Brandon Wrencher noted in Sojourners: “These passages are not going to give you warm fuzzies about your personal relationship with Jesus. … We are called to nothing less than radical discipleship: Take up crosses, extend and receive God’s mercy, prioritize the poor for our salvation, and establish a community of trust.”
I love the image of the potter’s wheel as Jeremiah relates it. There is the potter throwing a pot. I was thinking about the ancient pots I’ve seen in a museum. They were very plain and utilitarian-no ornamentation just good, useful pots. Large ones, small ones-all of them broken from the ravages of centuries. I feel I resemble some of those useful pots with their ample room for the contents. Ordinary pots.
And, Jeremiah’s story goes on. He notices that the potter has a pot that becomes misshapen and the potter smashes it down and starts over. Potters also work the clay before beginning-kneading it to soften it and to find any foreign objects like small rocks so they can be removed. God tells Jeremiah that the people of Israel need to change their ways because God plans to smash them like the misshapen pot if they don’t honor their agreement with God. God is asserting his control over what will happen to Israel and to anyone else who dishonors the poor. And God will reshape them into something useful.
We are transformed by God into something useful and God expects us to do something with that transformation. As the Psalm said, “Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration-what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body, You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something.” [The Message] It seems to me that whatever I have studied, whatever I have experienced, I keep discovering new ways to use what I have learned and new ways to relate to people who would seem to have nothing in common with me. I am an ordinary pot that increases in value with age.
Jesus told his followers to count the cost of their plans. They must take up a cross to follow Jesus even if that means leaving their families, friends, and plans behind them. Family and friends were very much the defining factor for what a person did in life and the sort of wealth they had. We often see this today.
Following Jesus means taking up a cross. Giving up our plans. Jesus may have been speaking to those who derived wealth from their family connections. Just as here on the Harbor, those who were wealthy in Jesus’ time had used the poor to gain that wealth. By holding onto the advantages of being born into the right family, they were continuing to keep others from having what they needed to survive. Families and plans, in these instances, needed to be set aside.
God told Jeremiah he was tired of seeing the Israelites ignore the plight of the poor and continue to accumulate wealth. God was ready to reshape the pot if the Israelites were willing to work with God. Jesus was telling his followers they couldn’t live in grace halfway-they needed to let their old lives go and follow him.
Paul was appealing to Philemon in the same way when he pled with him about what he would do for Onesimus-whose name, by the way, meant useful or profitable. Paul reminds Philemon that all Christians are siblings-equals in Christ.
Paul is asking Philemon to see Onesimus not as property or servant but as a brother-an equal who deserves respect for his usefulness to God (and to Paul). He reminds Philemon of a debt he owes to Paul and asks to have it paid back in the way Philemon receives Onesimus back into his home and the church. All this in a letter that would be read publicly in Philemon’s house church while Onesimus sat and listened.
Onesimus arrived with Paul’s promissory note and waited to see what would happen next because Paul had sent him there. As a follower of Christ, Onesimus was willing to place himself in jeopardy to present himself to Philemon as a brother in the faith. Onesimus could have been jailed but tradition says he wasn’t. There is no slave or free, male or female. All pots were put to profitable use in the early church.
My religious worldview is that we are a group of equals. We are all profitable to God. We are all wonderfully made. God is not only with us-as the Psalm said, before us, beside us and behind us-we are living within the living God. God continues to work with us if we are willing to recognize where we live lives of privilege and if we work to help those who have been used and abused and disinherited. As Brandon Wrencher wrote, “We need a God that fixes our mess while empowering us with a second chance to participate in the recovery plan. Choose the costly grace. Choose life with God.” Each of us, no matter how misshapen by life and society, can be molded by the potter’s hands into a useful vessel. Philemon became a bishop and Onesimus became a full member-a leader-in the church at Colossae. Both were martyred by Nero.
As I quoted Brandon at the beginning, “We are called to nothing less than radical discipleship: Take up crosses, extend and receive God’s mercy, prioritize the poor for our salvation, and establish a community of trust.” A community of equals can do so much to fulfill all these. “God, you have searched me and known me;…You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me…I will thank you because I am marvelously made…” Amen