I like to watch a potter at work: strong hands, wet and muddy, shaping the clay as it spins on the wheel. I view myself as having little artistic ability, so watching someone transform a lump of clay into an object of use, or beauty, and especially into an object of both use and beauty, fascinates and mystifies me. This is what God is doing with us, making us into objects of use and beauty.
The image of God's people as clay being made into pots is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. This morning’s reading from Jeremiah depicts God as the potter. Yet God finds the vessel shaped on the wheel unsatisfactory and so makes it into another vessel. Did God make a mistake? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that two explanations of how the clay was molded into an unsatisfactory pot. First, the clay is imperfect. Most of us do not have to look very hard before we can identify faults with ourselves. Indeed, if anything, some of us are too hypercritical of ourselves.
Second, God's hands are imperfect because you and I are God's hands. Sometimes God works with the clay directly, as in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion or speaks directly to our spirit. More often, however, God speaks to us through other persons, who, like us, are imperfect.
This morning’s epistle reading provides an example of the imperfections that can be introduced into the vessel being created on the potter’s wheel because God's hands – you and I – do not move in perfect accord with God's will. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Somehow, and although we know nothing of the circumstances by which it happened, we might assert that it was through the work of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Onesimus met. Paul became Onesimus’ father in God. What Paul means is that through his witness and ministry, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Onesimus has become a Christian.
Now Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner, who is also a Christian. The text is unclear whether Onesimus’ owner was Philemon or Archippus; the text refers only to the owner as brother, a term that Paul consistently used to denote fellow Christians. Paul could not indefinitely harbor a runaway slave. To do so was a crime; Onesimus as a slave was subject to whatever punishment his master might wish to inflict, no matter how cruel or extreme, even death. Paul suggests that perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from his owner for a while was in order that Onesimus might become a Christian.
Here the text becomes problematic. Paul encourages Onesimus’ owner to welcome Onesimus as a brother, implying that Onesimus should be set free. Paul offers to make good any debt and emphasizes that Onesimus is to be welcomed as would be Paul himself. But for over fifteen centuries, most Christians rejected that interpretation. Instead, they strongly contended that the owner’s only obligation was to treat a Christian slave with kindness. Paul’s act of returning the runaway slave was interpreted as New Testament evidence in support of slavery. Those Christians failed to understand that the very institution of slavery is incompatible with Christianity. Every human being is worthy of dignity and respect because all are God's children, made in God's image.
Those Christians who argued that Christianity and slavery are compatible represent clear evidence of the imperfections both in the clay and in the human hands that God uses to mold the clay. No wonder God sometimes finds it necessary to remake a pot. This is why it is important to remember that we are the clay and not the pot: we may be remade, but we are not thrown away. In short, becoming a Christian is a process, not an event.
Becoming a Christian is costly. Onesimus as he returned to his owner was most likely filled with fear and trepidation. Similarly, Jesus tells those who would follow him to consider a king who contemplates waging war or a person contemplating a construction project. What person would be so foolish as to begin either a war or a building project without first counting the cost? Yet many Christians today think only of what they can gain from Christianity, not of the cost. What price should we expect to pay for journeying as a Christian?
First, being a Christian means that all of my possessions and wealth belong to God rather than to me. I am only a steward, tasked to use my possessions and wealth for God's purposes rather than finding them a source of security or the path to a hedonistic lifestyle.
Second, becoming a Christian means that my life should progressively resemble Jesus of Nazareth's life. This process of transformation can be painful as we let go of parts of ourselves that we may like or enjoy but that are incompatible with the image of Christ. It also requires that we invest substantial time and energy in trying to discover who Christ is so that we know that which we aim to become. The familiar adage, if you have no goal any road will get you there, applies to the spiritual life. Holy Nativity, with leadership from its Vestry and Wardens, is becoming intentional about identifying and following a spiritual path.
Third, being a Christian means that you and I should expect to minister in God's name. We are not only clay; we are also God's hands helping to shape others. You should have a ministry, a service to God and others, that reaches beyond simply embodying Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. Perhaps your ministry is inviting others to explore the Christian faith or to join you in worship. Perhaps your ministry is that of teaching; we have many people at Holy Nativity with the gift of teaching. Perhaps your gift is one of hospitality, or service, or administration; we have people at Holy Nativity who have one or more of those gifts and who regularly exercise them. If you are not exercising a gift or gifts for ministry, why not? Is the cost too high?
Jesus said, Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest; come and drink deeply of the water of life that truly refreshes. But he also said, Count the cost; being my disciple is costly; being made into my image can be painful.