"Treasure In Clay Jars" series


I will welcome your insights. In whatever ways you have influence in our congregation - and I know you do! - I welcome you to influence others to get involved in this "conversation" whether it is online, in the hallway, or over the dinner table. We have been given this ministry because of God's mercy! Even though we are cracked and crusty clay jars, we carry a precious treasure! Hey! That's good news so don't lose heart!
2 Corinthians 4

Read 2 Corinthians 3:17 – 4:9.

Relics and Reliquary - The remains of a saint or holy person are called relics. As early as the fourth century, small pieces of bone, blood, or cloth associated with Christ, Mary, the apostles, or various saints were collected and revered. The thought was that these minute pieces ordinary matter could produce miracles through the intercession of the saint. Since they were so cherished and prized, the containers that held them were often decorated. The containers are called reliquaries.
The possession of a relic could make a town famous and attract pilgrims (we call them tourists). Even if you have never heard of relics or reliquaries, you have probably heard of the Shroud of Turin (where the Winter Olympics will be held next week). Soon, relics became an obsession and a matter of jealous rivalry. A rival town could improve its fortunes by acquiring a precious relic, sometimes by bold theft or by making up a relic. (Centuries ago there were other cities claiming to have the true shroud, not just Turin. And legend has it that one town had the skeleton of John the Baptist at age 13). Cities and churches were proud and protective of their relics so they made their reliquaries large and elaborate. They might even be shaped like the object they contained – a cross shaped box to house a splinter of wood from Christ’s cross; an arm of gold containing the finger bone of a local saint.

The odd fact of relics and reliquaries is that the many reliquaries no longer contain the relic they were built to contain. So, the reliquary – that is, the empty container – is now the prized object and treasure.

clay jar Treasure in Clay Jars – Paul describes us as containers that hold a priceless treasure. But we are not the gilded and jeweled encrusted fine art boxes that contain decayed and gruesome items like bones, hair, teeth, and dried blood. Paul says that we are more like clay jars – which were the cardboard boxes of his day. Clay jars were ordinary containers like shoeboxes or plastic tubs in which people stored items – even treasures. God has stored the precious and priceless treasure of the gospel in ordinary clay jars like Paul, like me, like you, like us ...

Unlike reliquaries the church cannot become a shell that has long ago lost its content – or if there is any content it is meant to be something much more valuable than old bones. In fact, old bones might be a better description of the vessel rather than the treasure, for our fragile forms and our imperfect congregation is the clay jar filled with priceless treasure. We are a Styrofoam cup filled with the finest champagne. We are a paper sack full of rare gems. We are the plain brown wrapper that covers a masterpiece of beauty and art.

Even if we could be perfect and polished, there is enough in life to pressure us, perplex us, and persecute us. In other words, we’re going to take some licks in life and we cannot escape getting scratched, scarred. Yet, just because we are ordinary or even cracked and broken, we are not disqualified from being a useful vessel for carrying the treasure of the gospel ...

Broken Jar Parable – An Indian fable tells the story of a water-bearer. Every day he carried two large pots on a yoke across his shoulders every day from river to his master’s house. One pot is perfect and always carries a full measure of water from the river to the house after the long walk. But the other has a crack and it leaks half of its water along the way.
          After years of arriving half-empty and feeling guilty for being cracked, the pot apologized to the water-bearer: “I am sorry that I did not accomplish for you what the perfect pot did. Surely I have made more work for you because I am cracked and flawed.”
          The water-bearer smiled, “Why do you apologize? Haven’t you noticed the flowers that grow on your side of the path from the river? Because of your flaw you have sprinkled water along the way that nourished the flowers. These flowers pleased me on my long walk to and from the river. The perfect pot delivers a full measure of water, but there are no flowers on its side of the path.”

As individuals and as a congregation, we are tempted to apologize for our flaws. We attempt to hide them or desperately try anything to repair them. Certainly we strive to be perfect and holy as Christ is perfect and holy, but the biblical idea of holiness has more to do with maturity than flawlessness. And the goal of perfection and excellence is to become more like Christ. But we arrive at this perfection as God works through our weakness not when we overcome them ourselves. It matters whether we are concerned with the container or the treasure inside.

We can spend much time and energy on trying to achieve perfection, excellence, and holiness so that we might influence what others think about us! Perhaps we are trying to recruit new members or gain influence or prestige. This can be very tempting because we may even convince ourselves that this is necessary for church growth or evangelism. How many times have Christians looked to the dynamic, successful churches of our age and attempted to imitate them? How often have these churches been willing to share their secrets – for a small price? How often have we been discouraged and disappointed because we just don’t seem to be able to have the same “success” as other groups? We will be disappointed and lose heart when we think that this is all about us, but we will never be crushed, despairing, or destroyed if we live life as a clay jar knowing that the treasure is from God. It matters whether we are concerned with the container or the treasure inside.

