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Clay jars – a sermon on the ordination to the priesthood of Mark Anderson and Stephen Srikantha

2 Corinthians 4:7: 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.
KintsugiI know that some of you saw the installation that Alison Clark (who as well as being an artist is also my wife) placed in Southwark Cathedral as part of the commemoration of the terrorist attack on London Bridge. The theme was ‘Broken Beauty’, and Alison took inspiration from the Japanese tradition of kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of repair – but instead of trying to conceal all sign of the original break, the kintsugi craftsman makes it more visible. The object is whole again, but the line of the fracture is outlined in gold – and I have a bowl here which illustrates the art. A beautiful earthenware bowl in its own right made more beautiful having been broken, and repaired.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, in clay jars. Paul’s passionate and loving argument with the people of God in Corinth revolves in large part around what it is that makes an apostle – what sort of apostle is he, and does he match up to the competition. In both 1 and 2 Corinthians Paul denounces as foolishness any attempt to demonstrate his superiority by the world’s standards. Instead, he boasts in his weakness, in his sufferings, in his humiliations – if you really want to compete, he says, compete to be the last and the least, not the first and the greatest.
And that is not just a particularly subtle psychological ploy in order to come out on top – the ancient world knew nothing of the cult of the underdog. A slave was a piece of property, to be disposed of at will; being at the bottom of the heap didn’t confer some paradoxical kudos. Paul went this way because he had to as a follower of Jesus. If the Son of God had emptied himself, had taken the form of a slave, given over to the shameful death of the cross, then what other path could his followers take in their turn?
There are several explanations offered by scholars for Paul’s particular use of ‘clay jars’ as his example. One that I find particularly helpful is that he may have been referring to the small, cheap, disposable pottery lamps that were in use in Corinth – lamps filled with oil and with a little floating wick. And that may help us trace the connection back to the previous verse
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
Paul is telling the Corinthians, in as many ways as he can – it’s not about me; it’s about Jesus. If you’re still looking at me, and me only, you’re looking at the wrong thing. I am here as the vessel through which the light and life of God can flow into the world. Focus, he says, on my weakness, because then you will be able to see the power that comes from God.
Paul is talking about his own ministry, in contrast to his unknown opponents who appear to have criticised him – for exactly the things that he now wears as his badges of honour. And he in turn accuses them of being concerned in the end for their own glory, and not the glory of God. That has been throughout the centuries the one of the great temptations of the church, and especially of its ministers. Whether it be through accumulating palaces and lands, or power in the state, or perhaps more recently having your own personal aeroplane, those who are called to glorify God have consistently found it difficult to distinguish the glory of God from their own glory. But holding exactly that distinction is one of the first marks of a priest in the church, and one of the most powerful witnesses that we can make to the transforming power of God at work within us.
If I can move with only a slightly awkward change of gear into the contemporary age, one of Leonard Cohen’s finest lines has been echoing in my head – ‘there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. It is through our fragility, our brokenness and our weakness that the light gets in to us – and that is how it shines out again.
We start, all of us who are Christians, with the knowledge that we are sinful and broken people in a broken world. We start with the desire to be re-made by God, to become the people God created us to be. It is that deep knowledge that our lives are centred around God not ourselves, that the love of God has shone in our hearts, that the light has got into us as we acknowledge the cracks that sin makes in us, that is the root of all our Christian discipleship.
And we start there too as those called into ordained ministry. None of us come because we know we are worthy of this calling; on the contrary, it is essential to our calling that we know we are not worthy. Mark and Stephen both come today to this service with many gifts and talents, for which we thank God. In their different ways they are highly skilled, and they have worked hard to learn and to grow into their calling. I have great confidence in them both. But I am most confident because I am sure that for them both their ministry rests most deeply not on all those skills and abilities, but on the grace of God.
The light gets in through the cracks, says Leonard Cohen; the light shines out through the earthen vessels, says St Paul. It is in the wholeness of your humanity, Mark and Stephen, that you are called to serve the church as priests. In your weakness and your uncertainties as much as in those things which flow easily and skilfully. This is not a profession in which you can specialise just in the things that you particularly prefer. To be a priest of the new covenant of Christ is a calling to stand for God to the people and for the people to God in many different ways. Some of them are mundane and frustrating, some are frankly scary and many are deeply joyful. It will be as often through your stumbling and weakness as through your skill that people will see Christ.
We are all on a pilgrimage towards the wholeness of our being in God, but we also bear the signs of our human weakness. This kintsugi bowl has been broken and more than repaired, it has been remade. It is better than before it was broken. As priests, you bring that gift and promise of reconciliation through pronouncing God’s forgiveness of sins and through presiding at the eucharist. The priesthood is nothing less than a calling to embody for the church God’s mission to remake the world, and to enable the whole church to share in that mission.
You cannot do this in your own strength; but you do not need to. You are as Christ’s disciples filled and surrounded by the love of God – in your hearts and shown through the love and support of families, friends and the communities you serve. You have been called as the person you are, not to try to become someone else. As you begin to explore the gift of priesthood in your ministry, let it inhabit you as you inhabit it, so that you can begin to understand for yourself what it means to be a clay jar, a fragile and breakable human being, who is also, and through acknowledging that fragility all the more so, a lamp shining for the world with the light of Christ.

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