At Virginia Theological Seminary, the students often argue about what the teachings of the Episcopal Church actually are on a given moral or theological issue. There is some debate around whether or not our Church has “teachings” at all, in the formal sense, or if it instead has something more like customs and traditions. Very little in the way of doctrine is officially defined in the canons of the Episcopal Church, and the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer gives only the briefest of outlines of the faith as a whole. Anglicanism, as a whole, is always trying to walk a fine line between dogmatism on the one hand, and relativism on the other. The dogmatism we are most familiar with would either be the Roman Catholic claim of an infallible pope, or the Evangelical claim of an inerrant Bible. We Episcopalians tend generally do a good job of avoiding that end of the spectrum. Our danger lies more in the other end, where we can lose our conviction in the specific content of our Christian faith. We can fall into what is sometimes termed “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” That is, we have a vague belief in some kind of creator god, and that this god loves us and wants us to be good and nice people, and that good people go to heaven when they die. All of the content that makes the faith specifically Christian, the story of Christ, the Incarnation of God, Christian virtues, etc. All of this is becoming a bit murky in the minds of some of the Christian faithful today. Moral Therapeutic Deism can easily see the “clay pot” aspect of our faith, but the “treasure” aspect is out of focus. What is this treasure Paul speaks of?
In today’s epistle reading when Paul uses the metaphor of “treasure in clay pots” he is speaking about how the ministers of the church are fallible human beings. But this image of treasure in clay pots is so vivid and striking because it applies to many aspects of our Christian faith. The Holy Scriptures themselves are, in a sense, earthenware vessels. We do not have the original manuscripts, and there are sometimes conflicting readings in what we do have. And our institutional Church is also a clay pot. We love our Church, and we believe that the Holy Spirit works in and through the Church, instituted by Christ himself, but at the same time, if we are to be honest with ourselves, then we must also be aware of all of the times the institutional Church has been sinful, often to ready to cozy up to the powers that be at the expense of the oppressed. The way in which the Church of England supported and was supported by colonialism is a great example of this. We are clay pots, in a clay house, as it were.
But in our honestly recognizing our own faults and shortcomings, we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the treasure, which is the gospel itself. Not the texts of the gospels, but THE GOSPEL. The Good News that Our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and all are invited to a new life in Him. That is our faith, and is the treasure we hold onto, despite any external problems.
Paul is brilliant in this letter. He knows well how corrupt and quarrelsome people can be. Let’s face it, he’s quite often dealing with church fights, and those can get pretty ugly! He knows that life in the Church is often far from perfect, because we are all just people, and we all fall into sin. His brilliance here is to show us that God wanted it to be this way. We have treasure in clay pots “SO THAT it may be seen” that what is done is from God and not of our own power.
This juxtaposition of power with weakness defines the Christian life. Paul ties his sufferings directly to the sufferings of Christ. In Paul’s time, the stoic philosophers taught that it was virtuous to be indifferent to outside circumstances. You are to simply bear your sufferings through your own internal strength. Paul turns this thinking on his head. He says yes, you will be afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted! But not crushed, not driven to despair, and not forsaken! Why? Because as disciples of Christ we have taken on both Christ’s “death” and his “life.”
Death and life here both have multiple meanings. In always carrying the death of Jesus, we die to ourselves, leaving sin behind. The death of Jesus was a death of suffering, and Christians must be prepared to suffer at times. But we also carry the “life” of Christ in us. This of course refers to our resurrected bodies, but it is not only that. Just as “death” is both now in one sense, and in the future in another sense, so too is Christ’s life not only future, but also now. The Christian virtues to which God is calling us through this Holy Scripture are humility, and forbearance. Suffering is sometimes necessary, but it becomes possible for us, bearable for us not because of our own inner strength and determination, but because we have new life, Christ’s life in us always. This is the heart of the Gospel, the treasure in the earthenware vessel. Let us pray this week for God’s guidance, asking Him him to help us cultivate the virtues of humility and forbearance, so that God’s love and God’s power may be shown through us.