First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Treasure in Plastic Bottles

Treasure in Plastic Bottles
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
First United Methodist Church, June 3, 2018
Toni L. Carmer

"For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake."

As I read and thought about this text over this past week, several things came to mind.

I thought about the controversy when I was in seminary over whether or not the congregation should clap after someone sang or played a piece that moved us.  Some thought that clapping was to the glory of the singer, while others felt moved to clap to the glory of God because the beauty of the song or the words touched us.  I have ultimately fallen on the side of a clap in our culture being equivalent to an "Amen" in others, so clap away when a particular musical offering calls you to do that, and be silent and reflective when the Spirit moves you in that direction.

I thought about the staff member of another large church who held a similar position to mine.  Our staff had gone to this church to see how they did things, to get some ideas, to see what we might learn.  This man spent a fair amount of time pontificating about his credentials and then going off on something else that wasn't particularly helpful to me.  I didn't feel like getting into a "one up" game with him because my credentials were bigger than his, and his bragging really turned me off.  The adult thing of me would probably have been to redirect him, but I didn't.  That was probably my loss.

Then, later this week, I heard about the televangelist Jesse Duplantis who asked his congregation for his 4th $54 million private jet.  I guess they wear out after awhile, or the technology changes, so they need replaced now and then, like our cars, you know?  I do agree that it's important to be able to fly across an ocean without refueling, but, I don't know, owning a fancy jet seems a bit over the top to me for a preacher, even if he does have a large following.  Here is his rationale: "If Jesus were still preaching he wouldn't be riding a donkey. He'd be in an airplane preaching the Gospel all over the world."

Maybe Reverend Duplantis didn't read the memo about calling disciples and appointing  apostles, sending them out into the world to share the good news.  Dunno.

"For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake."

Apparently, Paul (along with his helpers) has been accused of seeking kudos for himself as he goes about his apostolic work.  It's easy to see how some people might have thought that—he uses himself as an example of one whose life has been changed, as one who has devoted himself to Christ.  He has challenged the Corinthians to imitate him.  In his first letter to them (4:14f) he says, "I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had 10,000 guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.  Therefore, I urge you to imitate me."  Later he says it again:    (11:1) "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."  But his purpose for writing this isn't to build himself up, it's to offer himself as a mentor in the faith for those who are brand new to Jesus—and in this first generation of Christ followers, they're all brand new.

Paul faces a tough crowd:  he and his followers are teaching about Jesus Christ in the midst of nay-sayers.  They are surrounded by faithful traditionalists who are not interested in hearing the ways of Jesus, but who feel the need to defend the faith of their fathers and mothers and not allow themselves or others to be seduced by these radical progressives who have turned their backs against all they have come to know and believe.  To make things worse, Paul is talking to Gentiles, teaching them these new ways!  To stop him, they've had him thrown in jail;  he's been beaten, sternly warned.

But Paul is committed.  Not for his own purposes, but for the purposes of God.  Not to build himself up, but to proclaim Christ.

"We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake."  He then lets them take a breath as he shares a belief they hold in common: "For it is God who said, "Let light shine in the darkness"…and then he says that the light is seen in the face of Jesus.

It's not about us, Paul says. It's about Jesus.  We have this treasure in clay jars, this message, this Savior, this extraordinary power comes from God, not from us.  We're the vessels.  Ordinary, stackable, breakable, clay jars.

On our worship folder this morning we have a photo of amphorae.  They were the mass-market beverage containers of the ancient world. They were two handled-clay jars, often pointy on the end so they could be buried part way in the sand or positioned on racks and tied together for transport by Greek and Roman merchants.  They were primarily used to hold wine, which was a commonly consumed beverage in that day, since clean water wasn't widely available.  

There were some fancy ones that wealthier people would use to store their wine, but most were pretty basic.  It didn't make economic sense to send them back for re-filling and re-distribution, so they would simply smash them and add them to a trash heap.  There's a hill in Rome near the Tiber River that's about 100 foot high and a kilometer in circumference composed of the fragments of nearly 53 million amphorae.

Their modern day equivalent?  Plastic bottles.  Thankfully we can recycle them, because we're slowly learning the negative consequences of just tossing plastic into landfills (or the ocean—Google the Great Pacific Garbage Patch if you want to challenge your love for straws and plastic bottles).  But whether you love Coke or Pepsi or Mountain Dew or you just like the convenience of having a bottle of water with you wherever you go—the significance isn't it the container, it's the "treasure" that's held inside. 

Paul says, it's not about me…I'm just the clay jar that will get smashed and thrown on the trash heap.  Today he might say, I'm just the plastic bottle that needs to be thrown into the recycling bin.  It's the message I carry, it's the message I share, it's the message that's so important for everyone to hear.  It's not about me.  The treasure is Jesus.

The words Paul writes next I think are important ones for us to hear.  So often we lament our bad fortune, wondering why this thing had to happen to us.  We've been faithful, we've made the best decisions we've known how to make…and yet here we are, in the midst of this trial or trouble.  Paul reminds us that our faithfulness doesn't immunize us from the challenges of this world.  And yet, even in the challenges, God is with us, working in us and through this thing that has happened:  

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
Perplexed, but not driven to despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken;
Struck down, but not destroyed…(v. 8 & 9).

In the course of his faith journey, Paul did all the "right things."  He offers his personal resume in his letter to the Philippians (chapter 3:5f).  He was "circumcised on the 8th day of his life, from the tribe of Benjamin, he was a Hebrew of Hebrews.  In regard to the law, he was a Pharisee, as for zeal, he was a persecutor of the church, as for righteousness based on the law, he was faultless."  

Paul did everything right according to his faith, and then something happened, and his life changed/it was turned upside down.  On the road to Damascus, Paul heard the voice of Jesus, he was blinded, and when his eyes could once again see, they saw in a whole new way.  A way that would bring persecution to him, that would set him apart from what he'd always known and believed.  He was beaten, imprisoned, even ship-wrecked, an act which we can't blame on people.  His insurance papers would have said it was an "act of God."  And yet Paul was committed, convinced, and held strong to his new-found faith.  He did more than persevere and survive, he became stronger, and perhaps even a better example for others, a better mentor than what he might have been, if his life had always been charmed.   He was indeed inflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…

Isn't that how it so often happens?  Our witness to others grows out of the challenges and temptations and sickness and pain that we have endured and conquered?  
    Who else can better speak to loss than one who has experienced it?
    Who else can better respond to the desire to drink again than one who has felt that thirst for themselves?
    Who else can understand what it feels like to be the primary caretaker of a loved one with dementia than one who has experienced it           themselves?
Paul invites those who listen to him to imitate him, to live like him, not because he thinks he is so good and so worthy, but because God is good, and the life of Jesus is being made visible in him, and in all who embrace him as their Lord and Savior.  

You and I have this treasure in earthen vessels. It's an amazing thing, really.  God knows our humanness, God recognizes how fragile we are, and still trusts us to be bearers of God's might and grace.  God doesn't ask us to do huge things to prove our faithfulness, but God calls us to live our lives in ways that show our honor and love for God and for one another.  As we do this, as we seek to be faithful, God works in us and through us—common, ordinary vessels—to do things beyond our imagination.  

That's the good news. Amen.