The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      25th August 2019
We have this treasure in clay jars
Handley Stevens

Trinity 10, Year C

OT Reading: Isaiah 30.8-21

NT Reading: 2 Corinthians 9

This is our third and last Sunday evensong with St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Preaching two weeks ago from chapter 1, the Vicar drew out the apostle’s message about the joy that springs from consolation in adversity.  Last week, preaching from chapter 8, Paul Gurnham spoke about the grace which gives rise to the joy of generosity in the giving of both time and money.  Chapter 9, which we read this evening, is similar to chapter 8 - some people think it was originally a separate letter - in exhorting the Corinthians to be generous in giving to the collection he was making for the poor of the church in Jerusalem.  So this evening, as we say farewell to the Corinthians for a while, I want to take a look at the heart of the epistle, in chapters 3 to 7, where St Paul waxes most lyrical about the transformation which the gift of grace brings about in our hearts.

My text comes from 2 Corinthians chapter 4, verse 7:  We have this treasure in clay jars.  But I have to admit that my choice owes something to a recent car journey with a couple of 7-year-olds in the back chuckling over an audiobook of Winnie the Pooh stories.  You will remember that when it was Eeyore’s birthday he was very sad because no one had remembered, so Pooh found him a pot of honey, and Piglet begged a balloon from Christopher Robin.  Sadly, the balloon burst when Piglet fell on it, and by the time Pooh had tasted the honey to make sure it wasn’t cheese - at first just a lick from the very top of the jar, but then all the way down to the bottom – all that was left was an empty jar.  But Eeyore pronounced himself happy with an empty pot for putting things in, and a scrap of damp balloon which went in and out like anything.

We too have a treasure in a fragile clay jar.  And the message that goes with it is really quite radical, and profoundly relevant to our own troubled times.  It is clear from the way Paul writes that the Corinthian church has been led astray by a plausible strongman preaching a gospel of strength and prosperity, and pouring some scorn on Paul, who was evidently more impressive in writing than as a speaker.  We don’t have the text of the painful letter Paul had felt obliged to send to Corinth, but it had evidently had the desired effect, and he could now write to encourage and console.  The treasure that Paul speaks of is not the misleading gospel of success and prosperity, by which the Corinthians had been seduced, but rather one of true power made perfect in and through what may look like weakness, but is in fact a way of life demanding the greatest courage and strength.   

Writing to a community in one of the great Greek cities, Paul shows off his skill in the use of rhetoric with a succession of striking statements of paradox.  From a human point of view, he and his co-workers might appear to be impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying – but see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6.8-10).

In an earlier chapter, he lets us into the secret of such a cascade of paradoxical statements.   Afflicted in every way, he writes, we are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in us (2 Cor 4.8-11).  Suffering is not something to be desired for its own sake, but it is given meaning in two ways.  First, it allows the Christian to be identified with Jesus in the suffering which he experienced, if only to the limited extent we can bear, and so to be equally identified with him in the joy of his risen life.  What a remarkable transformation of our experience that can be.  And secondly, our suffering has meaning for ourselves and for others, if it helps to reveal even a pale shadow of the suffering which Jesus himself endured for our sake and for theirs. If costly giving overflows with the joy of thanksgiving, the quiet witness to the truth about God that is inseparable from costly living may be even more profound in its effects. 

This is not the way the world seems to work.  Some at least of the leading figures who have been meeting this week-end in Biarritz seem to have built successful careers on the use of bullying, force, threats and half-truths.  That seems to be the smart way to make a name for yourself these days, to get ahead in life, to establish your authority and that of your nation, or to build the success of your company.  But it’s not the path which Jesus chose to follow, nor is it the path which St Paul advocates.  When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, he may not have known exactly what would happen when he got there, though he must have known that in Jerusalem he would face the decisive crisis of his earthly life.  He just set out to do what he knew to be right, trusting that nothing - not even death - could separate him from his Father’s love, and that was the one thing that really mattered to him.

We have this treasure in clay jars.  What is this treasure?   Paul says it is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4.6).  That sounds utterly intangible, unreal even, but it is the ‘pearl of great price’, for which the merchant was prepared to sell everything he had.   It is the truth about God revealed in Jesus.  And what could possibly be a more treasured possession than to know in our hearts the truth about God?   Yet we are offered this treasure in fragile clay jars, Paul says, so that it may be made clear to us that this extraordinary power to confront the world with quiet assurance, which flows from our knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, does not come from us, but belongs to God himself (2 Cor 4.7).  This gives us hope and confidence, as Paul goes on to say, because it means that even if our earthly nature, like a flimsy tent, may tear and ultimately be blown away as we encounter opposition, or simply as we get older, God is building for us, to take its place, a solid and beautiful house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  And this we know because he who has prepared us for this glorious future destiny is God himself, and these insights come to us from the Spirit (2 Cor 5.1-5). 

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah warned the people of Jerusalem to confront evil as one would avoid a bulging wall, which might come crashing down, breaking up into pieces so small, so ruthlessly smashed, that among its fragments there would be found no piece large enough to carry hot ashes from the fire or to scoop up water from the cistern.  We have this treasure in clay jars as fragile as that bulging wall, but now by the grace of God the clay jar is not so much a threat of utter destruction, as a symbol of our bodily life, the fragile container which one day will fall away to reveal the full value of the treasure within, the ‘pearl of great price’, the new creation, formed by the power of the Spirit at work in our hearts. 

Even so, Come Lord Jesus.

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