Summary: Light is always brighter than the darkness, life stronger than death, and what resides in our broken bodies is the glory of a resurrection waiting to burst forth.
There is a distinguished British gentleman by the name of Sir Oliver Franks. He had been a professor of philosophy at Oxford, and president of a couple of different colleges during the turbulent years of the 1960s and following. He had also been the chairmen of a major bank. As if this resume was not enough, Sir Oliver Franks also served for a time as the British Ambassador to the U.S., perhaps his most demanding post of all. He held this post in the all-important years immediately following the Second World War, at the time when the Cold War was beginning and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was set up.
As Ambassaor, Sir Franks was in touch, often on a daily basis, with the President on one side of the Atlantic and the Prime Minister on the other. He was the confidant of some of the most powerful people in the world. He frequently needed to get urgent, important, and top secret messages back and forth between Washington and London. It was far too risky to make telephone calls; the line was almost certainly bugged, even in that day and age. There was a diplomatic bag which went to and fro each day, bringing confidential documents by air across the Atlantic. That was the method he used for most of his important and confidential messages. But when something was really confidential, utterly and completely top secret, and desperately urgent, he wouldn’t trust it to a bag which everybody knew was important. He would put it into an ordinary envelope and send it through the regular mail.
In our scripture reading this morning, what Paul is saying in effect, is that there is no chance of anyone confusing the content of the envelope with the very ordinary and unremarkable envelope itself. The messenger, or the vessel that carries the message, is not important; what matters, vitally and urgently, is the message itself. “We have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.”
Paul has written this second letter to the Corinthians because they have started to question his authority. Wandering preachers and prophets were quite common in the world at this time, and apparently some outspoken Jewish preachers had made their way to Corinth claiming Paul and those like him had no authority to say the things they were saying. And the Corinthians believed these folks. In essence, they began to see Paul as if they have been looking at the very plain enveloped – at Paul’s own public figure, his speaking style, and at the fact that he is in and out of trouble, weakness, and now seemingly near death – and they have concluded that there is nothing at all remarkable about him. And there’s nothing remarkable about him, then that must mean there is nothing noteworthy about the message he brings. He ought to look more important than that, surely, if he really is a messenger with a message from the living God!
So here, in our reading this morning, Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “No. You’re missing the point.” Precisely because of the vital importance of God’s message, the messenger must be dispensable. It’s like putting important documents in a plain envelope or treasure into clay pots or earthenware jars; they are fragile, breakable, disposable, but the treasure is what matters. If it were any other way, the jars, the messengers, might regard themselves as important. And so Paul begins this description of what life is like for a genuine apostle.
Now remember, Paul’s ultimate goal here is to defend his authority, but he goes about doing that in quite an unusual way. Rather than lifting himself up, reciting his resume, and pointing to his long list of rather impressive accomplishments, Paul moves in the opposite direction. He marginalizes his own authority, but he does it in such a way that at the same time he cleverly marginalizes his rivals’ authority as well. Paul points out the danger of factionalism and warns against the kind of prideful rhetoric that leads to division, and he emphasizes humility and mutual respect. In other words, Paul stresses the importance of community, most specifically a unified community, which equalizes all. In making this argument, Paul not only offers wise advice to a young and already divided community, he also lays the foundation where his words can be heeded; not because he holds any important position, but because we are a community and we need to listen to each other.
Still, though, Paul knows that this does not fully answer the doubts of the Corinthians. If he were worthy of listening to, truly an apostle of God, really what he claimed, then wouldn’t God make things easier for him, granting him greater success, more advantage, less suffering, and fewer setbacks? These are the questions on the minds and lips of the Corinthian church. And so Paul’s response continues: it is precisely his weakness that validates his authority. It is in such fragile clay jars that the treasure is carried. The suffering, rejection, and struggle that all seem to diminish him as a human leader actually serve to reveal the extraordinary power of God! Paul’s authority is not a personal lordship, but that of a slave “for Jesus’ sake.”