Passage: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Date: June 3, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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“Church people.” When you hear those words, what comes to mind?
Some of a certain age will remember comedian Dana Carvey’s incarnation of the Church Lady, in a gray wig, fake pearls, making multiple references to Satan, and the expression, dripping with sarcasm, “Isn’t that special?”
“Church people” might conjure up an image of any Sunday here at Westminster, with images of friends or of some of our more beloved or colorful members.
For a lot of people in the world who intentionally have nothing to do with Christianity, “church people” brings to mind a group of close-minded, judgmental, perfectionist, holier-than-thou people. In some circles, there has been an unfortunate tendency to conflate being a Christian with being perfect—living a life without hardship or mistakes, a life of full health, with a faultless marriage and brilliant, talented, well-behaved children.
Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth should close the door to all those misconceptions of who “church people" are. If you read his two letters to the Corinthians carefully, you will learn that that particular of group of Jesus-followers got it wrong more often than they got it right. They quarreled with each other over trivial things; there were personality conflicts, particularly among the women; they favored the rich over the poor; they needed desperately to be taught what love is.
In this week’s lesson from the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses his own difficult situation as an example for them. He writes in the “royal we,” enumerating the hardships that he faces and admitting his own fragility. He is down, but not out, and his suffering allows him to connect more deeply with Jesus, who also suffered. As Jesus suffered and rose, Paul too suffers and lives so that the power of God would be known through Paul. To bring his point home, Paul likens himself, and those like him, to clay jars—fragile, frail things that nonetheless contain great treasure.
I wonder how the Corinthians received these words. With all their infighting, were they fighting the powers of the world as well? Did they see themselves as down but not out? Were they willing to see the treasure in themselves but not in those with whom they quarreled?
We’ll never know how the message was received in Corinth, but we can look at how the message is received today.
These days we church people at Westminster aren’t experiencing deep divisions or a lot of infighting. I’m grateful for that, and I suspect you are too. But that’s not to say that members of our community aren’t feeling down but not out. God knows (literally) that it’s a shock to our community system when one of our friends receives an unwanted diagnosis, or a job disappointment, or heartbreak.
Many of us are feeling pretty perplexed about immigrant children detained at our border and separated from their parents. And many of us are perplexed but not yet despairing about the crisis of homelessness in our city. And many of us are anguished about the affliction of racism that our citizens of color experience every day in small and large ways. We’re not sure we can take one more blow. Our stress systems, our emotional and physical health, teeter on the brink.
Paul would remind us that while we may be down, we are not out, because we do not live solitary lives dependent on our own power. One commentator brings home the point Paul is trying to make. “So grand a treasure borne in such a menial, frail, seemingly inept container makes it unmistakable that the power enabling the whole enterprise is ‘from God and not from us.’”(J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians” in the New Interpreters Bible commentary, p. 81)
What is this grand treasure? Paul would say it is the gospel of Jesus, the life and death and resurrection of the son of God, who suffered so that we would have a different kind of life. And you? What would you say this treasure is?
What is good in your life? What brings you joy or hope? What warms your soul, helps you get out of bed in the morning, leads you to say “thank you” when you go to sleep at night? Would you not say that those things – people – events – are treasure?
Those are blessings, to be sure, and you may treasure them. I wonder for all of us—myself included—if I have a sense of Christ being treasure. I wonder if we have a sense of carrying the death and life of Jesus within our bodies, and if we do, what sort of mystical claim that makes on our living.
After seven years among you here, I’m still quite interested in the Pacific Northwest’s take on Christianity and personal faith. Many love the teachings of Jesus but do not believe he was divine. Many are grateful for the life they have in the congregation, but reject the idea of resurrection. I will admit it is at times a struggle for me, because my faith, which some would describe as naïve, is at the core of my being and is a source of such hope for me. You see, I really do believe that we have this treasure in clay jars, and the treasure is Jesus. That gets me through the hard days and illuminates the good days. What about you?
Last week was the one-year anniversary of the death of our beloved Portland author Brian Doyle. Not long after his diagnosis of a brain tumor he was asked why he was a Catholic. This is in part what he wrote.(from his book Leaping)
“… I believe that a carpenter’s son named Jesus did indeed crack Time in half, enter this world in the guise of a squalling infant, say his piece, to be slaughtered for his pains, and crack Time again on his way home. I have no real basis for this belief, and neither do you. We either believe the man or we do not, and I do, for reasons I know and do not know.
“... I believe in Christ for muddier reasons. Sometimes I desperately need to lean on a god wiser and gentler than myself. Sometimes I desperately need to believe that when I die I will not be sentenced to Fimbul, the hell winter, where there is only the cold voice of Nothing, but rather I will be at peace and draped in Light. Sometimes I am nudged toward belief by the incredible persistence and eerie genius of the tale: the encompassing love of a Mother, the wordless strength of the Father, the Lord of all Worlds cast ashore on this magic of these stories. Sometimes it is an intuitive yes as the light fails and the world is lit from below. And sometimes I simply cast my lot with the sheer bravura of such a patently brazen lie. That a man could die and live again is ridiculous; even a child knows that death is the end.
“Or is it?
“….I would like to meet this fellow Christ, who haunts the edges of my dreams, who flits from tree to tree in the forest through which I make my way. I would like to live forever, and hold my wife and daughter and twin sons in my arms until the end of time, and daily read the immense poem of Death Into Life, and grin at the whirl and swirl of its endless unfolding, until the end of Until.”
And you? Why are you a Christian? Why do you believe in God? What is at the heart of your faith? When you are down but not out, what gets you through? When the world ravages and we can’t take one more story of seriously awful news, does Christ step in and remind you of the power of God to heal you and the whole world?
A group of American Christian leaders is reminding us of the power and call of Christ. As part of the Reclaiming Jesus movement, they have reminded Christians about the core of the gospel, the heart of the treasure. This is part of their reminder.
“Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.
“The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history?” (www.reclaimingjesus.org/)
Treasure can be hoarded, locked up and guarded, saved for a rainy day which never seems to come. Or treasure can be shared, spent, used to build up. As you consider the trials of this day and age—your own or the world’s—how might our treasure be spent? How might the Good News of Jesus, or simply his eternal presence, alleviate suffering, build hope, get us one step closer to the kingdom of God?
Well, that’s the question we live out here at church, isn’t it? All that we do, and who we’re in the process of becoming, center around that question. How is our worship, our songs and prayers, building up the kingdom of God? How is our teaching building hope? How is our mission and service alleviating the suffering of God’s children?
For seven years Gregg and I have loved exploring these questions with you, and when we get back from our sabbatical in September, we’ll love continuing to explore these questions. In the meantime, I invite you to consider your own faith, your own understanding of what it means to carry the death and life of Jesus within you. I invite you to dream about spending the treasure of the gospel. I invite you to live deeply into your identity as jars of clay, as church people, as beloved children of God.