It is election season here in Ontario. That means it’s hard not think of Sunday’s New Testament reading (II Cor. 4:5-12) in terms of Paul having an image problem. Might that bring to mind one or another of our political leaders? Whether it does or doesn’t, it was true for Paul. He did have an image problem. Commentators tell us that two things dogged Paul’s relationship with his constituents in the city of Corinth and beyond.
First, there was the dicey matter of finances. Paul didn’t accept monetary support from the fledgling churches he nurtured. He ran his own portable small business instead. He made tents. This seemed quite honorable and above-board. However, the message was mixed by the fact that he did collect some money from churches. He even introduced friendly competition to the process. He said the funds were going to support the poor in Jerusalem. Apparently, however, some were skeptical about the true destination of this collection. Perhaps they thought he was pocketing the money himself.
The second side of Paul’s image problem was the fact that he preached about God’s power over death. He believe that the same power that raised Chris Jesus from the grave could be at work in the rest of us. However, even while he preached this, Paul’s own life was marked by suffering. Paul was not particularly wealthy. He had his famous “thorn.” He spent time in prison. He was once beaten by a mob. He was regularly driven out of neighbourhoods, even whole cities.
This is all part of the burden of II Corinthians. In this letter Paul responds to these issues. Today a public figure might schedule some photo ops or get a loyal friend to make the rounds on the news shows. For Paul, making his case in a letter seemed like the best approach.
As we look at this picture of Paul’s ministry, with these image issues in mind, it’s worth noting two things. First, notice the challenging nature of Paul leadership. A leader in a formal, hierarchical situation would not need to write a letter explaining himself, defending his credentials, going out of his way to describe how he served the community. A leader in that kind of a situation could simply tell his subordinates to get in line. I think it was the leadership scholar Jim Collins that once described leadership in a faith community as the “purist form” of leadership. He meant that in a voluntary community nobody is required to buy-in. The incentives for contributing are pretty minimal. Unlike a leader in a hierarchical organization, Paul had to work to clarify the situation. If he did not, his leadership platform would evaporate.
This leads us to notice a second thing. It’s this: the burden of Paul’s public work is sharing news about God’s power and God’s love that was made clear to him in Jesus. We have no reason to think that Paul was enriching himself financially. What he was after was sharing a message, something had helped him. He thought it was true and he wanted others to benefit from it. At the center of Paul’s message is this claim: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all . . . beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” That’s from the end of chapter three (vv. 17-18).
Notice how positive Paul’s message is here. He wants people to find freedom. He wants to tell them how they can be transformed into God’s image, as he says, “from one degree of glory to another.” There is an old criticism of the Christian faith. It’s the idea that the faith is overly obsessed with guilt. That may well have been true in certain situations. Yet it is interesting that the value of guilt is being reasserted by some researchers today. That is, guilt for specific actions, not a general sense of shame (see this recent article in The Atlantic for a start on this). Even so, whatever the value of guilt may be, what Paul is writing about here is something forward-looking and positive. He wants to offer an avenue for finding freedom and transformation.
Paul’s avenue for promoting this, he tells us in chapter 4 verse 5, is not pointing to himself or to the lives of other leaders. This isn’t about some members-only info or the presence of an overly-charismatic leader. What he points to, instead, is the Anointed One (that’s the meaning of the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’). “What we proclaim is not ourselves,” Paul writes, “but Jesus Christ as Lord.” He goes on to say that in knowing the Anointed One—the one who lives humbly, the one who suffers and dies—we know God’s glory. To know the Anointed One is to know what’s great about God. We see true power and love when we see the Anointed One.
