By Rev. Dr. Cynthia Kittredge
Paul writes of himself and his coworkers in ministry:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
2 Cor 4:8-10
These words have comforted people of faith of every age. They continue to offer sustenance to those communities that are persecuted and afflicted.
Although rejection, disappointment, failure, and danger threaten to make sufferers lose heart, Paul is honest about the strength of the opposition and utterly secure in God. Paul grounds his confidence in God’s mercy, the integrity of the ministry he shares with his partners, and the knowledge that Jesus is Lord. He uses the vivid of image of treasure in “clay jars” or “earthen vessels” (KJV) to assert the strength of God and the fragility of humanity. Paul’s words express simultaneous confidence and humility, as he claims the power of the gospel.
Even though it is sometimes hidden, in every adversity God’s power is working, just as the light of creation shines in the darkness. Paul finds in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection the pattern of his own life. Life issues out of death: the life of Jesus, visible in the bodies of believers (2 Cor 4:10), in mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11) and life in you (2 Cor 4:12).
Scripture records these words as those of Paul. But they have become words with liturgical and spiritual significance apart from this singular person. When you come to exclamations, laments, or praise in Paul’s letters that particularly strike you, read them aloud and then repeat the reading as many times as seem right to you. Imagine them in the mouths of those for whom you care. Let them become your words; let them speak for you.
How are clay jars a good metaphor for human beings?
How does the pattern of Jesus’ life and death express itself in the pattern of your life?
God of power and might, thank you for the witness of faith of Paul and his coworkers. Thank you for the words of scripture. May they become our words, our faith, our joy. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Kittredge is professor of New Testament and Academic Dean at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.