Jars of Clay
If you wanted to achieve a certain goal, gain a certain level of effectiveness, what would you seek? I would suspect that most of us would seek a position of power and strength. We would want to have as many resources as possible and attempt to minimize weakness. We would connect strength with success and weakness with failure.
This seems to make sense. It even seems to make sense in church ministry. What would be the best way to have a successful church. We would want lots of money for sure. We would also want plenty of people. But not just any people. We would want people with good jobs and excellent leadership skills. We would want people gifted to give ministry and not in need to receive ministry. We would want people to come in and say to themselves that these people have it all together.
The problem with all of that, as logical as it seems, is that it does not reflect the teachings of the Bible. This is found in the Old Testament and the story of Gideon. Gideon was called by God to lead Israel against its enemies. But God, against all common sense, needed to get the Israelite army small enough, so that it could be clear that it was God’s power at work.
This is even more pronounced in the New Testament. The message of the Gospel turns everything we knew upside down. Defeat becomes victory. Weakness becomes strength.
We are going to look at this idea in terms of how it affects us individual but even more so as a congregation.
I once read an interesting comparison between Christianity and Islam. Most often we compare individual doctrines but this looked at the different contexts for their origins. In many ways Islam started from a position of power. A good comparison is between Muhammad cleansing the Kaaba in Mecca and Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. Muhammad conquered Mecca, and cleansed the Kaaba of its idols and established as the place to worship Allah and consolidated his power in Mecca. Jesus entered in Jerusalem on a donkey, cleansed the Temple and then was executed on a cross by the authorities as a result. The early years of Islam were of conquest. The early years of Christianity were of persecution.
This is not meant as a criticism of Muslims or Islam but as an observation that Christianity emerged out of and developed within a context of weakness.
What does this have to do with a passage from 2 Corinthians? Corinth was a city in Greece that respected strength and power and wisdom. These values passed into the church and the Christians there desired to impress people with their strength.
But Paul reminds the Corinthians that God had a completely different way of working. God didn’t choose the strong, he chose the weak. Paul compared the people of God to jars of clay. There were different kinds of materials for containers. Something could be made of stone or of metal or of clay. The stone and metal vessels would last but the clay vessels, which were most common, would often break. When a jar of clay broke, there was no putting it together with crazy glue. It would just be dumped onto the garbage heap. If you had some young kids coming for lunch today, would you put out your fine china or your dollar store dishes? Vessels of clay were the dollar store dishes of the day. They were easily broken and easily replaced. People didn’t value them.
Yet it was vessels such as this that God chose to place his glory. God chose people whom society didn’t value and placed his power in it. This didn’t transform the clay into metal. The weakness remained so that God’s strength could be seen.
Paul illustrates this from his own experience. When Paul boasts, he doesn’t boast the type of things we would put on a resume that look impressive. Paul boasts of his suffering, not to prove how resilient he is but how great God is when he works through weakness.
The church is a giant jar of clay that doesn’t look impressive to our culture but within is the power of God.
A Human Church
The gospel that Jesus preached was about the coming of the kingdom of God. This kingdom could have come in any number of ways. But God chose to use the church to spread the kingdom after Jesus returned to the Father. Worse than the church, a human church. Humans are weak. Not just physically but morally and emotionally. I’m a student of history and I have read so much about the ways that the church has stumbled over the centuries. Critics point at this and see proof that there is no God. I look at the same evidence and am humbled that God would choose to work in people like us. We mess up and God picks us up and moves us forward.
Some of you may feel like you are at the top of your game. But I suspect many of us are all too aware of our weaknesses. I once was filled with pride about how lucky God was to have me on his team. That didn’t last long and I was quickly humbled. Not punished but reminded of my own limitations.
You may be sitting there thinking you have nothing to offer but your weakness. Great, that is exactly what God is looking for. God is looking for the weak so that his strength can shine through.
This is true for us as individuals but it is also true for us a congregation. We may not have all of the strength that we think we need, but that doesn’t limit God. In fact, it is possible for a church or a church-like organization to be effective without God. If you throw enough money and gifted people into a project, you are going to find success. But that is not God’s plan for the church.
I have been at smaller churches than this and have been amazed at the spectacular ways that God worked through them. What was the most beautiful is that no one suspected that these congregations did it on their own strength. It was obvious that God’s strength was at work in their weakness.
In saying this, I need to make a clarification. When we say that it is all about God’s strength, it doesn’t mean that we have no role. We can’t stop tithing so God will be glorified in using less money. We can’t stop volunteering so the Holy Spirit can do all the work. We are jars of clay but we are still jars. Jars and other vessels were still used, even if they were weak. They were used for their purposes in appropriate ways. The same is true for us. We need still need to give of our treasure, time and talent. What this is saying is that we cannot look at the sum total of what we have and say that is the upper limit of what we can accomplish. God will use our clay efforts but he is not limited by them.
It is easy to get discouraged, as individuals and as a church. We see what we have and think we are not good enough. We are far too limited to be effective in any meaningful way. We are just simple jars of clay. We may be jars of clay but we are not simple. God’s power is at work in us. God uses us as individuals and God uses us as a congregation. We will stumble and have troubles. But all the more for God’s power to shine through our cracks.