Last week some of us discussed the creation account in Genesis 1-3 (many others of you lulled about in creation at that same time). I’m always struck by the way the first two chapters of Genesis feel positive and affirming. However, if we stop after chapter two something seems amiss. That’s the second account of creation, the one where God creates intimately and relationally by hand and breath. If we stop there, with God resting in the throne-room of creation, with human creatures doing their assigned gardening work, with beautiful and pleasing plants growing, with naked folks frolicking, with every animal rightly named . . . if we stop there, the picture lacks any realism whatsoever. It’s saccharine. Not until we read about the lying and shame, the way tilling and keeping the earth becomes difficult, how creation itself is unable to fulfill its destiny, when the death of some creatures is required to meet the needs of others, thorns, thistles, pain, sweat . . . only when we read about these things is the picture of Genesis completed in a way that we can recognize it as pertaining to our world.
Something similar happens here in II Corinthians 4 as well. Paul’s positive vision of light, freedom, glory and transformation into the image of God meets the reality of our fragile selves. This forward-looking vision reckons with the fact that life is not only a gift, but also often and for many a cruel passage. Paul puts it this way, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.”
My favorite coffee mug is made of clay. It comes from the studio of a master potter who apprenticed in Japan. The mug is glazed with the ash of prairie crops. It was fired in a massive wood-fueled kiln, baked for days. It’s a wonderful piece of work. It is a luxury. The jars of clay to which Paul likens himself and us are not like this.
In the first century the clay vessel was a common piece of houseware. It was more like the cheap plastic we usually use or the imported glass we recycle after a year or two. Not only was a clay jar cheap and easily replaced, but it was fragile.
So our lives, Paul says, can be lit by divine light. We can be transformed. We are intended to experience freedom. And yet, surely reflecting on his own experience, Paul writes, “we are afflicted in every way . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down . . . carrying in our body the death of Christ.” The death of Christ is the reach, the grasp, the demonstration of the power of evil. It is the murder of goodness and life. It is what we see when a loved-one lies near death in a hospital bed, far too early. It is the crushing of creation’s flourishing. It is the brand of death stamped on a body in public. It is oppressive politics.
The death of Christ is an assertion of the power of violence. The absurd and catastrophic threats we hear tossed about with a smug ease. It is injustice. It is the claim that the love that sacrifices the self is naïve.
We must ask: Are our lives like clay jars? Are we afflicted? Are we perplexed? Do we find systemic forces arrayed against the way of Jesus? Are we struck down?
We are rightly cautious about saying ‘yes’ to any of this. There are always others who suffer more than we do. We know that claiming to be a victim can distort our privilege. That’s all true. And yet we do experience some of this—surely.
We are perplexed and confused. We worry. We are anxious. Our bodies, especially as we age, refuse to let us think we are invulnerable. Those we love are struck down. Painful and confusing, even when they have lived a full life.
In the face of such things, what this passage of scripture tells us can be hard to hear. It tells us that the reverberations of death we experience, the same power that killed the Anointed One, are chances to display the life of God. Our very mortality is an opportunity to lean on the deep, divine power shown in Jesus, crucified then risen. Paul says,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.
We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.
We are persecuted, but not forsaken.
We are struck down, but not destroyed.
We carry death in our bodies, so that the life of the Anointed One might be made clear. We are God’s public-relations strategy.
Death is at work in us so that life, freedom, transformation may be made available to others. This is how the grace of God works. We receive it, so we can extend it to others. The spiritual life has this ‘L’ shape: from God, through us, to others. And probably, Paul doesn’t say this, from God, through others, to us. This is the basic architecture of the divine economy. Grace is given to be passed on.
Are we perplexed? Does the political situation worry us—the lawn signs, the news from other countries, the rise of vengeful populism? Do international events frighten us? Does the fragility of our bodies make us nervous? Are we troubled by the decisions made by our friends or our children or our parents? Is death more near than we would like?
If so, let us join Paul and the women and men of this ancient network of believers. Together we can admit that we are perplexed. Even so, we can know that we need not be driven to despair . . . . not driven to despair . . . not driven to despair . . . not driven to despair. In these fragile, clay vessels there is a treasure: the power and glory of God.