Old Things and New Creations — The Rev. Jessica Tate

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Old Things and New Creations

29 July 2012

Fairfax Presbyterian Church

Jessica Tate

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


I want you to think for a minute about why you are here this morning. For some of us, it wasn’t a question….it’s Sunday morning, it’s routine–you get yourself to church.

For others there was a major internal debate about whether to sleep a bit longer, indulge a second or third cup of coffee, perhaps some Olympic handball, table tennis or cycling.

For others of us this morning, the debate wasn’t internal, it was an full-out argument in our household to get everyone to church.

All of us somehow ended up here this morning, whether you made a decision years ago to be in worship on Sunday mornings or you decided just a few minutes ago to get here, there was a reason.

Think about it. Why are you here this morning? And don’t just stick with a surface answer. What’s the underlying reason behind it. Pretend you’re seven years old again and ask yourself, “why?” “why?” “why?”

Fred Craddock, who is one of greatest preachers of the 20th century, said once in a preaching seminar, “This is not rocket science, people. Preach the good news of resurrection….death to new life.”

I suspect we come to worship because on some level, we long to hear the good news in that Easter promise: The movement of God is from death to new life. We long to hear that we can be changed, that the world can be changed. Or as Paul puts it: everything old has passed away; everything has become new.

I don’t know exactly what “old thing” you’ve brought into the sanctuary this morning. Could be a failing marriage, a longtime grudge, an illness. Could be fear for your child, weariness over partisan politics, skepticism about God. Could be concern for violence in Syria, or grief over the shooting in Colorado last week. Could be any number of things.

What Paul has found to be true, the reason one would come to worship, the reason one would become a follower of Christ is that because of Christ, something significant has changed. In Christ’s death, the old world passed away; in the resurrection, the new world is begun.[i] If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Let’s take a minute to parse this:

“In Christ” is Paul’s favorite phrase. He uses it in two ways:

1) God redeems in/through Christ’s life, death, resurrection; and,

2) The redeemed are also “in Christ.” Not as individuals, but as a fellowship, wrapped up as a group in the body of Christ.[ii]

Put another way, “Christ is corporate…a sphere of existence.”[iii] You can’t believe alone. To be “in Christ” is, by definition, to be in community.

There is no verb related to “new creation.”[iv] It literally reads, “If some in Christ: new creation.” The verb doesn’t come in until the next clause, about the old and new things.

There’s something elegant about that simplicity. Something beautiful in that arguably bad grammar. It doesn’t allow us to get too prescriptive. Doesn’t allow us to start arguing over who is in and who is not, doesn’t go down the road of exactly who benefits from exactly whose actions, just “if some in Christ: new creation.”

To quote Fred Craddock again, “[Paul’s] meaning is not that the individual becomes a new person while the world remains unchanged. Nor is the meaning psychological, as though the world remains the same but for those who have come to faith, ‘everything looks different.’ Paul means the statement objectively. In the Christ event something happened to the world (to everything), [including, but not only] individual souls.”[v]

What Paul says happens in Christ is this:

1) we are restored to God,

2) our faults are not counted against us, and

3) part of God’s reconciling work is given over to us. We become the bearers of the ministry and message of reconciliation.

So what is reconciliation? Biblical scholars say reconciliation is “a change in the social relationship of people [actively opposed to] each other…exchange[ing] enmity and hostility for friendship and peace.”[vi] It necessarily involves the forgiveness of sins[vii] but seems to be something larger as well. Ernest Best describes it this way:

[We often say things like] “After a couple of years, I became reconciled to the situation.” But Paul is NOT suggesting that after watching sin for a millennium God became reconciled to it and decided to overlook it.

“We speak of two people or two parties in a dispute being brought together in reconciliation by a third party through a carefully worked out compromise, but God does not make compromises and who would the third party be? Certainly not Jesus though some evangelists present his death as if he were acting on his own to reconcile a wrathful God and a sinning humanity…. We come closer to what Paul is saying when we recall those human situations in which two people disagree, but one, though annoyed by the other, refuses to retaliate and seeks by word and action to win that other over.”

In a word, it is restoration.[viii]

You have perhaps heard me tell this story before, but Susan Cooke Kittredge, a minister in Vermont, gives one of the most elegant descriptions of reconciliation I have encountered.

