For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ. But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
What a simple thing it is to tell it like it is—to keep it real. “I’m just being realistic” is usually code for, “I don’t want to because it’s going to fail.” “And even if we succeed, it’ll be meager and temporary.” “Honestly, why should we even try because we are nothing but ‘earthen vessels,’ so there’s nothing special about us.” “We’ve failed at that in the past.” Good stewards wouldn’t waste resources but would keep them for a rainy day.” But where would we be if Paul had shared this attitude?
How easy it would have been for him to have given up on the Corinthians as the weight of his life and ministry grew heavier and heavier: Yet he doesn’t. In fact, the apostle tells us that the weight can never be too heavy. It will never constrain, never lead to despair, never isolate, and never destroy him. And even though “death is at work in” him, life is at work in the Corinthians and in others. As he diminishes, they increase.
For Paul, this is possible because he remembers one thing that we often forget: God’s glory has been revealed in our hearts through Christ, even though we are but dust, so that the power of heaven might be made known through us; he remembers that he is not his own.
In this new, COVID shaped landscape, many of us have discovered that the church has already changed. This is not a new reality that is taking shape—one that has the potential to be—that may arise in our near future. No. It is already here. In fact, why shouldn’t this new reality have come into existence in a relative blink of the eye, since our shared and personal worlds usually experience upheaval long before we have a chance to prepare it. This is the way.
We can react to this change: giving the church up for dead because it was already on life-support or choosing to fight in the attempt to maintain our hold on it or to reclaim it—or we can choose to share the apostle’s perspective.
What we face is bigger than we are, irregular and unpredictable, and it always threatens to overwhelm us. Most of time we attempt to plan in the hope that we can mitigate our losses so we don’t have to rebuild from scratch…But how does that saying go: “the best laid plans of mice and men”? Or when your watching out for the bears, it’s the moose that get you.
Regardless of history’s lessons, though, we begin every endeavor convinced that this time, through careful, meticulous management and planning—by the force of our will and the strength of our conviction, this time it will be different in our family, personal, church, and work lives. A new day is coming; we will make it ours!
James tells us in response:
Come now, you say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business and make a profit”—you have no idea what your life will be tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
“Wow,” some of you may be thinking, “what a downer the week of annual conference and in light of all the denomination is going through. And from someone being elected to foster church health, no less.”
I know. I know. But hear me out.
Paul realizes that all of this earthly life—as scripture repeats over and again—will neither pass the test of eternity nor survive the presence of God’s glory. Things simply fall apart, and they cannot measure-up to the divine. And in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7, the apostle embraces this fact. Paul says that the ultimate futility of our choices and actions, those that are grounded in our own strength, will, and reckoning, that futility is a good thing. But he is not saying that this results in a meaningless life, quite the contrary: What results from our weakness makes our lives and ministries fruitful, life-affirming, and, most ironically, lasting.
“But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”
The apostle’s weakness and the futility of his actions and choices, the failure of his plans to materialize the desired outcomes fail to discourage him as they would and so often does to many of us.
Paul accepts that he is but beloved dust, a mere clay vessel, and by accepting this reality, he comes to realize that he already contains something wonderful, powerful, and eternal. Something not of his own creation but given to him by grace: the life of Jesus Christ. Because of this realization, Paul is able to live in each moment, no matter what befalls him with the absolute certainty that the light will shine in others’ hearts as a result of his present darkness—no matter how close he is to death, life will be ever present in them.
By embracing the fact that he is from the dust of the earth, the apostle frees himself from the burden of having to have all the answers and from the weight of personal success; it frees him to look within his own heart and to find that God has already revealed there the solution to every problem.