Listen for the Word of the Lord in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 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.
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. 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 made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – “I believed, and so I spoke”” – we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 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. (2 Corinthians 4:5-18)
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion shares the many thoughts that flooded her heart and mind during the year after the sudden and untimely death of her husband, John.
Unable to accept the utter finality of death, Ms. Didion quietly believed that maybe, just maybe – somehow, someway – her husband would come back to her.
That’s why, when it came time to clean out the closet and start getting rid of her husband’s clothes, she struggled mightily with the agonizing thought of giving away his shoes. When he came back, she reasoned, he’d be angry to find that his shoes had gone missing.
Indeed, however inevitable, death is something we’re more likely to deny than to accept. Whenever the thought or reality of death creeps into our consciousness and forces our hand, we instinctively almost always push back hard. So disoriented by death’s grip are we that, like Ms. Didion, our minds play tricks on us, and our hearts hold fast to the outrageous in futile searches for ways that will let life continue the way it did before death robbed us of our loved one.
Upsetting as it sounds, the Good News of Jesus is rooted in death. In our Scripture lesson, the apostle Paul makes it quite clear that, whatever else the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, it exists in the midst of death and a dying world. The Gospel is all about light shining in the darkness, but not all of Creation turns the corner from darkness to light in Christ. Darkness still surrounds, and ours remains a world of depression, of dark nights of the soul, of time spent in the valley of the shadow of death.
God’s response to all that – the Good News of Jesus Christ – is a message we carry around in clay pots, in earthen vessels, in notoriously weak and crumbly containers, which makes being a bearer of the Gospel in this world no simple or easy task. Paul himself admits to being perplexed, hard pressed, persecuted, and often struck down. The world is not nearly as eager to accept Christ’s light as you might think. For whatever reasons, some people prefer the dark and are forever ready to try and snuff out the light that’s offered them.
Then comes the real kicker: In these fragile clay pots, we, like Paul, carry around Jesus’s death.
Even though he experiences a litany of woes, it seems that it’s the still-real presence of Jesus’s death that prevents Paul from being done in. Yes, they are hard pressed on every side but they are not crushed. Yes, they are often perplexed, but they avoid despair. Yes, they get knocked around and even laid out flat at times, but they never feel abandoned. And what prevents all that bad stuff from happening? The death of Jesus that he and his associates carry with them. Jesus’s death has the illogical effect of fending off death.
It’s as though Paul is saying, “Because I carry Jesus’ death around with me, you cannot kill me – at least not ultimately anyway. Because I carry Jesus’s death around with me, you can knock me down but not out. You can throw me into the deepest pit, but I will not be left to rot. You can do your absolute worst to me, but I have an assurance that lifts me above it all. I carry around with me the saddest, cruelest thing that ever happened to anyone anywhere: the death of God’s own Son. So, the nastiest you can do to me is still not as bad as what happened to Jesus. As long as I am identified with Jesus’ death, I will live – even if you kill me.”
Paul says it elsewhere, but ultimately he ties all this with baptism. In baptism, among other things, we become identified with Jesus – including his death. We are buried with Christ in baptism. The waters of baptism represent not just some tidy washing up of dirty souls, but these also are deadly waters in which our sinful selves get drowned and a new life is formed. As with Christ, so also with us: Carrying around death is the run-up to resurrection life – in this world as much as the next, and you can’t acquire that life without passing through the death.
Still, some people steadfastly continue to deny death. Others cover over it. Still others find ways to turn even funerals into something resembling a theme party in a mad attempt to affirm life precisely by refusing to acknowledge death.
But, Paul says, acknowledging the end of earthly life is exactly when Jesus’s death is on full display in us – and we realize all over again that the Gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord fits our world precisely because it comes in the midst of death. The Gospel fits this world like a glove. The life of Jesus is what a dying world needs in the same way a starving person needs food: It’s the solution for what ails us! In the great irony of the Gospel, by carrying around Jesus’s death, we find reason to rejoice. Seeing Jesus’s death in this world of death lends hope.
To carry around Jesus’s death within us means to believe in just such a miracle.
It means that our mortal bodies will be made like Jesus’s glorious body. It means that the death we experience in this world, as well as all that we encounter that is sad, and demeaning, and hurtful, do not have the last word. For God has revealed the light of Christ into our hearts.
In the end, there are no places we can go that will not remind us of life’s fragility and of the losses we have suffered. And into all those places we carry Jesus’s death. We carry that spot of cosmic darkness into which we were baptized. Yet, in so doing, the light starts to shine through even the tiniest of cracks in those clay jars of our living.
That image of “treasure in clay jars” holds a powerful double meaning. It recognizes the awesome trust that God bestows upon each of us, and at the same time, it honors our fragility as bearers of God’s grace and might. The image allows Paul and us to celebrate the awesome blessing of life and joy in tribulation, limitation and difficulty. Because we are vessels of divinity, we do not need to building cathedrals, make pilgrimages, or engage in other extraordinary acts to prove our faith.
Instead, we simply need to live our lives each day in ways that love and honor one another. Those who simply and humbly go about each day caring for the ill, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, and so forth are so naturally dedicated to caring for one another that there’s no room to think about anything else – other than know that the grace received in baptism is sufficient to get the job done.
In light of that hope, hear Jesus calling:
Let me fill you with my Love, Joy and Peace. These are Glory-gifts, flowing from my living Presence. Though you are an earthen vessel, I designed you to be filled with heavenly contents. Your weakness is not a deterrent to being filled with My Spirit; on the contrary, it provides an opportunity for My Power to shine forth more brightly.
As you go through this day, trust Me to provide the strength you need moment by moment. Don’t waste energy wondering whether you are adequate for today’s journey. My Spirit within you is more than sufficient to handle whatever this day may bring. That is the basis for your confidence! In quietness (spending time alone with Me) and in confident trust (relying on My sufficiency) is your strength.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, April 11, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Thomas Lynch, J. Paul Sampley, and Sarah Young inform the messge.