“I have come to relish the moments when I sit down and, somewhat clumsily, repair a torn shirt, hem a skirt, patch a pair of jeans,” she says. “I realize that I believe in mending. The solace and comfort I feel when I pick up my needle and thread clearly exceeds the mere rescue of a piece of clothing. It is a time to stop, a time to quit running around trying to make figurative ends meet; it is a chance to sew actual rips together. I can’t stop the war in Iraq, I can’t reverse global warming, I can’t solve the problems of my community or the world, but I can mend things at hand. I can darn a pair of socks.”

Mending is different than fixing, Kittredge suggests.

“Mending doesn’t say, ‘This never happened.’ It says, instead, as I believe the Christian cross does, ‘Something or someone was surely broken here, but with God’s grace it will rise to new life.’ So too my old pajamas, the fence around the garden, the friendship torn by misunderstanding, a country being ripped apart by economic and social inequity, and a global divide of enormous proportions — they all need mending.”

This is the ministry and message that is given to us. The message of reconciliation, of restoration, of mending. This is the ministry we talk about in our mission statement when we say that we are working for reconciliation among people of diverse perspectives. Something that has been broken is brought back together so that life can go on.[ix] The old is gone; everything has become new.

The reality is, of course, that passing on this message of reconciliation doesn’t automatically mend what is broken. We don’t wave a magic wand with Harry Potter’s reparo spell and fix what has been shattered.

Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching and author of a book about reconciliation in a culture of violence, says that what this ministry of reconciliation DOES do is tell of God’s love to those who are staggering through loveless relationships. We teach forgiveness to injured parties who possess a moral right to say, “never again.” We preach reconciliation to those who, consciously or unconsciously, seize upon our words as permission for continued sin.[x] The job of the message of reconciliation is, then, only to move toward reconciliation, to patiently seek to understand the Other and leave the door ajar to a future that no one can fully comprehend.[xi]

Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a similar vein. Tutu writes:

If we were challenged on what we really achieved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a valid reply would be that we were asked to provide a full picture of the gross human rights violations that occurred in our mandate period of thirty-four years [under Apartheid]. The commission was expected to promote national unity and reconciliation. It is crucial to underscore that it was meant to promote not to achieve those worthwhile objectives. It was expected to make a contribution… The onus is on each single South African to realize that this is not a project to which anyone can be indifferent, but a long-term and enduring process…Without being melodramatic, it is not too much to claim that it is a matter of life and death.[xii]

It is a matter of the old things and the new creation. Of forgiveness and reconciliation. Of leaving the door ajar to an unknown future.

It is true that [the brokenness of the world] makes a mockery of words [of reconciliation and newness]. To quote Lischer again, “After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words sound hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God’s justice or God’s love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer.”[xiii] And what does one say after a spouse admits infidelity or a drug-addicted son steals cash or the teenage daughter drives drunk or the soldier suffering from PTSD resorts to alcohol or the trusted youth leader is found harboring child pornography? In such muck, words are hollow.

And yet. We regard no one from a human point of view.

And yet. Everything has become new.

And yet. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.

And yet. We become the righteousness of God.

What Paul says is that, “For [Christians], as with parents, the time eventually comes when the powerful “You must” gives way to an even more powerful “you are.”[xiv] No qualifiers and no subject. Just new creation.

Friends, You are ministers. You are ambassadors of the word. You are new creations. Death and renewal happen every day in the “thousands of mini-funerals and mini-Easters, moments of truth when this cancer or that divorce, this break-through or that triumph, puts the crucified and risen Lord right there with us.”[xv]

The ministry and message of reconciliation is given to all of us who are in Christ; all of us who long to be in Christ. And we don’t just use words.

Tom Are, pastor of Village Presbyterian Church, shared with me the music of Vedran Smailovic.

Smailovic was the principle Cellist in Sarajevo. On May 27, 1992 bombs were dropping on Sarajevo. One fell outside of Smailovic’s window and landed on hungry people standing in line for bread. Reminding us of the inhumanity of the world, the bombs dropped and left 22 dead and a hole in the street filled with their blood.

On May 28th and every day thereafter for the next twenty-two days, Smailovic emerged from his apartment at 4:00pm dressed in concert tails. He placed a stool in the bomb crater and played his cello.

