Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians is building in an intensity as he continues to encourage and instruct the first Christians there. The force of his message is getting more and more concentrated as he focuses the strength of his message of Christ as Lord as he works to articulate the light shining in the darkness. We hold this treasure within us as earthen vessels, he goes one to say. The light is the treasure which is the knowledge of God, the glory on the face of Christ. The face of Christ that we see as the true knowing of God. Jesus said when you see me you see the Father.
So it is not just knowledge that Paul brings to bear here but a real face to face encounter, to know and be known. Knowledge here is not information but experience, the real presence of the living God who we come to know in Christ Jesus. The Word of God that becomes flesh in our lives. The Word who became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
Paul’s writing is getting very dense and intense. On one level you can read him, his oft repeated message to the various communities is apparent. But drawing out the depth of his message as it comes through his rhetoric is a bit of a challenge. One reason here I believe is that he is not only teaching how to live in Christ but also woven with it is Paul’s experience and defense of his own mission and work. His message is becoming more urgent and his sentences are getting more muscular, dense and over laid. Associations are woven tightly together so that I get the sense that Paul and his scribe knew what he was talking about and his audience but at our remove it requires nuance and understanding of Paul and his background in Judaism. And I find I am continually rereading, going over the same passages, and quite frankly reading them not as the chapters are set out in my Bible but seeing longer passages that flow, go together and refer back to each other. A long, colorful woven tapestry.
This is an example of the excavation or unraveling of Paul. He continues in Corinthians: We are only the earthen ware jars that hold this treasure. This treasure being the knowledge and subsequent experience of Jesus as Lord. How are we like earthen ware jars, variously translated as earthen vessels? The great thing about symbols is that they can and do have a variety of meanings. First, his audience would know that these vessels are formed and shaped on a potter’s wheel and then burned in the fire in order to bake them. Implying that we are created, formed and shaped by the Potter. Then we are burned in the fire. What follows in this section is Paul’s description of the fire in which his ministry is forged. He faces difficulties on all sides, and as in other places, he is explicit about what they are. But in spite of all these difficulties Paul prevails. It is worth it. More than worth it. The lesson is to the newly Christian and to us whose Christianity perhaps has become watered down or worse. But for Paul these are the blessings and responsibilities of being vessels of the Word, the life of Christ, temples of the living God, which Paul goes on to liken both himself and the people at Corinth, to.
As he goes on he intertwines the cause of his persecutions with what saves him. The life, death and resurrections of Jesus the Christ. We carry within us in our bodies, in ourselves as earthen vessels, the death and therefore the life of Christ. And Paul goes on in this letter to set out the trials and challenges to not only Paul but to the Christ he preaches, which in Paul are one and the same. Paul encourages throughout that what he endures we too we can endure for the gospel. The Christ life that lives in us, also sustains us through the fire.
In 1946 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran. They were found to be inside earthenware jars. This is where the papyrus manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures had been put perhaps for safe keeping, possibly in anticipation of or after the destruction of the Second Temple. Traditionally this may well have been a way the scrolls were kept and stored. We are only earthen jars that hold this treasure We carry the light of Christ, the Word of God within us. However fragile, breakable, we as vessels are, because the Spirit of the Lord is with us, in both his death and life, we will be preserved. Not just preserved. But we will grow. The old is sloughed off, while the new creation that we are comes to life. We will decay Paul says, but as we grow in the knowledge and love of Christ, the inner person is renewed day by day, earthen vessels from which the light of Christ shines. The outer body diminishing, while the hidden self grows strong in the knowledge and love of Christ.