Jars of Clay in Tumultuous Times

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2 Corinthians 4:1-12

The past few years have been particularly challenging for pastors and ministry leaders. Political turmoil. Economic uncertainty. International war. #MeToo. Black Lives Matter. The Human Sexuality Report. Roe v. Wade. And, of course, an ongoing COVID pandemic. We've been able to navigate these challenges of ministry leadership.

When Paul describes his own weakness—hard pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed—it makes me think how what we have gone through in the last few years is a shaping work of God for what lies ahead. Forming us in Christ, in the suffering and dying of Christ, so that we reveal the life of Christ in our weakness.

This May we had the privilege of honoring the Calvin Seminary graduates from 50 years ago, the class of 1972. Their time in seminary is a bit of a mirror of our time. Political turmoil? Watergate was 1972. Black Lives Matter? They entered seminary right after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. #MeToo? The Equal Rights Amendment was passed in 1972. International war? Vietnam was going on and the Kent State shootings were in 1970. Roe v. Wade? That was passed in 1972. Human Sexuality Report? The CRC’s Committee to Study Homosexuality was appointed in 1970 and gave a report in 1973 that shaped the denomination.

And then I look at the alumni of 1972 and I see missionaries and pastors, ministry leaders, and denominational executives. I read their stories and see how God was faithful in forming them for the challenges of ministry in the last quarter of the 20th century. Then-President of Calvin Seminary, John Kromminga, noted in an address in 1971 that in order to navigate the changes and challenges of that time, the Church and her leaders needed to be humanly active while divinely led. The need, he said, was to trust the Spirit to lead us forward in humble service. 

I hear in Dr. Kromminga’s words echoes of Paul’s words. We’re clay jars. It’s not about us, it’s the treasure of the light of Christ within us, the life of Christ flowing through us to bear fruit. We don’t proclaim ourselves. We’re servants. We’re jars of clay. We proclaim Christ. The power isn’t ours. We may have earned degrees and have ministry experience, but that’s not what matters. Paul was trained by Gamaliel and was a Hebrew of Hebrews. But Paul says he is weak, a clay jar, so the true treasure of Christ is revealed and proclaimed. The Spirit empowers us day by day with the life of Christ and leads us forward to proclaim Christ. 

In a marvelous little book on missionary spirituality, A Spirituality of the Road, David Bosch points to an image he takes from Kosuke Koyama about the hands of Christ. He notes that when the resurrected Christ was revealed, it was through his nail-scarred hands. His scars revealed who he was and what he had accomplished to Thomas in the upper room. His scarred hands cooked breakfast on the shore for the disciples and handed them fish to eat. When his scarred hands broke bread in Emmaus, Cleopas and friend recognized Jesus. 

I note this because the changes and challenges we are experiencing are causing division within the Body of Christ. One group threatening discipline against another. Another group proclaiming that the other groups are apostate. So the arguments are buttressed and the battle lines are drawn, with each side proclaiming Christ is on their side, and that Christ will win the battle for them. 

Bosch writes, 

“Often when we have differences among ourselves…, those defenseless, beaten, and defeated hands [of Christ] are not in evidence. One muscular Christ confronts another similarly muscular one, resulting in the print of the nails disappearing behind the flexing of those powerful muscles…Moreover, the more muscular our Christ becomes, the more difficult it will be to rehabilitate him back to Calvary. The cross, we ought to remember, is the hallmark of the church. When the resurrected Christ appeared to His disciples, His scars were the proof of His identity…. [Bosch asks,] Will it be different with us? Will the world believe unless they can recognize the marks of the cross on us?”

As Paul tells us, “We have this treasure in jars of clay. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

The world we live in is changing, in turmoil. We don’t need muscular Christs battling it out. We need jars of clay. Our weakness reveals the cross of Christ. May we die with Christ daily, that Christ may be formed in us. His grace is sufficient for us, Paul notes, for his strength is made perfect in our weakness. May we be jars of clay that pour out the life of Christ in a dying world.

May we love our neighbors and serve them with open hands so the world will see the scars of Christ.

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