Yet It Is a Treasure
Pentecost III; June 5, 2016
II Corinthians 4:1-15
Let me tell you a little bit about Refugio Haddad. She was a little Mexican-American lady, member of a church I served in Arizona. When I knew her she was a widow; her husband (who was Lebanese, hence her interesting combination of names) had left all he had in stock in one energy company. When that company fell on hard times and stopped paying a dividend, Refugio (or Cuquita, as we called her) had hard times.
I loved to hear her pray. She spoke a simple, sonorous Spanish, but above all, when she prayed you felt as though you had been invited into someone's private conversation with her beloved. It was as though you got to linger in the garden with the poet who wrote "I come to the garden alone…" and hear the conversation with Jesus. I used to say that Cuquita could pray the Devil into Heaven. She could. Refugio was an earthen vessel; her love for Jesus was a treasure.
Let's go through this passage from II Corinthians slowly, but as I comment on it, keep in mind a prevailing theme. This letter pretty largely is about the Apostle Paul's relationship with the people of Corinth, but that would not be very important to us. Paul uses his concern with his relationship with them to talk about something very important: our relationship with God.
Verses 1-2: It's possible that someone has accused Paul of being too clever, and that he was twisting the word of God to make it mean what he wanted it to mean. Or perhaps he is implying that someone else is doing exactly that. In any case, he wants to make it clear that he is not particularly interested in trying to get people to like him or in twisting Scripture: he simply tells the Scripture as it is. That's what every preacher aspires to, even if we don't always get there: to tell the truth of Scripture, however people feel about it.
Verses 3-4: Now maybe someone has accused Paul of preaching a Gospel that is mysterious, hard to see. I think he gets a little arrogant here: if you don't get what I'm saying, it's because the Devil is controlling your mind. Or maybe he's right: if Paul's Gospel is indeed the truth, then failure to believe it or to get the basics of it may be the work of the Devil. Interesting phrase he uses for the Devil: "the god of this world," in contrast to the Lord God Almighty, who is God of the world to come.
Verses 5-6: The preacher is the people's servant to help them know and love Jesus Christ, no more and no less. For Jesus is the content of the Gospel, and Jesus is the One who brings us to God. Isn't verse 6 beautiful? "For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." The God who said, "Let there be light," who spoke the singularity into being, who casts the galaxies into the void, has shone within us, and we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. In mountains and rivers and oceans, yes; in wildlands and beasts and the Aurora Borealis, yes; but above all, we see the glory of God in the face of one who touched lepers and paid attention to children and to women and who spoke about the irrelevance of empires and nations and who offered his life on the Cross.
Verse 7 is my theme today: knowing this Jesus, seeing his face, following his teaching – that is a treasure. I worried when I read this passage that it would be awfully heavy for summer, but it occurred to me also that it feels like good news in an anxious time. It is good news that to know Jesus is a treasure. The Episcopal Church used to have a newspaper ad that showed a coffee urn like the one out in our Commons and the caption read, "Free coffee, eternal life: yes, membership has its privileges." Eternal life, a solid rock of teaching and loving when those prairie winds blow over us, and words of wisdom and grace are a treasure to be guarded carefully and with joy.
And we have this treasure in earthen vessels or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, clay jars. You and I are of the earth, humans are related to humus, we are of the soil. The Gospel of Jesus is not airy and ethereal, disconnected from life, but the Gospel of Jesus relates to us humus beings in all our earthiness: our food and drink, our work, our loves and hates, our politics and play. Few have known Jesus by direct revelation, perhaps a few more by reading about him in the Bible. Most of us know Jesus because we've been infected by the Gospel virus that we caught from someone else. I read that the great preacher and theologian Phillips Brooks (who, among his many accomplishments, will be remembered as the author of "O Little Town of Bethlehem") was asked why he was a Christian. He replied, "I think it was because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey."
Verses 8-12 do two things. First, they remind us of how much Paul went through because of his commitment to the Gospel. Glenn McDonald wrote in one of his daily reflections (March 13, 2015) that a Twitter summary of Paul would be: "Makes other type A's look like slackers. Passionate: Everywhere he goes, people riot. Keep him away from caffeine." Despite the riots and imprisonment and beating and verbal attacks – all the things that people throw at him – Paul keeps going, because the power to keep going comes from God.
And the other thing these verses do is connect Paul's own earthiness with the Gospel: when my body is beaten down, I am carrying the death of Jesus, and as a sort of living death you people of Corinth see in me the life of Jesus – and so my suffering helps you to live. I find this statement rather convoluted and studying it didn't help much. Sometimes you have to let Scripture wash over you and enjoy the words, and not try too hard to break it down into comprehensible bits. Or maybe I'm just being lazy. Anyway, one clay jar of the Gospel is Paul himself, and the suffering of his clay jar reveals the life of Jesus.
And verses 13-15 wrap up this thought with the reminder that all our hope is in the God who raises the dead, beginning with the Lord Jesus. Since God raised Jesus, God will raise us earthen vessels. Since God raised Jesus, God can get Paul to Corinth for a visit sometime. And since God raised Jesus, God will bring us all together into God's presence at the right time; thanks be to God.
Though we carry the Gospel about in clay jars, yet it is a treasure. A recent issue of the Christian Century (May 11, 2016; p. 20) carried a story about the Christian Church in China. The Chinese government, you know, is somewhat wary of all religions, but the explosive growth of Christianity is alarming. It was estimated that in 1982 there were about 3 million Protestants in China; in 2010 the estimate was 68 million. A preschool teacher in Beijing was quoted as saying, "People in China are lost. They're looking for something to believe in other than communism." For those who discover in Jesus Christ something to believe in other than an economic dogma or a political ideology, the Gospel is a treasure.
When we discover friendships blossom in the topsoil of the life of the Church, the Gospel is a treasure. When the words of Scripture or the melody of a hymn pick us back up from where we have fallen, the Gospel is a treasure. And in anxious times, whether beautiful summer days or an icy January night, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ is a treasure.
A treasure that shines from clay jars. One rabbi wrote that the way of God can be kept only with one who is humble. If you and I think we are silver or gold, then we think too much of ourselves to be able to carry the treasure. Besides, wine would go bad stored in a silver or gold vessel; it needs clay. Even glass, where we usually keep wine these days, is made from sand. The treasure of the Gospel is kept in clay jars. And from many of these jars the treasure overflows, including from one little Mexican-American lady with a Lebanese last name, who I still believe could pray the Devil into Heaven.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church