It is good to be visionary and creative in seeking opportunities to communicate and to make a good impression on others. But we are resorting to secret or shameful means if we are trying to cover up the reality of who we are lest someone think poorly of us. We are resorting to deception and distortion if we are trying to win people over with our goods and services rather than with good news and salvation. We may be ashamed of our weaknesses, limitations, and liabilities but these may in fact be what God uses to display his treasure and might. When we live life as clay jars showing that we are what we are because of God’s mercy rather than our own efforts, then those who recognize their own humanity(who are not trying to cover up the truth about their own life) will want to share in the treasure too. It matters whether we are concerned with the container or the treasure inside.

This is about evangelism! – The church doesn’t have a mission. The mission has a church. Remember that? We need to remember that if we are going to fix on the precious all-surpassing power of the treasure and not get distracted by our clay jar container life. Too often we think that we have to light the fire of “this little light of mine” and we have to be doing something to be more effective. Maybe what we need to do is start letting God do more and live like he is. Our Scripture says that God who brought light out of darkness makes his light shine in our hearts.
          I don’t recall too many stories of people who came to Jesus and had their lives changed because they were attracted to a church with a beautiful building, fantastic programs, a Starbucks in the foyer and a budget in the black. But I know dozens of stories like Tracy’s.
          Tracy was a waitress at a local café in Lake Jackson. One day she came to visit me in my office. She wanted to ask me something, but first she had something to tell me. She told me that she had been working as a waitress for a few years and that waiters and waitresses hate working on Sunday afternoon. She said that though it seems like the “church crowd” would be the best of customers, they are typically the rudest and all-around worst. They are arrogant, demanding, impatient, picky, and they hardly tip. Then she said, “Now I want you to know that I have been waiting on people from your church for quite a few months.”
I groaned inside. I began thinking that our church is flawed and broken. I began working on how I would apologize to Tracy. And then she spoke again, “Your people have made it a delight to work on Sunday afternoon. They have been polite and thoughtful. They have asked about me and my family. I look for them every week. I know they aren’t perfect people – and a few times they didn’t tip much at all – but every time they have had an attitude and a spirit that I just haven’t seen before. I really want to have that too. And after talking to some of these folks I wanted to ask you – can I be a Christian?”

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 5 February 2006

Treasure in Clay Jars
Introduction 1 – “Life as a Clay Jar”
Discussion Guide
February 5, 2006

Objective: This is the first of two introductory discussions. The objective of this introduction is to help the group become familiar with the key image of the “treasure in clay jars.” We will be returning to this image frequently over the course of this series.

Major Themes and General Discussion:

  • Take the time with your group to discuss the image. What makes sense? What doesn’t? Don’t feel burdened to answer every question. We will understand the illustration of the Clay Jars in time as we dwell with this text for many weeks.
  • Focus on the theme of encouragement in this text. How is this good news? What does it say about God and his work among us? How does it help us “not to lose heart” (v. 4:1)?
  • What is Paul’s philosophy of proclamation and evangelism? Is he more interested in what he says or what others think? Why does this matter? Is Paul’s philosophy still relevant for us?

Discussion Starters [Use the ones that will suit your group discussion]:

  • Name a product or service in which the hype, marketing, or advertising is actually better than the product itself. (If your group was watching the SuperBowl, you will probably have quite a few examples.)
  • As a contrast you might want to think of examples of good products or services that do not have the best packaging or marketing. What might these be?
  • Recall the illustration of ancient reliquaries from the morning sermon – reliquaries are elaborate containers for “ordinary” (maybe even gross or fake) items. What is something mundane or ordinary that comes in a special package? What are examples of ordinary items dressed up in special containers?
  • Now think of examples of special, priceless, and/or treasured items that we place in cheap, ordinary, or disposable containers (i.e. Styrofoam, paper sacks, cardboard, etc.)

Read 2 Corinthians 3:17 - 4:9 and Discuss

  • How does Paul view his ministry? How does he “package and present” the gospel?
  • What does he mean when he describes himself and his fellow missionaries as “clay jars”? What is the treasure above all that his “clay jar” life contains?
  • Why is this encouragement not to lose heart? (See 4:1.) How does it give us encouragement when it is difficult to live out our faith? (See 4:8.)

Life as a Clay Jar [Application and Commitment]

  • In what ways are churches and Christians pressured to “dress up their packaging, programs, and presentation”? How is this different from or the same as honest communication and making a good impression?
  • What might be the characteristics of a church that has “renounced secret and shameful ways; does not use deception, and does not distort the word of God”? (See 4:2.)
  • What do you think it would mean for us (as individuals and as a congregation) to “set forth the truth plainly”? Does this mean we are going to have to be rude and insensitive? What does it say about the way we should live?
  • What are some ways we might preach ourselves rather than preach Jesus Christ? (See 4:5.) What are we missing when we do this?
  • What is the treasure that we carry within our “clay jar” lives and our “clay jar” congregation? [Note: Move beyond simple answers like “the gospel.” Press the group to explain how the “treasure” is experienced in Western Arkansas in 2006.]

Looking Ahead

  • Paul spoke of his ministry in the first century world. How is our ministry in our region in the early 21st century similar to and different from Paul’s? How is it different from and similar to thirty years ago?
  • Our ministry is rooted in what God is doing – His mission. It is because of his mercy. Even though “the times are changing” we need not lose heart. Our life as a clay jar is meaningful up against any worldview when the treasure is from God and not us.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 5 February 2006

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