Treasure in Clay Jars – Lent Sermon Series 8 – Easter Day

Some things in life are hard to define. Feelings can be hard; so can ideas, experiences, and especially intuitions. Recognizing that helps us appreciate the challenge which constantly faces those who believe and put their trust in God: how to define what it means? How to put the various experiences of believing into words?

 

Sometimes the best words to use aren’t words of precise definition, as if the best way to decode the ways of God’s love and compassion toward us was to ape logicians or scientists.

Those first disciples and early followers of Jesus’ Way found it hard to find the right words. How, for instance, to talk about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? After all, it was an event that no one saw, no one heard, an event which, at first, at least, hardly anyone even believed! How on earth could one put that into words, let alone define?

Nonetheless, they tried.

I think, for instance, of St Paul. In his attempts to explain the resurrection, words of logic and of ancient science couldn’t measure up. So he had to resort to familiar experiences. Think of what happened to Jesus when he rose from the dead, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, like what happens to a seed, like the ones that many of us have planted over the past month or so as we look toward a summer harvest:

...as for as what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain...So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. (1 Cor. 15.37, 42-43)

St Paul kept working to find images that worked. That was hard partly because the resurrection in which believers had, and have, a stake isn’t just something to which we look forward, like that seed sown in dishonour but raised one distant day in glory. What Paul had to do was find words to describe the experience of the resurrection now.

Five years ago a remarkable discovery was made at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea off of Italy’s northern coast.[1] The discovery was a cargo ship, bound from Spain and laden with large clay jars, the sort in which the ancients transported grains, fish, wines and oils for the markets of Rome and its environs. What was remarkable about this find was that the two-hundred amphorae were still sealed and full of their precious contents. Certainly for the archaeologists and historians of the ancient world, it really was a treasure trove.

Jars like that, big and small, plain and decorated, were everywhere throughout the ancient world of the first followers of Jesus. No surprise, then, the clay jar is one of the images to which St Paul resorted when he tried to explain what the resurrection life was like for believers like you and me. He described believers like us as clay jars.

In his trenchant translation Eugene Peterson renders St Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the light of resurrection life in believers like this:

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry the message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. (2 Cor. 4.7)

St Paul knew what we all really know about ourselves and about one another, that, like clay jars, we’re brittle and breakable. St Paul talked about how we’re afflicted, perplexed, persecuted sometimes, even struck down—you know, when ‘bad things happen to good people’. He knew that our bodies bear the marks of suffering—we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 4.10), mortality; so that, one way or another, we move relentlessly toward death, life’s one sure thing.

Yet Paul’s unexpected, unwanted, and strange encounter with the risen Jesus, and the experiences that followed in its wake, taught Paul something else about these clay jars of our ordinary lives. The clay jars of our embodied human lives, which have to hold ordinary things by which we carry on day by day, can also hold treasure. So, a human body, a human life, is not just a clay jar fit for ordinary and lesser things.

That’s because the resurrection of Jesus, body and all, has turned Jesus’ stricken, wasted body into a treasure chest. Like the clay jars of two millennia age discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean, his risen body, transformed in ways we can’t even imagine, bore back into the world of everyday an unspoilt, God-given cargo.

That cargo is his gift to us: resurrection life here and now by way of foretaste, down-payment, an appetizer. St Paul tells us a bit about this cargo born into our midst by Jesus’ resurrection.

First, it’s a cargo of light. A light that ‘shines out of darkness’ (2 Cor. 4.6). It’s by light that we see.

Second, it’s a cargo of knowledge (we could also call it faith), for it’s by sight that we know.

Third, it’s a cargo of glory, for what we ‘see’ by this light of knowledge is the unapproachable God’s splendour in the face, in the body, in the life and witness, of Jesus of Nazareth.

Of course we can’t see or bear within ourselves such glory in its fullness. But the Spirit of the risen Lord bestows it within us. It’s like a summertime fire-fly that flashes dimly and intermittently in the dark. (When I was a boy we used to catch these fire-flies in bottles and then stand them by our beds as we fell asleep entranced.) The gift of resurrection glory to us is a bit like that fire-fly light: however dim and intermittent, it flashes with transforming effect on and in human lives. St Paul described how

...all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another....(2 Cor. 3.18)

I’ve never been much of a miracle man, but I’ve come to recognize that human bodies are still God’s means of choice for exercising his resurrection influence in the world. Why on earth would God want to by-pass the crown of his creation! For the body is the very out-reach of the inner self into the world. That’s why Jesus wants to share the resurrection power of his own body, in part at least, with those who are intimately his by faith and baptism.[2]

And yet there’s something strange about that sharing. As St Paul knew and testified, the body which is sapped of its natural potency is the better witness to the grace of God which makes up for what is lacking in us. The more brittle the clay jar, it seems, the richer and more powerful the contents it can hold.

Its richest contents are humility and love. We see it in the great saints humanly compromised or enfeebled by their generosity: St Francis, Mother Teresa, and the countless hidden holy ones—mothers, fathers, children, widows, even clergy (!), in whom complete selflessness has secretly been perfected. Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.

I’ve never forgot words on the occasion of my ordination to the priesthood. The preacher told us of a priest in nineteenth-century Paris; a man of great intelligence and vast learning, but beset by dark, dark depression, which took him sometimes to the brink of suicide. And yet he was a spiritual guide of tremendous insight, and a great influence upon the youth. One night a woman, in deep distress, knocked on the door of the presbytery seeking the abbé. She didn’t know his name, so she asked for the priest with the miraculous illness.[3]

‘We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that that this extraordinary power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us’ (4.7).

That’s the gift of Jesus’ resurrection to us. Every one of us here today can claim it, or claim it again. Whether in the fresh flush of youth, or resilient in health, or at a point in life when you’re inclined to think “Gone is my glory” (Lam. 3.18), whatever the state of each clay jar of earthen life, in this church today, God the Father wants to pour into it, into us, the same transcendent glory which brought Jesus back to life on Easter morning.

Treasure in clay jars.

And remember this: the treasure of glory that the clay jars of our lives can bear now is but a small measure of the glory-filled ‘treasury on high’[4] for which the Spirit of Jesus is preparing us, a weight of glory’ beyond measure (2 Cor. 4.17)! Our treasure, his glory in us, full and endless.

And so, clay jars though we all be, yet we rejoice today that Christ is risen from the dead.

Amen.

Preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Easter Day, April 16th 2017

 


[1] The merchant ship, or navis oneraria, sank off of Varezze in Liguria sometime between 100 BC and 100 AD. The discovery was reported in August, 2012.

[2] This is the action of Pentecost, which brings the Easter season to its climax and end.

[3] Bp. Robert Terwilliger on the Abbé Henri Huvelin (d. 1910) at St-Augustin, Paris.

[4] From a baptismal hymn quoted by the ninth-century Iraqi bishop Thomas of Marga; from his Historia Monastica; quoted by A. M. Allchin, The World is a Wedding (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978), p. 70.