Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 03/31/1996
2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.
Galatians 6:1 Brethren, even if a man is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.
My friends, I have the sad duty today of handling some very heavy family business. Believe me, I would rather be talking about anything other than this. But there are three things that we absolutely must accomplish today. First, I need to tell you what has happened. Second, we need to bring Scripture to bear on it so we know how to deal with it biblically. And third, we need on that basis to pull together as a congregation so that we may face what lies ahead.
When the students returned from summer break last fall, I began to be seriously concerned about what I was seeing in the relationship between _____ and _____. Their way of being with each other had taken on all the subtle signs, not of a relationship between brother and sister, but of one between two lovers. These interpersonal dynamics were alarming, not only because _____ was _____’s professor, but even more because he was a married man. I was not the only one to be concerned, but as their pastor I was responsible to act. I sat _____ down and we had a very frank discussion in which I told him what I was seeing and warned him that if he did not put a stop to it he was going to endanger everything he professed to care about. He thanked me for my concern, swore that “nothing” had “happened,” and promised to set things right. And for a while it seemed that he had, and that a looming disaster had been averted. Unfortunately, the only change that had really happened was that they became more discrete. By our return from Christmas break it had become obvious that the problem had not been dealt with but had gotten worse. I had believed his assurances out of loyalty to a friend and because I wanted them to be true. It was the worst mistake of my ministerial career. By making it, I let _____ and _____ and _____’s family and all of you down, and I ask your forgiveness for that first of all. By the time we had a meeting with other elders present, in which I quoted the marriage vows and asked _____ point blank, “Will you keep these vows?” and he would not meet my eyes, it was too late. And so now, as you now know, _____ has left him, he has been fired by the college, and he has resigned his position on the board of our church. He would have been dismissed from membership had he not done so. _____ is being allowed to finish the semester and graduate, based on her promise to have no more contact with him. And that is where we are. _____ was a friend and trusted spiritual leader to us all; he had a reputation for spiritual reality and for a sacrificial practice of it; many of you are in this church because of his ministry. Yet he has betrayed his family, his student, our church, the truth, his calling, and his Lord, and is apparently still in denial about the fact that he has done anything wrong. Every one of us is hurting on some level as a result, and some even wondering where, in the light of such a huge disillusionment, we can find the faith to keep believing ourselves. How are we to deal with this? We have to do so on at least three levels, helped by the two passages of Scripture we have read.
We are feeling a lot of powerful emotions right now, but surely one of the most painful and one of the most difficult to deal with is disillusionment. It takes many forms, and one form is the insistently pounding questions: Whom can I trust? Whom can I trust, now that my trust has been betrayed by one I trusted so well? What can I believe? How can I trust the Christian truth that did such an inadequate job of changing that life to change mine, or sustain me in that change? In what sense can a doctrine that appears to work so badly be said to be true? The betrayal we have experienced has left a bad taste in our mouths—and it is good that it has—but right now that bad taste is so powerful that it threatens to overwhelm us and taint everything that is still good and true. If we aren’t careful, we will spit out our necessary nourishment along with the poison. And the worst thing about it is that we are feeling this impulse right at the time when our confidence in our ability to tell which is which is at its lowest.
The lifeline we need at a time like this is found in 2 Corinthians 4:7. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.” We have this treasure in earthen vessels. Because you have not yet met Christ face to face, I can confidently say that you have never encountered the treasure of his truth, his Gospel, his salvation, and his love in any other way. That is, you have never seen that treasure in any other package. Even when his grace comes directly into your life from the Father—well, guess what? By the time it is in you, it is in an earthen vessel, one just as earthen as any of the others.
Now, which is of greater value, the treasure or the vessel? Well, these particular vessels are children of God, so they do have great value in one sense. But let me ask the question a different way. Is it the vessel that gives value to the treasure, or the treasure that gives value to the vessel? In other words, is the truth true because the vessel that contains it is attractive, or are we attracted to the vessel because of the truth that is in it? The truth and reality of Christ is the gold. We are the clay pots in which it is kept. And the pots are fragile. When one of them breaks, the treasure within it may spill and be lost. But the gold is gold, and the clay is clay, still. Don’t throw the gold out with the clay in your frustration over the breaking of a pot that you thought would hold it better.
Therefore, this is the perfect time to remember the things that _____ taught us. Listen to me: Do not miss this! His teaching has not let him down; his teaching has not let us down; his teaching has not let you down. He has let it down! It is still gold. It is just as golden as it ever was. Do not miss this because of the fragments of shattered clay and dust that seem to obscure it right now. So what did you learn from _____? He taught it so well that you could tell me. And it is all still true. Star Trek is still an excellent vehicle for exploring the human condition, one that doesn’t always have the right answers but usually asks the right questions. People are important. Ministry is not ministry unless it reaches and changes people. (Maybe _____ forgot the people who were his first responsibility, but his abuse of his own teaching does not overturn its truth.) Truth is not learned until it is applied and lived. Doctrine is what you do; everything else is just religious talk.
