Archbishop. Scholar. Power Broker. Doctor of the Church. All of these words could be used to describe St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407). But despite all his talents and influence, Chrysostom’s life story could more accurately be seen as a reflection of Paul’s statement that believers hold a vast treasure in an earthen vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7).
John was born to a Christian mother and pagan father in Antioch, where he studied law and theology. He was on track to become a successful lawyer when he felt a call to the monastic life. Embracing that call, he joined a community of monks outside the city, spending six years praying and studying Scripture. He was so dedicated to the monks’ life of self-denial, however, that he nearly ruined his body. His declining health forced him to move back to Antioch, where he became first a deacon, then a priest, and finally the city’s bishop.
As bishop, John delivered such powerful homilies that people dubbed him Chrysostom, or “golden tongued.” His reputation as a preacher spread, and when Arkadios became emperor in Constantinople, he summoned John to be the head of the church there. Clinging to his love for humility, John resisted. But he had little choice. In the fourth century, the emperor’s word was law, even in the church.
In Constantinople, John refused to live the luxurious life of his predecessors. He knew that his real treasure was spiritual, so he sold off the pricey decorations of the bishop’s palace to help feed the poor. He confronted frivolous spending in the church and preached against extravagant living. As much as his position allowed, he maintained the ascetic life he learned in the monastery. Repeated confrontations with the emperor’s wife over her lavish lifestyle led to John being exiled more than once, and he died in the winter of 407 during a forced march to far off Pontus.
In the following excerpt, taken from his eighth homily on 2 Corinthians, Chrysostom explains the contrast between Christ in us— the great treasure—and our human weakness—the earthen vessel.
Treasure in Earthen Vessels. Paul had just illustrated that God’s unspeakable glory dwells within the Christian person. He had emphasized that we, “with unveiled faces,” gaze on the glory of the Lord, and are being “transformed from glory to glory” into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So he thought it natural that certain questions might arise in the readers’ minds. Questions like, “how are we still imperfect humans, even though the glory of God lives in us?” In response, Paul said, “Only through God is such a miracle possible. That humans could hold the brightness of the glory of God—a priceless treasure—is unfathomable. So the glory goes to God, not to us.”
The Power Comes from God, and not Ourselves. Paul is alluding again to those who boasted of themselves. For both the brilliance of the light God has given and the weakness of the vessels that receive it show his power; because he didn’t only give great things, he gave them to humans, small and frail.
Paul used the term “earthen” in reference to the quality of our human nature, to give an analogy for the weakness of our flesh. It’s comparable to the strength of earthenware,which is able to be damaged by death, disease, heat, cold, and ten thousand other things. Paul said these things to deflate their egos and to show that the power within them didn’t have human origins. For the power of God is most obviously divine when it works mighty things through the vessel of humanity.
In another place, the Lord tells Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Indeed, in the Old Testament, God used weak things to overcome the strong. Great armies of men were beaten back into retreat by gnats and flies. Construction on the great tower of Babel was halted by confused language among the workers. In wars, God used small armies to overcome impossible odds and rout superpowers.Cities were conquered by the sound of trumpets. David, a teenager, drove away a whole military force of Philistines. And now: Twelve men sent forth overcame the world, despite fierce persecution.
Stand Amazed. So let us stand amazed at the power of God. Let us admire it, adore it.Let us ask Jews and Gentiles alike: Who persuaded so many people around the world to convert to another way of life? Wasn’t it fishermen, tentmakers, tax collectors,and the uneducated? This isn’t logical at all, except when we stop to consider that it was God working through them.
And could it be that the people were converted because of the persuasive power of the apostles’ words? Not only were the apostles uneducated, their message was hard to accept. They preached: “Be baptized in Christ who was crucified”—and to people who had never seen Jesus or even heard of him! But nonetheless, the people became convinced that their own gods and the traditions handed down from many generations past paled in comparison to the recounting of Christ being nailed to a wooden cross. . . .
Where does the persuasiveness of this preaching come from? From nowhere else but the power of God. For one thing, new ideas are hard enough to accept. But when the new ideas overturn the foundation of religious beliefs long held by many people, the matter becomes even worse! . . . How, then, did they overcome the world? How did they topple philosophers and gods? Isn’t it evident that it was because God was with them? These successes aren’t from human origins but a divine and unspeakable power. From divinity working through humanity.
Come Worship with Us.So the power of Christ is manifested everywhere, illuminating the hearts of men. Consider all these things.Accept what has been done as proof of God’s promise for the future. Come worship the crucified Christ with us so that you may belong to the everlasting kingdom by the grace and love of God! May all men come to know our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The above excerpt has been adapted by the editors.
John Chrysostom, early 15th century. From the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Art Media Photo Credit: HIP/Art Resource, NY