You’ll notice that the hands for the Tranzsend appeal are made of clay, and that pottery clay working was the theme of our visuals last week and this week. In keeping with this theme, I want to explore some thoughts with you today about clay, and how the image of clay works in the Bible, and what it could mean for us in our lives. Next week, we’ll give expression to these ideas in practical, creative ways, by doing some clay modelling in the communion service, so come prepared to get your hands dirty.
Throughout the Bible, we find clay used as a metaphor of the relationship between God the creator, and ourselves as creatures. God is the potter, and we are clay, moulded in God’s hands. When I read through the texts, it seems to me that there are two different ways that this metaphor of potter and clay is understood in the Bible. There are two strands of imagery, each making a different point about the relationship between God and humanity.
The first strand runs through the First Testament prophets, and some psalms, and is later picked up by some things Paul says in Romans. It’s a strand that emphasises God’s sovereignty. Because God is the potter, God has absolute right to make and destroy and to re-make everything that God has made. In Jeremiah we read that a potter was making a vessel of clay. The vessel was ‘spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel.’ God says: ‘Can I not do with you Israel what this potter has done?’ In Isaiah we read ‘Yet O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ Paul picks up on this in Romans. He is making a case for why some people are to be saved, and not others, and he writes: ‘Who are you, a human being, to argue with God?...Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?’
We know from the law teachings in Leviticus that clay vessels that had become defiled for some reason were ritually shattered. This led the biblical writers to use of images of breaking or smashing clay to describe the judgement of those who dishonour God. In Psalm 2 we read that ‘[God] shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Similar statements are also found in Isaiah and Jeremiah.
In this strand of imagery, God’s power, God’s transcendence, and God’s sovereignty are affirmed. This is the God of the first chapter of Genesis, who creates with a word, and has absolute right over all that God has made. This is the God who sends the flood to wipe out humankind.
The second strand of imagery emerges in the wisdom literature, and is picked up again in the person of Jesus Christ. A few moments ago we heard the apostle Paul ask ‘who are you, a human being, to argue with God?’ In the book of Job, we have a depiction of a righteous human who did decide to argue with God, and was heard and received a response. Job picks up on the question of fairness to the creature, and empathy for the created object that Jeremiah and Isaiah and others seem to leave out. He says to God: ‘Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see?...Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me. Remember that you fashioned me like clay and will you turn me to dust again?’ Job doesn’t deny that God has the power to do these things, but he does question whether God has enough of an idea of what it means to be a human, to be able to exercise that power in a merciful way. He brings in the idea of God’s responsibility to what God has made. You made me like this, Job seems to be saying to God, and so you can’t just consign me to the grave without implicating yourself in the process.
Job is making his appeal, it seems, to the God of the second chapter of Genesis, who was much more hands on in the creation of humans. God the potter forms Adam – whose name sounds like ‘soil’ or ‘ground’ – out of the dust of the earth, and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam becomes a living being. This is quite an intimate process, and it seems to be this hands-on pottery making that Job is referring to when he says ‘remember that…your hands…fashioned me like clay.’ Of course God is able to simply turn God’s own creation to dust again, but would that be just? Job has worked up the courage, or the despair, to say ‘I didn’t ask to be born!! And to imply that now he is alive, he’s entitled to some dignity.
I think that Job’s questions ‘Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see?’ are at the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus is God’s answer to those questions. Job accuses God of lack of empathy, and God responds by entering into human flesh, and learning to see as humans see. One of the things that Jesus does in human flesh is to restore its dignity, to heal the things that diminish our capacity to live full human lives. The gospel narratives are full of the signs of Jesus’ impulse to restoration rather than destruction… the stories of his healing of paralysed, possessed and damaged people. On one of those occasions, recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus took clay from the ground, and put it on the eyes of a blind man, whose sight was restored. Jesus continues on earth the work of God the potter in the Genesis garden, taking clay and making life, restoring wholeness. Rather than consign these broken and defiled vessels to dust, he heals them.
However, in the process, according to those who taught the Jewish law, and those who were responsible for keeping order in Israel, he became defiled himself. He was sentenced to be broken, smashed like a potter’s vessel. Here we have God experiencing what it is to be in the hands of those who have sovereign power to judge and destroy. Here we have a man bearing the spirit of God, being returned to dust. God cries out and the land goes dark; the temple curtain is torn, and the graves open and give up their dead.
In one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, we can see another re-scripting of the potter’s work in the Genesis garden. The disciples are gathered, fearful, grieving, wondering. They are sons and daughters of Adam, people made from dust and clay, with normal mortal bodies, carriers of that original life-breath of God. And the risen Jesus breathes on them, and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ New breath into the old Adam. This is not just the breath of physical life, this is the breath of God’s Spirit, the presence of Christ himself, now permanently with the disciples.
Those of us who follow in the steps of Christ, who have entered into his life, now have a double reality. We are still clay. We are still prone to be bent out of shape, to break and crack. We are vulnerable and fragile. Our bodies still die and return to earth. But we are also image-bearers of Christ, carriers of this new breath, the breath of the Spirit, which is life and wholeness. In 1 Corinthians we read: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.’
I understand this to mean that while we still experience the normal human conditions of physical and emotional and ethical weakness, we are no longer ‘just clay’. We inherit a spirit…a connectedness with God, which enables us to grow toward wholeness beyond what is ‘normal’. It is open and possible for us to live the kind of life that Jesus lived, a life motivated by that same impulse toward restoration, healing, forgiveness, love and justice. Jesus is an example to us of what it means for clay to be fully alive. The thing with clay is that it sets hard…gets brittle, and breaks. Clay that’s kept wet is able to still be moulded, and is open to change and growth. God’s Spirit is like water…living water, that keeps the clay, the stuff of our ordinary lives, alive and able to be shaped by God’s hands, and adaptable to the needs of a situation.
When we received the ash cross on our foreheads here on the first Sunday in Lent, I used the words ‘You are dust, re-created in Christ.’ The traditional form of the ashing says ‘you are dust and to dust you will return.’ But I like our one better. Because while the traditional form is literally true for our physical bodies, the hope of the Christian story is that dust isn’t the end of the road for us. Our dust, our clay, is raised to the level of Christ’s life, which was a life of extraordinary proportions, even though lived out in the context of ordinary encounters with everyday people.
So what does this mean for our lives now? Two things come to mind.
Firstly, it’s okay to be clay. God made us, and God knows intimately what it is to live in these clay bodies, with these clay minds and clay hearts. Weakness, fragility and failure are part of what it means to be human. But our brokenness holds precious possibilities, and in our vulnerable vessels, we carry treasures.
Secondly, prayer and worship are keys to keeping our clay wet. As we align our hearts and minds to God, in prayer, and breathe in God’s presence and Holy Spirit, we become aware of the ways we have become fixed, or brittle, or hard. And we can receive what we need to stay open and malleable.
Every day, we do our work, and our tasks at home, and we relate with others, and carry out our various responsibilities and leisure activities. Some days, we make major decisions, and struggle with questions of vocation and direction, or make a significant change in how we live. Both these every day things and the major life things can be done in the ordinariness and brittleness of our clay selves, with all our conditioning and habitual weakness. Or, we can do them as living, breathing, real, soft clay people alive in God’s Spirit. As we continue to allow ourselves to be re-created and renewed in Christ, our choices, small and large, become aligned with God’s vision for the world.
I’d like to close with a poem by Joy Cowley that expresses these ideas in a rather beautiful nutshell.
(Read poem: 'Hands' from Aotearoa Psalms)