacred truths and the ways of the faith life. Anyone who speaks the truths of the immutable God, and the loving grace of Jesus Christ, is a breakable clay jar. The truth is indestructible. The container itself is temporary though.
Henry Stanley Haskins once said, “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” These clay jars somehow work under God’s keeping. We should think humbly about the container that the grace of Christ is carried around in.
DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.