Today, we’re taking a short break from the gospels to do a deep dive with Second Corinthians. I’m going to spend a little more time than usual filling in the background, because for us to read Paul’s letters today is like overhearing someone on the phone – you only get half of the conversation. So even if ancient church drama isn’t your thing, bear with me.
The apostle Paul, who wrote this letter, had already spent some time admonishing the church in Corinth for failing to keep up with what he taught them—we now know this letter as First Corinthians. As we wade in to his second letter, we find him in the middle of defending his ministry with them after some rival preachers came to town to stir up trouble, bragging that they had been sent with letters of recommendation from this guy and that guy and demanding that the church in Corinth give them money, and saying that Paul was actually nobody and they shouldn’t listen to him at all.
And here’s the thing: Paul does not deny his own weakness and lack of earthly authority. He’s been thrown out of major cities, arrested, thrown in prison at least once already, chased away and rejected by his peers. But, as we’ll hear in a moment, Paul considers himself the messenger, not the message. Paul is not the point. Proclaiming the good news that Christ is the risen Lord of all creation – that is the point.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:5-15
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
With this, we come back around to the ways we determine who is blessed by God. Is it the people who are always admired and accepted by those with authority? Is it the people who always have what they want and never face temptations, arguments, or struggle?
Jesus told us a few weeks ago that “blessed are the poor, the weak, and the persecuted.” Now, in this letter, we see Paul living Jesus’ words.
Corinth was a major port city in Greece that served as a connecting point for shipping between the eastern Roman empire and western Roman empire. The people in Corinth were ethnically and religiously diverse, and it was more of a stop along the way than a long-term home for most people—which made it a perfect spot for Paul to raise up new Christians who would then bring the gospel with them as they left. But after a while, Paul and his companions ran into trouble in Corinth with the roman governor, and were kicked out of the city – so Paul went to Ephesus, but kept up with the church he planted there.
It’s also important to remember that after Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he gave up everything to preach the gospel across the known world. He gave up his status and position of power as a Pharisee in Jerusalem. He gave up his home and left his family. He gave up the religious traditions that he had known all of his life, and went to live and teach and preach grace among the people he had once considered outsiders—perhaps even enemies—to God’s message.
So you can imagine that when a group of false “super-apostles” showed up in Corinth and led the church he so lovingly cultivated to begin questioning his trustworthiness, his fitness for ministry, and the trustworthiness of his message, that would hurt.
So, in this letter we find Paul vigorously and sometimes emotionally defending his character, his works, and his battle scars. He speaks of his ministry as a God-given call to preach Jesus as Lord, which he does with passion and without cost to those who will hear it.
This gospel is, however, enormously costly to Paul—he suffers physically and emotionally, which he describes as “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that in our mortal bodies the life of Jesus may also be made visible.”
For the rest of us, that simply means: “my life is sometimes objectively terrible, but I have been given this call, this message from God to deliver to as many people as physically possible – and it is such good news that all of this is worth it.”
He tells the Corinthians that his suffering is not in vain—rather, everything he does is for the good of the Church throughout the world, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.”
Paul makes no claims to perfection. Quite the opposite, actually – when he says that he carries the priceless treasure of the gospel in clay jars, he’s basically comparing himself to the ancient world’s equivalent of paper plates.
This is what we have, what we carry God’s love and the good news of Christ Jesus in: hearts that break, bodies that don’t cooperate, souls that lean towards sin, minds that get easily distracted by shiny things and squirrels.
And the amazing, and slightly terrifying thing, is that God did that on purpose. There is no locked door, no secret handshake, no treasure box hidden far away that contains the whole of the gospel – it’s us. From the Twelve, who started out as bumbling, unequipped fisherman who regularly misunderstood Jesus to Paul, who sacrificed everything to do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus, all the way down through the church’s complex and sometimes ridiculous history, it’s always been real, complicated, breakable people at the center of God’s work in our world.
We are paper cups full of pearls that we very obviously did not grow ourselves.
Like Paul, our lives are not the picture of perfection—if you feel conflicted, confused, or exhausted, you’re in good company—but because of God’s love and grace and strength and courage at work in us, we shall not be overcome.
As Dr. Dennis Voskuil, my church history professor in seminary, liked to say: the gates of hell itself shall not prevail against the church.
Because this priceless knowledge comes from God and not us, the Spirit that lives in us will not rest until we give voice to this hope that we have, just as John cried out in the desert and the psalmists sang and Paul preached.
No matter what comes, every good thing we do is for the sake of gospel growing in others, so that as this very good news spreads in our lives and in our community, we can rejoice together more and more in God’s abundant grace.
Beloved people of God, know this: while we were yet sinners, blundering around in the shadows, Christ lived and died and rose for us. Each of us has a ministry of our own, given to us as a gift by our loving God—and no matter what comes, God will not let us go. Thanks be to God.