a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
preached on March 10, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I’ve long been a fan of new things. As my car gets older, for example, I find it tough to keep investing in expensive but necessary repairs—at least until I calculate how much more a new one would cost! I remember that my mother gave me a long talk once, telling me that there was some value in old things and encouraging me to put up with older things for a bit longer before getting something new. I’ve gotten a little more practical as I’ve gotten older and had to pay for all my own new things, but that doesn’t keep me away from my love of the new—after all, according to some of you, my mantra is, “When in doubt, throw it out!”
So maybe it is my affinity for new things that makes our text from 2 Corinthians one of my favorites. All six of these verses are rich with the core tenets of our faith: justification, sanctification, reconciliation, you name it! But because I like new things so much, I am immediately drawn to verse 17:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!
This idea of the new creation is a powerful one. It points us to a new and different way for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this new creation is not just a fresh coat of paint on the walls of our lives or even a complete makeover of a few rooms—no, Paul insists that the new creation is an entirely different way of life rooted in Jesus Christ. This new creation demands that the old way of seeing and doing be set aside to make room for transformation. As Paul says it, we no longer “regard [anyone] from a human point of view.” Because our vision of Christ has been transformed, because our vision of him has been enlarged, because in his death and resurrection everything about him is different, we have to change how we see others and our world. As commentator Paul Sampley puts it, “Something so fundamental has changed in such a profound fashion that the old ways of looking, perceiving, understanding, and more profoundly, evaluating, have to be let go and replaced with a new way of seeing and understanding.” (New Interpreters’ Bible, Volume 11, p. 93)
This new way is the new creation—what I think is simultaneously the most wonderful and the most challenging element of the life of faith. Even with my love of new things, I’m not always convinced that I want to live the new creation. As wonderful as it is, it is also really hard! First of all, it’s hard to let go of the old way of life. I for one know that a more human point of view easily creeps into my relationships with others. I quite easily put the emphasis on what is best for me rather than what is best for the other—or I wonder why they aren’t doing exactly that and doing what is best for me after all! I look at people I disagree with or just don’t understand and prefer to have nothing to do with them rather than taking Paul’s call to reconciliation seriously. And I look around and wonder what good the old things might have, how any redemption might be possible in them, and think about my great mantra, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Our world doesn’t make it any easier for us to set aside our human way of living, either. We are trained from our earliest days to make decisions about the “right” way—the right people to hang out with, the right clothes to wear, the right place to live, the right food to eat—and those who choose a different way are easily left out. We choose who to consider safe and who to make suspect on the pretense of safety—but the all-too-human characteristics we check never tell us the full story. And some lives seem more valuable to for one reason or another—because of their practice of faith, their wealth, their wisdom, their health, their skin color, their choice of friends or spouses—when in fact the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus show us that everyone is beloved by God, no matter what.
If letting go of the old wasn’t hard enough, embracing the new creation itself is equally if not more difficult. This new thing encompasses everything—it’s not just a little corner of our world, something to do when it doesn’t get in the way of what we like, or limited to whatever time we choose to commit to the church. This new thing is a radical departure from everything that we’ve gotten used to. It requires that we be open to reexamining the whole of our lives through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It insists that we set aside those things that just don’t measure up to this standard and instead focus on the new things that embody the way of Jesus in our everyday lives. And it demands open hearts and minds that aren’t just looking to recreate the past or hear only what we want to hear but that are truly open to seeing things differently and taking a new path for a new day.
This new way is always rooted in where we have been even as it points in a new and different direction. In his reflections on this text, my friend Casey Thompson suggests that Paul’s own life and ministry show him the way to the new creation.
Everything old to him is now new—mourning and crying and pain are no more. [Paul’s] life of persecuting Christians has given way to a life of pursuing Christ…. When grace unlevels Christians like this, they find themselves singing in a jail cell like Paul. Everything is now oriented from a God-drenched point of view, even though they once saw everything from a human one. They start describing whole new worlds, worlds that are conceived in imagination, but birthed by lives of faithful discipleship. (Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 2, p. 112-114)
Imagination and faithful discipleship are two of the most important characteristics of those who serve as leaders among us. Later today, as we install our newly-elected deacons and ruling elders, we recognize this challenge for their service with a seemingly simple question:
Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
Imagination, you see, is an integral part of what we do as the people of God as we live into the new creation. We imagine the world that God desires for us. We imagine how we might be more faithful disciples as we journey together on the road of service in the church. And we dream about how we can be a part of God’s new thing that is already happening all around us. We need all these other things that we ask of our deacons and elders—energy, intelligence, and love are critical to the life of leadership in this place—but without imagination we get stuck right where we are, moving nowhere new, repeating old mistakes, seeing people just like everyone else instead of like Christ.
Imagination isn’t the easiest thing for us. As children, we are encouraged to think outside the box, to dream about a different way, but then we are taught to color within the lines, to set aside our dreams and temper our visions with reality, to turn off our imagination and focus on reality. It’s no surprise, then, that imagination isn’t the easiest thing for us. But again Casey Thompson offers us a different way. He insists that the new creation that Paul describes here “is conceived in imagination—and imagination begins in prayer, in the images that God plants within us.” (Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 2, p. 114)
This way demands a lot less talking and a lot more careful listening, a deep attention to the nearly-unnoticed shifts within us. This way may not seem to be as productive, and we may not see immediate results at all, but it even when we can’t see it, it is making space for God to show us something new. In these days when we as a congregation are listening for God’s guidance for the path ahead, as we gather together to listen carefully to one another and explore the possibilities of something new for us, as we long for the new creation to become real here and now, for us in this time and this place, prayer and imagination must stand at the center. We must pray for God’s presence and guidance with us along the way—and we must make space for God’s imagination to take hold in us and through us. So I for one pray that you will join in this time of listening and speaking, in this practice of prayer and imagination, so that together we might gain even a little glimpse of a new way ahead and be a part of this new creation ourselves, building on what we have been to emerge to something new.
So may God’s grace abound all around us, may imaginative visions of love and grace and justice and peace shine brightly, and may God open our hearts and minds and guide our feet as we journey together the path of this Lent and the days ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.