When you are tempted to doubt these truths, and others even more basic to the Christian faith, remember that we only see them in fragile, clay pots. As John Ciardi puts it, “An idea is always something with a skin around it.” When the pots break, the wise man does not throw the gold out with the clay.
For some, disillusionment is the hardest thing to deal with. For others, it may be anger and bitterness. Most of us are probably dealing on some level with both. Again there is an insistently pounding question: How could he do that? And along with it comes a desire for vengeance. It is so close to a love of justice that we can all too easily pretend that is what it is. It is just intolerable that anyone should be able to do these things and get away with them! But here we must remember the other side of the coin. Not only was _____ a fragile earthen vessel—so, I’m afraid, are you and I. To feel anger at such a time is natural, and I do not believe it is sinful. But to nurse it, to indulge it, to enjoy it, is to imply a moral superiority on you own part that puts you into conflict with some very basic biblical doctrine. You too are totally depraved; you too are dead in your trespasses and sins apart from Christ. You too are saved, if indeed you are to be saved, by the grace, the unmerited favor, of God—not by the fact that you have not yet fallen so low as someone else. At a time like this, it is supremely important that we be very clear about this. It is supremely important that we not only believe but feel, down in the very marrow of our bones, the truth of the maxim, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It is the only thing that will enable you not to take the same path of compromise someday yourself. It is the only thing that will enable you to maintain your sanity, your humility, and your faith in such trying times as this. There but for the grace of God go I! Why? Because we have this treasure in earthen vessels. Don’t despise the vessels, but don’t confuse them with the treasure, either. And it is just as important for you to remember that where you are concerned as it is to remember it about _____.
If there is to be healing, we must be able to put our disillusionment and our anger aside. And the only way we can finally do that is through forgiveness. What must our attitude and our actions be now? We have so far dealt with the negative: not disillusionment, not anger. The positive is found in Galatians 6:1, and it is forgiveness. “Brethren, even if a man is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Forgiveness is commanded us. Remembering the lessons of the earthen vessel is what can help us to be able to do it.
But what is forgiveness? It is not just pretending that such serious offenses never happened or that such deep wounds were never felt. That just internalizes the anger and the bitterness so they can continue doing their damage while we are unaware of what is happening. Forgiveness is a releasing, a letting go, of these things in ourselves so that there can be restoration for the repentant. That is the main verb of this verse: “Restore such a one.” Restore him to what? To righteousness. We count the offense as completely covered by the blood of Christ. And if it is—like our own—then, like the Father himself, we must no longer hold it against that person. There are sometimes consequences, especially for those in leadership. It may take time for the restoration of trust; that may take a great deal of time. Some responsibilities may never be restored. But we place no bar to the person being on the road that leads even to that restoration. And there is immediately a restoration of fellowship. We do all this with gentleness, treating the fallen brother or sister as we would want to be treated were we the ones in need of forgiveness. For, at some point, we have been; we will be; we are.
There is a twofold aspect to forgiveness, which points two ways: toward ourselves, and toward the offender. To forgive in ourselves is to release the anger and the bitterness and make emotional healing possible for ourselves. And this we can do at any moment, with God’s enabling. That is when our own healing can begin. But the offender can only receive the benefits of that forgiveness, that restoration, himself, when he repents. Then, healing can begin for him. Our responsibility is to be ready for that day. Sadly, it has not yet come. But we must be ready. And we can be ready, by remembering the lessons of the earthen vessel and by dependence on God’s grace.
Finally, we do this “looking to ourselves, lest we too be tempted.” We learn from the mistakes of the fallen. One thing we learn is not to put ourselves in the path that led them into temptation. If your weakness is elsewhere, it is somewhere. Find it and deal with it. We have this treasure in earthen vessels. There but for the grace of God go I. It all goes back to that, doesn’t it? Let us help each other never to forget.
Our fallen comrade helped me to start this church. I could never have done it without him. And though one we thought would be a pillar of strength has proved a broken reed; though he no longer pursues the vision with us; the vision remains. It is the vision of a church that ministers to the whole person, whose members care for each other, and which seeks spiritual reality with a passion that will not be denied. It is still a vision worth living and dying for. It is bigger than any individual who follows it. We still have that treasure in earthen vessels—one fewer of them than we had before. We still have that treasure in these earthen vessels that you see around you today. Therefore we must protect and guard those vessels in order to hold one another firm in the faith. I would ask you to join with me in recommitting ourselves to that task.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams