For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Earthen vessels. Jars of Clay. Mason Jars. Dixie Cups. Plastic bags. The definition of cheap, temporary, fragile containers changes over time. Jars of clay and earthen vessels are fragile; they were once common and cheap. Mason Jars were once disposable and common; now they’re collectors’ items. It is probably about right to say, “We carry diamonds in Dixie cups.”
This verse has so many layers of meaning. The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has made the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shine out of the darkness of the human heart. There are diamonds in the Dixie cup, and there’s a priceless treasure hidden in the most ordinary looking people. But Paul is not saying that something precious is hidden in something common. Paul is saying that something precious is displayed against something common so that its beauty is so much more obvious.
There are people of other faith traditions who think it is absolute blasphemy to say that God had a Son, or that God lived as a human being. Humans, they say, are just too weak, too dirty, to contain the glory of God. But Paul says that’s precisely the point.
In his letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:5-11), Paul quoted what seems to have been a popular hymn in the early church. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:”
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God
Something to be used to his own advantage;
Rather, he made himself nothing
By taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to death –
Even death on a cross!
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
And gave him a name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
The hymn says Jesus had the very nature of God but put on the nature of a servant. God accomplished more than one thing by doing that. For one, God came and talked to his creation face-to-face. Two, by taking on flesh, God revealed Himself to be humble – that is, to be willing to stoop to our level to be with us. Three, Jesus is exalted for this sacrifice, and in that way is the picture of God for all time, a picture not of the angry Father, but of the self-sacrificing Son. God might not make sense to a lot of people, but Jesus is easier to understand.
And now it falls on us to continue the ministry of Jesus. We do not have the very nature of God, as Jesus did. Still, Jesus set the example that we are to follow. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Jesus had the nature of God but humbled himself. We get a little taste of the power of God through the Holy Spirit, and if we aren’t careful, we can get puffed up over it. God has blessed a lot of people with the power to preach, but some of them have used that power to line their own pockets. Paul had that gift, and the power to heal as well, but he talks about the thorn in his side that God gave him to keep him humble.
In our scripture today, Paul points out why God works through ordinary, humble people. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us.” He then goes on to show how he and his companions have been humbled, and how their weakness and imperfection is on display. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Were were made in the image of God, but that image has been smudged by life in this fallen world. As people, we seem to be common, a dime a dozen, taking on chips, cracks and stains until these vessels finally give up.
We’re carrying diamonds in Dixie cups, the Holy Spirit in ordinary human bodies. But that means that we are more than Dixie cups, and more precious to God than ordinary clay jars. Later in this letter (2 Corinthians 5:16), Paul says, “from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”
Paul calls this body a shell, a tent, a garment, and a body of death. It is temporary, but diamonds are forever. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of trying to make that Dixie cup last, so you could use it over and over. That cup starts getting soggy before long. If you work at it, if you keep it dry and don’t bend the paper, you can make it last for a while, but eventually, it falls apart. It isn’t made to last.
These bodies we live in – these jars of clay, mason jars, Dixie cups – aren’t made to last. But the Gospel says that we are more than these Dixie cups. To God, we are pearls of great price, a diamonds in a Dixie cup. God wants us to take care of these bodies, but they aren’t designed to last forever.
So what does this mean to us as a church? Do we regard each other from a worldly point of view? Is anyone too old, too young, too heavy, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too loud, too quiet? That’s what we see from a worldly point of view. But in Christ, we are a new creation. What matters is what we are becoming. You can’t be too old, to young, too heavy, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too loud or too quiet to love others, or to serve the church, or to witness to what Christ has done in our lives. In fact, the love we have for each other, and our service to the church, is that much more impressive because it cuts through our physical limitations. Our bodies and our world work against us doing good and loving each other, so if we live like Jesus, it has to be the power of God, and not our own power.
Without Jesus, we can’t do anything. Without Jesus, we’re just empty vessels. But thanks to God, we carry diamonds in dixie cups, and what we seem to be is not what matters. What matters is God’s love for us and how we share it with each other.
When the LORD sent Samuel to find a new King for Israel, He saw David’s older brother and said, “surely the LORD’s anointed stands before me.” God said, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:6-7) God is looking at our hearts, those diamonds in these dixie cups. I hope we can learn to look past outward appearances and treasure what is in the heart.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.