M. Night Shyamalan's film Unbreakable begins with a train wreck. Everyone on board is killed—over a hundred people—except for one. David Dunn not only survives the wreck, he walks away without a scratch. Instead of being relieved by his good fortune, he's troubled by this remarkable outcome. Why was he unharmed, and what does it mean? Into Dunn's life comes an eccentric comic book collector named Elijah, who seems equally intrigued by Dunn's survival. Elijah has reason to be interested; he was born with a genetic disorder that leaves his bones especially brittle—so brittle, in fact, that he is known as Mr. Glass. Dunn, on the other hand, has never broken a bone, even after years of playing football. He's never had stitches; never pulled a muscle; never been bruised; never even been sick. Elijah tells David that he's not like other people; he's been given an extraordinary gift that he cannot keep to himself, but must employ in the service and protection of others. For the rest of the film, Dunn struggles to understand and accept his remarkable abilities and the destiny that goes with them. He's unbreakable.
The film is fiction, of course—a comic book fantasy. There are no superheroes walking the streets of our cities. We are all quite breakable. We're a lot more like Mr. Glass than David Dunn. We're fragile and susceptible to disease, accident, injury, violence, germs, and natural disaster. All kinds of things can happen to us in this world that lead to all sorts of questions. Why did this happen, and why to me or to my loved ones? Who or what is behind all this? How am I supposed to handle it? How can we afford to reach out to the world when it takes all we have just to stay healthy and safe?
The apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians after surviving more than a few train wrecks in his life and ministry. It's one of the least familiar of Paul's letters, but it speaks to the harsh realities of life and about the unbreakable faith that sustains us through difficult and dangerous times. We don't know the particulars, but later in chapter 12 Paul catalogues some of the difficulties he has encountered during his ministry: he had been in prison, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, starved, and abandoned. Paul is qualified to speak on the subject of hardship.
As if all that were not bad enough, some of Paul's critics in Corinth were kicking him while he was down by suggesting that he lacked the credentials to be an apostle and that all the bad things that have happened to him were confirmation of God's judgment. In response to all this, Paul wrote this letter, both to establish his credibility as an apostle and to teach the Corinthians a proper perspective on hardship and suffering, a perspective we very much need today. We begin with what I believe is the pivotal passage of the entire book: 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.
We are jars of clay.
Paul begins verse 7 by claiming, "we have this treasure in jars of clay." In this context, "we" includes not only Paul and his associates, but also, by extension, everyone who bears the name of Christ. The treasure he's talking about is the gospel; not just the message of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the power behind the message—the very life of God available through faith in Christ.
Instead of "jars of clay," some translations read "clay pots" or "earthenware vessels." Regardless, the point is clay pottery was the most common material for cookware, dishes, washbasins, and storage in the first century. Clay pots kept liquid cool and slowed the evaporation process. Clay was easy to obtain and work with. If a pot broke, you could make or buy another cheaply and easily. Sometimes people stored their valuables in jars of clay, assuming that nobody would think of looking in something so ordinary to find anything of value. If you've ever stuck cash in a sock drawer, you get the idea.
But how are we Christians like jars of clay? First of all, clay pots were quite ordinary. They were everywhere, especially in the homes of peasants and common people. Wealthy people used more exotic materials, such as ivory, marble, glass, or fine wood, but regular people used clay pots. It would be like saying today, "we have this treasure in plastic bags." Second, jars of clay were fragile. Compared to marble, ivory, or even wood, clay didn't last. Since it was so cheap, no one really expected it to. People used a pot for a while, and when it got too chipped or cracked to use, or when it fell and shattered, they simply got another one.
Paul creates this great juxtaposition: God has taken this great treasure, the life of Christ, and placed it in people like you and me, who are as common and fragile as clay pots. That seems odd. Why would God store something so valuable in a container so ordinary? According to Paul, there are two reasons.
God displays his life-giving power in us.
First, God stores his treasure in fragile containers—like us—to display his life-giving power. That way, it is clear that whatever we accomplish is done only by God's power. From the little we know, Paul was not an impressive person. He was not known as an eloquent speaker, he may have been small of stature, and he seems to have had health problems, including poor eyesight. He was often on the receiving end of criticism, slander, rejection, and persecution. Yet somehow, the gospel was spread through him so that the church was established throughout the known world. The only explanation was that God must have been working through him!
It doesn't make sense to place something so valuable in a container so ordinary, unless, of course, you want people to notice the treasure and not the container. Imagine you're having guests for dinner, and you decide to make your specialty: chicken cacciatore. It's a family recipe that takes all day to prepare, but these guests are important, so you're happy to do it. When it comes time for dinner, you bring in the main dish, set it down in the middle of the table, and your guests exclaim, "Oh my, look at that. What a beautiful serving bowl!" Then they spend the rest of the meal admiring the dish. "Where did you get that bowl?" they ask. They never say a word about the chicken! Next time you'd serve it up in a disposable foil tray, so the container wouldn't attract any attention at all. So it is that God pours his life into ordinary containers, like you and me, so that people will praise him, and not us. We are who we are only because of the treasure we carry within us—the life-giving power of Christ.
