God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” 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 pots, to show that this all-surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. At all times and in every way, we are hard-pressed, but not crushed; at a loss, but not lost; hounded by enemies, but not deserted by God; thrown down, but not shattered. We are always carrying around in our bodies the killing of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
So death is at work in us, but life in you.
—2 Corinthians 4:6-12
Thus writes the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, sounding one of his central themes: we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, which means that when we suffer—not for sin, but for other reasons—we are somehow suffering with Christ; and more, that suffering with Christ is part of the way God works in us and uses us.
We have been given an incalculable treasure; we have been given new light by which to live, the light which is the knowledge of who God is and what he is like, which has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. But receiving that treasure hasn’t immediately made us perfect and perfectly beautiful; the light is brilliant and glorious, but we’re still just drab, workaday clay pots, cheap, easily broken, not worth repairing, common as the day is long. Sometimes, that’s intensely frustrating, and sometimes it seems to make no sense; but when we start to imagine ourselves more than that, we start to think that the beauty is really ours, not God’s, and we start to take the credit for it ourselves—and we don’t let his light shine through. Put a light in a whole, unbroken pot and put the lid on, and no light escapes; but if the pot is cracked, then the light can shine through.
And we are cracked, and life keeps cracking us. None of us here, I think, can come close to the catalogue of Paul’s trials, but we all suffer; and while some of it we know comes to us as the consequences of our own sin, there is much that we do not deserve. We suffer because we aren’t properly appreciated, because we don’t get the credit for what we do, because we make a convenient scapegoat, because things simply go wrong and we lack the money or the influence to fix them; we suffer because we’re too honest to pass the blame when the fault is ours, or because we take the blame in order to protect someone else, or because we keep our commitments when everything is going wrong or when others have broken faith with us, rather than seeking a loophole and getting out. We all know times when we are hard-pressed, when we are at a loss; some of us at least have known what it is to be persecuted by another, and most of us have felt the pain of being thoroughly defeated. We are cracked pots, and no mistake.
And through those cracks, the light of God shines, and within us, his power holds us together; and so though life presses us hard indeed, he bears us up under the pressure, and he makes a way out in his time. Though we are all too often bewildered, unsure, at a loss, we are never truly lost; we may not know where the next step is, but God does, and he’ll guide us, one step at a time. We may indeed find enemies hounding us, for who knows what reason, but even then, God is with us—we are not left alone; and though we are sometimes thrown down, we don’t shatter on the ground, because God keeps us in one piece, and so we bounce back.
And in that, we come to understand a little more, from the inside, what Jesus suffered for us—and as others see God bring us through the suffering that comes in this life, they come to understand that a little more, too, and they see his light shining in us. As people see the dying of Christ reflected in us, they can also see the life which overcomes and has overcome death, his resurrection life. We bear witness that we can in fact gain life by giving it away, that we can receive life by letting go of it, that we can find joy and peace even in the midst of pain and hardship, and that we have in truth been given a life which overcomes even death itself; and in so doing, we point people to Jesus, in whom they too can find life, eternal and overflowing.
In a sense, wherever else we might find ourselves in the story of the crucifixion, we are all Simon of Cyrene: called to carry his cross, and to find in that our witness to Jesus and our ministry to this world.