Living the questions and trying to think theologically... and practically. Learning that these things are more synonymous than I once thought.

Location: Dallas, TX

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


The past two days have been monumental for two reasons.

1) The almost two-year saga of dental implants is over! I got my permanent caps yesterday, and my dentist and I are both pleased with the results. Next time you see me, I'll show you my $10,000 smile.

2) I delievered my sermon in class today. While it wasn't the first time I had ever preached, it's the first time the audience ever let me actually call it that. It was really fun, and the class had some nice complements and helpful advice. I'll post my manuscript here so you can relive it with me. Just imagine it in Southernese.

Once there was a plastics manufacturer from New Hampshire who went by the name of Earl Silas Tupper. One day, Earl was inspired by the way the lid of a can of paint suctioned to the can. Genius struck and the way the world functions in the kitchen was forever changed. In 1947 he patented what we know as “Tupperware”, and the convenience loving American society of the 1950’s could not resist the air-tight, lightweight, easily washable, and practically unbreakable plastic containers. Walk into any kitchen or college dorm room and you are sure to see descendants of Mr. Tupper’s fabulous invention. Now, there are multiple brands of this type of product, and no doubt we were all happy when just a few years ago, inexpensive dispensable versions such as Gladware came around, and you could eat your bowl of leftover tomato basil for lunch at work, throw away the bowl, and not feel too guilty about it. No one at home was going to yell at your for losing their good Tupperware. This phenomena spread beyond the kitchen. Just think of how we use Tupperware or Tupperware-esque containers for things other than just storing food. They are great to use in the shop for keeping up with nuts and bolts, nails, and screws, and every kind of small necessity that is so easily lost. Teachers use them in classrooms to store supplies, and any parent of a young child knows that at Christmas time, when an over-anxious child tears into a package, and rips not only the wrapping paper but the box containing the Legos, whatever plastic container that accommodates the legos must be sacrificed for the sanity of the entire family and the health of our vacuum cleaners. I mean it’s a given. Indeed it is hard for most of us to imagine life without these handy plastic containers. How did the world function in their absence? This is a mystery beyond my comprehension.

Well, Paul gives us an idea of what life was like in an age without the convenience of plastics. He compares himself and those who he in engaged in ministry with him to the more organic and fragile forerunner of Tupperware: earthen vessels, perhaps more commonly known as jars of clay, and in doing so, he teaches a very important lesson especially for those of us who are in church leadership about how God’s power works through our fragility. Turn with me if you will to 2 Corinthians 4 verses 7 through 12. It reads:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

These earthen vessels or jars of clay were as commonplace in the ancient world as plastic containers are in ours. Not only that, but these ancient containers were just as versatile as our modern ones. Just as we use our handy dandy plastic containers for purposes beyond food storage, people in Paul’s day used their containers in various ways. So there may have been many ideas in Paul’s head concerning this image as he used this metaphor. Not only were these jars commonly used in the home for storing food and drink, we learn in the Old Testament, these earthen vessels were used by priests when they made sacrifices and were readily disposed of when they were dirty or broken. Evidently, they were not seen as items of great value. One scholar describes them as “quintessentially fragile, prone to breakage, easily chipped and cracked.”

As Paul identified with these earthen vessels, we can relate to this idea as well. In the midst of a broken and fragile world, where people are searching for hope and faith, we as ministers might more often be compared to Tupperware than clay jars. People see us as unbreakable, strong, spiritual superheroes, women and men made of steel. But deep down we know the truth. We are human to the core though we bear the title of minister, pastor, or preacher… although sometimes it’s easy to buy into the hype. We think that we must live lives of perfection so as not to let anyone down or show that we too are as weak as the rest. And occasionally, this can lead to arrogance and overconfidence in our personal abilities. When this happens our behavior and attitudes convey that the vessel is more important than the treasure. The limelight on top of the pedestal can be quite alluring, but the pedestal is not our place and the spotlight in ministry was never made for us. I mean think about it, when is the last time you went to a church potluck and someone commented on the loveliness of your container. No- people are too concerned with the brownies or the fried chicken inside. It would be silly to ever think that the ordinary vessel could outshine the goodness that lies inside.

Like Paul we need to understand our role as vessel- we are frail, but the treasure that lies inside of us- the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ- is what is truly important. Now, this poses a paradox for us to consider. Why would one store a treasure in a clay jar? Why on earth would you put something so priceless into something of little or no value? Wouldn’t it be better to use something sturdy and reliable- something that people were not as likely to mistake as trash and throw away? However, as dispensable as these jars may have been, often they were used for very important purposes. In the Roman culture, it was not unusual for people to carry around their coins in clay jars. There is also a teaching from the rabbinic tradition that Paul may have been familiar with. It states that costly wine may only be kept in earthen vessels and not pots of gold. It implied that only a humble person could keep the teaching of the Torah.

Here Paul is suggesting that he and his fellow ministers, like jars of clay, through their weakness, their lowliness, and their humility are the evidence that the power of the gospel, this life-changing message they preach, is truly from God and not from humankind. Though some may confuse the gospel message with the person of Paul instead of Jesus Christ, Paul is attributing all the glory to God. It is Paul’s own weakness that is the grounds for the divine power working in and through him.