The harder life gets, the more conspicuous the treasure becomes. That's a very important lesson for the American church. You don't have to look very hard to find a preacher or Bible teacher telling you God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. Listen to Christian radio for a while; watch a Christian cable broadcast; surf the net; and you'll find people telling you God wants to bless you with success, prosperity, and a long and lovely life. There's nothing new about that teaching. There were teachers in Corinth saying many of the same things. They called Paul's ministry into question because of the hard things that had happened to him. That's why Paul lists some of his credentials for doing ministry. It's a very strange list; instead of highlighting his strengths and accomplishments, he lists his difficulties and disappointments. Imagine applying for a job and saying, "I dropped out of college for bad grades, but I did the best I could. I got fired from my last two jobs, but I learned a lot through the experience. I've got some reference letters here: this one's from a coach who kicked me off his team, and this one's from my probation officer." This is like anti-résumé.
He says, "We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed." We might say he was stressed out. Have you ever slumped through the day as if you had the weight of the world on your shoulders? Paul was hard pressed, but he didn't give in. "We're perplexed, but not in despair," he continued. In other words, we're confused, bewildered, and mixed up. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the complexities of life or by some difficult decision that you were completely immobilized? Paul was perplexed, but he didn't give up. He goes on: "We're persecuted, but not abandoned." Jews, Romans, false teachers, and fellow Christians criticized and hounded Paul everywhere he went. Do you ever feel as though everyone's out to make your life difficult, whether friends, family, your boss, the school, or the court system? "We're struck down, but not destroyed," Paul says. Literally and emotionally, Paul's been knocked off his feet again and again. Maybe you know how that feels. Have you experienced one setback or defeat after another: financial trouble, health problems, lost job, or family strife. Paul and his partners were struck down, stressed out, mixed up, picked on, and knocked down. Talk about a train wreck! But they always got back up again. The world has done it's worst to us, but we Christian are still standing; not because of who we are—we're just a bunch of clay pots—but because of the life-giving power God placed within us. That power is never as conspicuous as when we're going through hard times.
Paul's unusual resume reminds us that God never promised us immunity from the hurts and hardships of life. If anything, following Christ makes things more complicated and leaves us more vulnerable to hostility and heartache. The most obvious evidence of the presence of God in our lives isn't that we escape hardship, but that we endure hardship. If you're feeling hard pressed, perplexed, picked on, or knocked down, it doesn't necessarily mean you're doing something wrong. On the contrary, it probably means you're right where you're supposed to be. God doesn't take pleasure in our hardship, nor does he afflict us with pain simply to see how we will handle it. It's just that in this crash-bang world, every time we get knocked around without breaking, we show the world we have something special inside us—the life of Christ. As long as that's true, we're unbreakable.
God dispenses his life-giving power through us.
There's a second reason God puts his treasure in jars of clay: to dispense his life-giving power.
Jars of clay were meant to be used, not admired. We have a sterling silver tea set at home that a family member gave us as a reminder of their love for us. It's quite old and beautifully made, and it sits on a stand in our dining room. There's only one problem: we can't use it. Before they gave it to us they had it chemically coated so that it wouldn't tarnish. Hot water will ruin the finish.
God's not looking for sterling silver tea sets. He's looking for rough and tumble clay pots—the kind that can be used everyday. He's looking for the kind of pots that don't need to be tucked away in a china closet, but can be sent out into a crash-bang world, carrying within them the life of Christ. The church was never meant to be a china cabinet, where precious pieces could be safely stowed out of harms way. The church was meant to be a working kitchen, where well-worn pots are filled again and again to dispense their life-giving contents to a thirsty world.
It's interesting that Paul chooses the phrase "given over to death" to describe our mission. It's the same expression the gospels use to describe Jesus' being turned over to the authorities for flogging and crucifixion. In the same way that God allowed his Son to suffer for the sins of the world, he sometimes allows his servants to suffer in order to offer everlasting life to the world. When a believer loses his job in a bad economy but responds with trust and perseverance, the life of Christ seeps through. When a Christ-follower finds herself flat on her back in a hospital bed, uncomfortable and uncertain, yet blesses those around her with grace and faith, the life of Christ spills out. When people celebrate a person's life and sing of the joys of heaven at a Christian funeral, the everlasting life of Christ fills the room with it's fragrance.
Like the Corinthians, we tend to associate the blessing of God with freedom from pain and hardship, but that's not the case at all. The blessing of God is that in the midst of pain and hardship, we continue to trust, obey, love, and live the vibrant the life of Christ within us. Paul is reminding himself, his readers, and his critics that the ministry of the gospel is not about him—his speaking ability, leadership, or success—it's about Christ. We are just clay pots. Jesus is the treasure.
That was an important word for the Corinthians for the same reason it's an important word for us today. The Corinthians were creating a culture of celebrity around some of their leaders. They were concerned about which was the most eloquent, which attracted the largest following, and which was recognized by the society as successful, attractive, or powerful. We are prone to make the same mistake today. Jars of clay are not meant to be displayed on pedestals for people to admire. Jars of clay are common, ordinary objects meant to be used. They can be appreciated, perhaps, but not admired. It's the treasure within them that deserves attention. Our fragility only serves to make the beauty of the gospel even more conspicuous.
Which of these four phrases best describes you right now: stressed out, mixed up, beaten up, or knocked down? The world can be a rough place for a clay pot. Maybe you're feeling pretty banged up this morning, like a cracked, chipped jar of clay. Don't be alarmed; you're not alone. What's happening to you is quite normal for followers of Christ. In fact, it's practically part of the job description.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.