The Common Good
December 2010

On the Potter's Wheel

by Gordon Cosby | December 2010

What's it like to be almost human? Reflections on Jeremiah 18.

N. Gordon Cosby is the founding minister of Washington, D.C.'s Church of the Saviour, established in 1947. The church's first outreach ministry was Potter's House, a coffee house in the busy, multi-ethnic, working-class business area of Columbia Road. They wanted to offer the neighborhood a place where "Jesus might hang out." On April 21, 2010, the 50th anniversary of Potter's House, Cosby gave a sermon from which this article is adapted. At 92, he no longer preaches weekly, but continues to serve the ministries and hang out at Potter's House. The Editors

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is so simple that most people don't believe it. The problem is not that it's too complicated, but that it's too simple. We don't want to believe that Jesus was accurate in the way he defined life. He defined it in a very simple way. He started his ministry by saying, "There is another realm: The kingdom of God, the realm of God, is at hand." Then he said, "I want you to repent and move into that realm and live in that new realm." That is what repentance meant to Jesus.

What have we done with all the great ideas of the scripture? We've made them dull and meaningless. Sin and repentance don't have any meaning. We think about a few things we did as adolescents and we forget all the wrong things we've done for all our lives. What Jesus said was, "I want you to repent. I want you to move from the realm in which you were born, and I want you to live in another kingdom altogether. I want this to be your total life. I want you to be baptized into that new life." When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he said, "I want to understand what you're talking about." Jesus responded, "You can't understand what I'm talking about until you've been born again." We don't talk much about being born again. To be born again means to leave the realm of this culture and to be born into a new realm and to live out of that realm for the rest of your life. It's so simple. St. Francis called himself God's fool. He called himself God's fool because he believed that Jesus was to be taken literally and followed literally.

When we opened Potter's House 50 years ago, we had a working potter's wheel at the front of the building. Living out the account in Jeremiah 18:6 ("Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.") was very important to us. That has been an image for me for 50 years.

Our job, to put it simply, is to get on the potter's wheel and let the one who designed us make us into what he/she intended from the beginning for us to become. The question is not how many wonderful things have happened here at the Potter's House. The question is: How many people have gotten on the wheel? How many of us that got on the wheel 50 years ago are still on the wheel and have been fashioned by the Master Designer? Do we look like what we should look like 50 years later? Have we been born again? Are we new creations?

As a church, we have been interested for 50 years in what we call an "inward journey" and an "outward journey." We could spend the rest of our lives -- and some of us don't have very long -- to talk about the wonderful memories. But the real question is: Have we gotten people on the potter's wheel? Have we stayed true to that which is our essence? I find that most of us who have gotten on the wheel have spent most of our remaining life saying, "Ouch! I didn’t intend to get on this wheel." On this wheel, everything changes. The inner life is not just a wonderful little time of learning to pray for a few minutes; it's being taken over by Jesus Christ.

Not only are we to become like Christ, because Christ is in us, but we are each to become a human being. I had an insight on what it means to be a human being when some people brought their little dog out to see me. They had been talking about the pedigree of this dog, and what kind of dog they wanted. They ended up speaking about so many different strands of this dog’s background that when the dog walked in, I wondered what I was seeing. It was an unusual dog, to say the least. Someone made the comment, "He is almost like a dog!"

I would say that many of the people I have met are "almost like" a human being. If you want to know what a human being is like, what was intended, look at Jesus. My favorite title for Jesus is the Fully Human One. We are to become like Jesus, because we were created to become fully human. Most of us look like we are almost human. But we don't live it constantly. We would be embarrassed to claim that we don’t do anything that Jesus hasn’t told us to do, and we don’t say anything we haven’t been told to say. Most of the things I've said or done in my life, Jesus hasn't told me to say or do. And I wonder if I have any company?

The purpose of the Potter's House is to get us on that wheel, so that we become like Christ, become fools for Christ. It’s to take Jesus Christ seriously, take that realm out there with complete seriousness, transfer from the cultural realm into that other realm, so that we live out of the unlimited power in Christ.

The first temptation we need to be aware of is that God not only wants us to be fully human but God wants us to be uniquely human. Just as all of us here are almost human, we also are different. We look different, we are young, we are old -- we have our own uniqueness. The potter on that wheel wants us to come to grips with our own uniqueness. God needs to take that specialness we were born with and work with it. The potter needs to balance me and you, if God is going to bring us to our unique humanness, our unique shape and usefulness. We have to let God work with our special temperaments if we are going to be the human beings that God wants us to be.

The second temptation is to avoid working with the wounds of our lives. All of us have been wounded. I don't run across anybody that hasn’t been wounded. If a person won't work with the earlier pain in his or her life, there can’t be healing. One of the most helpful exercises we've ever had was asking people to work with their deepest pain -- then asking them to work with the pain underneath that pain. But you can't pull up your pain just because you want to pull up your pain. It's hard work, so our temptation is not to work with our wounds.

The third temptation is to want to maintain control. Almost everybody that I know wants control. If you get on that wheel and the potter is working with you, you've got to turn control over to the potter. You have to let go. Have we let go of all control?

We're in the process of being molded, of being on that wheel, and we know at least approximately where we are on the journey to becoming fully human -- we're now a real woman, a real man, with our specialness -- then what do we do? What is the future like?

One of the great gifts from 64 years in the Church of the Saviour community is that we do what we do, corporately, as people who are on that wheel. How do we move now into a larger wholeness? We belong to the whole family of God. At my wobbly age, I find that I've now got to move into a larger whole, a larger community. I can't be satisfied with my limited life. I've got to move into that larger life.

What are the basic indicators of the larger whole? We've got to give ourselves to systemic change for the poor. If there is to be systemic change for the poor, then there has got to be housing. If people don't have a home, there cannot be long-range systemic change. And in order for people to stay in their homes, they have to have work. But people can’t work if they don't have their health, so we've also got to have health care. And there has to be a new financial system. A large number of people don’t have any banking facilities at all. That's why we're working on establishing a local credit union. We must have those four elements: housing, jobs, health, and a financial system that the poor can be involved in.

We are just a small nucleus of people, but people from all over the country, and the world, come here to try to see what church should be. Not that we've gotten there ourselves, not at all. Just as much as we can enjoy the accomplishments of our past, we can equally lament our past. We have reason to do both honestly. We have learned a few things from our time spent on the potter's wheel, and yet it is still very difficult even to get people onto the wheel in the first place. That’s the essence of what we have to share with people across the country and across the world.

The Church of the Saviour exists now as nine small faith communities and many independent ministry organizations that serve various needs in Washington, D.C. More information is available at www.inwardoutward.org.

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