While some ministers struggle with overcoming a superhero mentality, others struggle on the opposite end of the spectrum. There are times in life when weakness is overwhelming. Some may regard themselves as completely worthless and inadequate to serve in the capacity to which they have been called. It is not secret that many of us deal with insecurity- sometimes so much that we lack the confidence to dream big as to our role in the Kingdom or to take risks in our ministries or to lead with courage and vision. For those of us in this boat, the image of a jar of clay provides us with encouragement. Though we may feel ordinary and dispensable, Paul teaches us that this is precisely what God uses to spread the message of the gospel. For in our weakness, we testify to Christ, the treasure within us. I am reminded of what Paul said in his first letter to these Corinthians:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.
God still uses humble hearts and contrite spirits. Vulnerability and weakness are necessary in order to communicate the treasure of the gospel of Christ. When we place our faith in the surpassing power of the Almighty at work in us, there is no room for our insecurities, for we are only the vessels containing a treasure infinitely greater than ourselves.

Maybe more than anything else in the apostle’s life, this power is most easily seen through his suffering and his afflictions. Just as we probably abuse and mistreat our Tupperware today, the Corinthians likely did not treat their expendable clay containers much better. And Paul too, was battered and abused by a world which did not understand his message or his passion for it. Paul explains that though he has undergone every sort of affliction, he is not demoralized. Though he might be perplexed, his mind reeling because of what is happening to him, he does not despair. Even though the apostle no doubt endured physical persecution, he knew his God had not forsaken him. He’d been knocked down but not for the count. In modern terms, one scholar explains that he was stressed, but not stressed out.

While ministers in our present context don’t have to undergo the physical suffering or persecution Paul had to endure, we know hardship and pain nonetheless. As one minister explained:

“Even without the physical dangers of Paul’s career, anyone who throws himself or herself into the work of Christian ministry of any kind with half the dedication of Paul will experience the weakness of which Paul speaks: the times when problems seem insoluble, the times of weariness from sheer overwork, the depression when there seem to be no results.”

Indeed it is naïve for anyone to enter ministry and expect it to be smooth sailing all the way home. Just as we have come to expect difficulties, afflictions and suffering no doubt came as little of a surprise to Paul. As our Dean, Dr. Garland explains,

“Jesus was not only Paul’s message but also his model for ministry. If God’s definitive act of salvation occurred through the weakness of the crucified Jesus, then it should be of no surprise that the saving gospel of the crucified Jesus should reach the Gentiles through the weakness of this apostle. Like Master, Like Servant.”

In verse 10, Paul speaks of always carrying the death of Jesus in his body, so that in his body, the life of Jesus may be manifested. Spiritually, dying is a continual process in the life of this apostle. He is dying to himself and his personal desires and ambitions so that the life of Christ may be seen by all in his life. Physically, Paul is risking his life by handing himself over to death for the sake of Jesus, giving to the world a picture of the sacrifice of his Lord. This is in no way for vain. In our closing verse Paul explains that death works in him and his fellow ministers, but life works in the Corinthians. The apostle knows that the “death” and suffering he endures is working for the benefit of others- even the Corinthians’ salvation. As he stated previously in chapter one verse six: But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. Paul continually gives himself over to death so that the Corinthians may know the life of the resurrection, the grace of God in Jesus Christ which comes to the Corinthians through the messenger Paul.

This whole process of dying to ourselves isn’t always fun to dwell on. Sometimes we like to think it’s best to do things the easy way, our way, for now, and worry about the consequences later. I’m sure we could all share experiences that would teach us that this is not the case. When we walk in faith, with Christ as our model for ministry and life, submitting our desires and ambitions to God, like Paul we teach those who we minister to model their lives after Jesus. By dying daily to ourselves, we can teach our congregations about what it means to have life in Christ. As leaders in the Body of Christ, our lives should scream, “It’s true! Real life is found when it lost for the sake of our Lord!”

Though expectations of our churches, our families, and ourselves may be high, we need to remember that we are fragile, and in that fact there is not shame but reassurance for the task before us. Though we might be cracked or chipped from the batter and abuse of a fallen world, ultimately, we are held together by this treasure inside of us, and this is something for which God alone can receive the credit.

That’s what Paul teaches us, and sometimes I like to think that if the apostle was living in our day, he’d spend a lot of his time investing in young ministers like you and me. He’d be sort of like our coach for life and ministry, much like he was for Timothy, and he’d give us lots of ministerial advice and encouragement. And maybe if he stepped into the huddle of the students at Truett Seminary, he’d put his hands on our shoulders and remind us that we are imperfect and prone to breakage. We truly are jars of clay and not Tupperware. Our lives are not perfect, and life is not about making perfect grades, or preaching the most amazing sermons, or waxing eloquently about every possible system of theological thought. What’s really important is the treasure that is inside of us. We maybe ordinary, but this glory of God that we know in the face of Christ Jesus is truly priceless and powerful. It is what holds us together in the face of every affliction. Though we are weak, He is always strong and always able to use the most common and fragile vessels to convey the message of His grace to the world.


Blogger vyhk7tfvi48zmky said...

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9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

earthen vessels. definitely.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:36 AM  

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