It was just music. But it sang of life. It sang of hope being stronger than fear, and good being stronger than evil; [Of old passing away and new creation beginning.] It was more than just music. [It was an act of reconciliation, of putting aside enmity and retaliation in favor of life and hope].[xvi]

Thank goodness, most of us are not in the midst of such tragedy and therefore such stark acts of reconciliation. But, the truth of our faith is that miniature “new creations” are exploding around the sanctuary every time we gather.

…. as we enter this sanctuary to be present to our Creator and recognize we are not, after all, the center of the world

…. as we take stock of how we have fallen short in the confession and hear again the good news of our forgiveness

…. as we greet one another in peace

…. as we hear the good news proclaimed….death to life, death to life.

…. as we offer part of ourselves to God’s work and God’s kingdom

…. as we pray our deepest longings, our most honest fears, our greatest joys

“Miniature ‘new creations’ are exploding around the sanctuary every time we gather.

Miniature “new creations” are exploding in our work in the world:

…. as we feed the homeless and working poor with meals made in our kitchen, and house them in our building.

…. as we offer the opportunity for school, medicine and self-sustaining agriculture to the people of Honduras and bring hope, courage and voice to women in Guatemala

…. as we give many diverse children a safe place to learn and grow through our preschool

…. as we offer space for people in Anonymous groups to meet and face the demons in their lives and support each other in finding new life

….. as we put together Mothers’ Day gift bags for mothers in shelters across our region

…. as we step outside our comfort zones and meet neighbors right here in Fairfax City who need affordable housing… as we stand with our brothers and sisters in Prince William as they hold banks accountable for the foreclosure crisis that has brought ruin to their communities.

Miniature ‘new creations’ are exploding around the world through the work that you do.

Perhaps these new creations are insignificant when compared to the problems of ethnic cleansing or apartheid, but these practices become the pattern for distinctively Christian behavior in the world,[xvii] distinctively reconciling behavior in the world.

The world desperately needs reconciling behavior.

Augustine said that human nature is “a chronic condition of civil war.” Thomas Hobbes describes civil society as “The war of all against all.” Deborah Tannen names us the Argument Culture, the key to which is polarization–“No fights, no news.”[xviii] And of course there’s the widening gap between the rich and poor. There’s the fissure–if not fault line–between the PCUSA and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, some of whom are leaving the denomination. There is ongoing violence in Syria. The nightly arguments in many overstressed homes. The brokenness in each one of us that does “the very thing I hate.”

In our fragmented, broken, polarized, unconscionable lives, reconciliation is the good news of God in Christ that we desperately need. Living a life of reconciliation is the challenge before us.

I said a minute ago that unlike Sarajevo in 1992, we are fortunate not to live in areas of such apparent tragedy. But perhaps our ministry and message of reconciliation needs to be just as bold, just as stark, just as jarring as playing cello in a blood-stained hole. Because the news of reconciliation isn’t conditional and it isn’t commonplace, though we’ve heard it proclaimed every Sunday.

It continues to be: If some in Christ: new creation.

Thanks be to God.

[i] Boring, Eugene and Fred Craddock. The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: WJK, 2004, p. 559.

[ii] Best, Ernest. 2 Corinthians: Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987, p. 54.

[iii] Boring and Craddock, p. 559.

[iv] Boring and Craddock, p. 559.

[v] Boring and Craddock, p. 559.

[vi] Matera, Frank J. II Corinthians: New Testament Library. Louisville: WJK, 2003, p. 138.

[vii] Matera, p. 140.

[viii] Best, p. 54-55.

[ix] This I Believe essay: http://thisibelieve.org/dsp_ShowEssay.php?uid=31064&lastname=cooke&firstname=susan&state=VT&yval=0&start=0

[x] Lischer, Richard. The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation In a Culture of Violence. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, p. 144.

[xi] Lischer, pp. 148, 160.

[xii] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999. p. 163.

[xiii] Lischer, p. 5.

[xiv] Lischer, p. 163.

[xv] Lischer, p. 38.

[xvi] Tom Are in a paper on Romans 8 presented to the Moveable Feast in January 2009.

[xvii] Lischer, p. 151.

[xviii] Lischer, p. 142.

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