The secret beauty of fragility
I can remember fossicking through an old rubbish dump in Western Australia’s Mount Magnet when I was young. We were on the hunt for old bottles. My fossicking friends had a good collection of interesting bottles. Sadly, I did not find a complete bottle that day, but I did see plenty of broken glass!
It is not surprising that there was a lot of glass in a town settled in the mid 1800’s. Tin cans were only just getting going, so what else was there to store food and liquid in? They were useful, cheap and universal, but they were fragile. A little bit like our takeaway coffee cups. In New Testament times the clay pot was the useful, cheap and universal food and liquid storage container. They were also fragile, meaning that they broke. So modern archaeologists often find acres of broken pottery.
Paul picks up the idea of being a clay pot in 2 Corinthians 4 to describe the shape of the Christian life. He then uses this description to show the Corinthians why he acts the way he does. By the end of the chapter he goes even further inviting them to share in the ‘clay pot’ life.
It is a little surprising that Paul should choose a clay pot to describe himself. Indeed, he was a gifted man and we know how much he has shaped the entire world through his actions and writings. I wonder why he should choose such a cheap, universal and fragile article, when something costlier and more durable would be better. Yet Paul is a realist. He knows himself and those he works with. He knows his own frailty and limitations. In fact, later in the letter he draws attention to how fragile he is. I suspect that the reason Paul is so frank about himself is that he is inviting the Corinthians, who were an arrogant lot, to reflect upon their own ordinariness and get a dose of reality.
A beautiful thing emerges as Paul writes. Recognising reality frees Paul for great things rather than paralysing or disheartening him. He has hope, he finds perseverance, he holds out life amid death, and is ‘renewed day by day’ even when suffering. He is far more durable than his ‘clay pot’ status would indicate.
And this is Paul’s point. He is beautiful and durable even though he is ordinary and fragile. He is beautiful and durable because the contents of his vessel can be seen for what they are.
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. (2 Corinthians 4:7 NRSV)
The treasure is nothing less than knowing God through Jesus. A pot can conceal or lock away a treasure. Maybe this is why Paul did not seem to mind getting a bit chipped or cracked along the way. It just made the glimpses of the treasure greater!
Bishop Matt Brain
This article first appeared in the Bible Society ‘Sower’ earlier this year. You might like to check out the helpful daily bible reflections at biblesociety.org.au/the-bible/#dailybible