We all love the saints. We love the way Francis of Assisi embraced poverty. Mother Teresa’s commitment to Christ moves us deeply. And of course, there’s the Virgin Mary, who perfectly lived out her prayer: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Our list of beloved saints would not be complete, however, without the apostle Paul. Has anyone other than Mary had more influence on the church than this man? His letters were crucial in shaping the church. His dramatic conversion from persecutor to preacher has become almost legendary. And his heroic life has been a model for countless pastors and missionaries throughout the ages.
But among Paul’s writings and teachings, one letter seems to stand apart—2 Corinthians. This letter doesn’t have much in the way of the usual theological discourse. There are hardly any exhortations to live a moral life. Rather, this is a very personal letter in which Paul spends most of his time talking about his own life as he tries to defend himself from a group he describes as “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13).
Even his self-defense is unusual. Rather than list all of his abilities and accomplishments, Paul talks more about his hardships and sufferings. He describes himself as nothing more than an “earthen vessel.” But this vessel is special because it holds a great “treasure”—nothing less than the presence of Jesus Christ, “who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4,7). By using this creative analogy, Paul was able to defend himself without drawing unnecessary attention to himself.
The “False Apostles.” If we look at the situation in Corinth, we can begin to understand what compelled Paul to write such a personal, emotional letter. Paul spent eighteen months in the city (between a.d.49-51), evangelizing, teaching, and establishing the church there. But after he left, some outsiders came to Corinth and began to teach a gospel that was different from the message Paul had given them.
As if that wasn’t bad enough,these false apostles tried to destroy Paul’s reputation as well. They focused on Paul’s personal defects such as his physical appearance and his preaching style. They said, “His letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). They boasted about their own mystical experiences and even produced letters of recommendation to enhance their reputation—two things Paul avoided doing so as not to seem prideful (3:1-3; 11:1-7; 12:1-4).
These attempts to discredit Paul’s teaching and the attacks on his reputation hurt Paul deeply. So Paul decided to respond. He felt he had to defend himself so that he could defend the gospel and the church. He knew that if these false apostles were to go unchallenged, many of the people would end up following them, and the church in Corinth could end up in ruins.
A Delicate Situation. Paul found himself in a delicate situation. On the one hand, he knew he had to defend himself for the sake of the church. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to brag or call too much attention to himself.
So how did he handle the situation? Masterfully! At one and the same time he told the Corinthians that he was nothing more than a humble, imperfect servant—but that, earthen vessel though he was, he carried and proclaimed a great treasure. He may not have been as flashy in his appearance or as polished in his presentation as the false apostles, but his message more than made up for his personal shortfalls.
Christ was the treasure, and Paul was nothing more than a humble and imperfect servant. Of course, Paul knew he had certain gifts and talents. But he also knew that God wanted him to use these gifts to build up the church, not to build up his reputation. So if the Corinthians were being persuaded to disregard Paul’s message because he was not a dynamic speaker or because he had a shabby appearance, his letter made them think again. The same amazing truth applies to every single believer: No matter how flawed the messengers, the treasure that they hold is glorious and perfect.
Paul told the Corinthians that he was nothing more than a humble, imperfect servant— but that, earthen vessel though he was, he carried and proclaimed a great treasure.
Changed by His Glory. How did Paul come to the conclusion that he was just a vessel and that the true treasure rested in the Lord? How did he become so clear about his need to place the spotlight on Jesus and not on himself? The answer lies back in time, at the moment of his conversion. Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus changed his life forever. In a flash, his eyes were opened to the greatness and glory of Jesus—and to his own flaws and weaknesses. He saw that in persecuting the infant church, he was really persecuting Jesus. Clearly, his conversion experience showed him that Jesus was God, and that Paul was just a mere human being!
It can be very tempting to place Paul on a pedestal because of his memorable conversion experience. But that would be a mistake. Paul wasn’t the only one who experienced the presence of the Lord in so dramatic a fashion. Moses trembled with fear and hid his face when he met God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:6). The prophet Isaiah, when he saw the Lord, fell to his knees and cried: “Woe is me, I am doomed!” (Isaiah 6:5). Ezekiel could do nothing more than fall face down when he saw the Lord (Ezekiel 2:1; 3:23). When Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and heard God’s voice, they fell to the ground in fear (Matthew 17:6).
This kind of experience is not limited to these special heroes of our faith. Jesus wants all of us to have a similar experience when we come into his presence. He wants to open the eyes of our hearts to his glory and majesty. He wants to show us his love and mercy. And the more we experience all of this, the more it will cause us to fall to our knees and surrender our lives to him, just as Paul did. Jesus wants to show us that we really do have a magnificent treasure dwelling in us!
Christ Is in You. Like Paul, we are called to spread the gospel. We are called to tell people about Jesus and to invite them to welcome him into their hearts. We are also called to serve the poor, the elderly, and the sick; and to stand up against the immorality in our world. And we are called to do this with love, respect, and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15-16).
It is possible, too, that like Paul we may be the subject of negative and hurtful remarks at times. People may mock us when we take a stand against abortion or embryonic stem cell research. A fellow member of our parish council may gossip behind our back about us. Even our own children may try to shake our faith by reminding us of ways that we still don’t live out the gospel.
To make matters even more challenging, it’s possible that Satan will tempt us to shrink back when we do face opposition. He may whisper in our minds: “Who needs to serve the Lord if this is your reward? You have enough aggravation and tension in your life.” Or, maybe he will urge you to respond with your own harsh words.
In the midst of all this, Jesus asks us to stay faithful. He asks us to keep moving forward and building his church. He urges us to keep up our strength and endurance and courage, to hold on to our peace and our joy, and to say “no” to the temptation to give up when we feel we are being misunderstood or attacked.
But how can we do this? By looking to the treasure within us: “Christ in you, the hope for glory” (Colossians 1:27). By saying with St. Paul: “We are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Look to the Vessel. Paul’s strength came both from his initial experience of the Lord and from his ever deepening life of prayer and surrender to the Lord. Paul was careful to keep alive the memory of his conversion, and he was careful also to let the Spirit take this experience to newer and deeper levels as the years progressed.
Brothers and sisters, this is our call as well. Jesus Christ wants to be our treasure. He wants to fill us— mere earthen vessels—with more and more of his life and love until we become convinced that he who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world.