(Preached on June 10, 2012 at Cass UMC in Detroit, Michigan)
2 Corinthians 5.11-17
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From 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. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything has become new!
The night was cold. My mother had remarked earlier that I was foolish to not bring a coat with me, and I knew she was right, but for some reason the frigid air was a welcome relief to my body. My footsteps stretched forth into the evening air hollow and empty, and I knew that I was alone. The sidewalk squares kept moving underneath my feet until I suddenly became immobile. The moving images of the late cold night abruptly stopped and I saw my breath in front of me. Unaware of what was about to happen, something pulled me down to my knees on the cold hard concrete and I began to pray like I never had before.
Earlier in the week Anna Ringer had died in a car accident. She was a beautiful and loving teenager who had the majority of her life still in front of her when it was taken from her. That cold night when I found myself walking alone, my friends and I had been mourning the loss of Anna. The evening had felt like a blur to me, it was Christmas time so everyone was wearing red and green, but I can barely remember who was there, or what we had talked about. What I do remember was that everyone came to me asking about what was going to happen to Anna now that she was dead. Though I had grown up in the church, I was ill equipped to answer the question, but I tried my best over and over again.
I had left the gathering that night without really saying goodbye to anyone; I floated out of the back door consumed in my own thoughts before I realized that I was actually going anywhere. And when I found myself on my knees under the cold blanket of the night, I began to pray to God.
I remained motionless as long as I needed to express everything to God that I needed him to know, and when I stood up I knew that God was calling me to the ministry and everything in my life would change.
Have you ever really felt transformed? Have you ever felt as if everything had been stripped away and you were a completely new person? Have you ever woken up one morning and everything was different? Maybe you felt that way when you got your first paycheck, or when you had your first child, or when you fell in love for the first time. There was clearly a moment, putting that first paycheck into your wallet, or cradling your child in your arms, or kissing your love for the first time, when you knew that nothing would ever be the same. It’s that feeling that Paul is talking about in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Written around 55 AD, 2nd Corinthians is filled with appeals, exhortations, threats, attacks, self-defense, self-praise, and irony. It is a confusing letter and presents a difficult argument to follow through continually. In the passage read this morning however, Paul is blunt and straightforward with his thoughts. The first point he makes is that…
“If we have been acting crazy, or ridiculous, or strange it is for God”
Being a Christian means willing to be considered crazy. Just think about it… We gather together regularly to partake in a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood, we pray for our enemies, we serve the poor when we ourselves are often poor, we believe that because Jesus died for us we will be raised into eternal life. I can assure you that Paul was indeed crazy, or at least as crazy as any Christian is supposed to be. He insists in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that there has only been one motive in all his work – to serve God and to help those in Corinth. When I think about Paul’s life, it makes sense that he would need to defend his sanity and motivations to the church. Remember, this is the man who had a stable and comfortable living persecuting the Christians, who then dropped everything and began to propagate the message that he was trying to destroy… there was a time when he had judged Jesus Christ by human standards, and in those days he had set out to blast the followers and to eliminate the Christian faith from the earth. Now his standards have changed. Now, having been in Christ the man who sought to rid the world of Jesus Christ was transformed to live his life to glorify the Lord. He had his own moment like I did on the sidewalk, where we both knew that nothing would ever be the same.
The second thing that Paul tells the Corinthians, and us, is that “Christ died, and therefore all have died.”
Let me say that again, Christ died, and therefore all have died… This is the plainest sentence in the bible that fully embodies the consequences of Christ’s death. Just as in the one Adam all have sinned, so Christ as representative for humanity died and therefore we have all died. So if we have all already died, what happens now? Paul tells us, that Christ died for all that those who live might live no longer for themselves. As 2nd Timothy 2.11 tells us: If we died with him, we shall also live with him; If we endure, we shall also reign with him”
We, as human beings, have value because Christ died for us. Whether or not people have responded to the grace of God, whether people pray at their beds at night or not, Christ died for everyone and are treasured by God. Everyone has value. Right now in this room I am standing here to assure you that you have value, that God has breathed into you the breath of life, that God truly loves you, and that we must all love one another. It is in our commitment to live for one another, just as Christ lived to die for us, that the new creation comes into being.
The final and third point Paul makes is that “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
Many Christians have heard this sentence over the centuries and have believed that it is referring to a personal change in Christians. That if you accept Christ you will be made anew. However, just because you accept Christ you are not guaranteed a better life. Being in Christ does not mean that you will be given a job, or that your sickness will go away, or that suffering will cease. Paul does not say, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation,” instead he says “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” This is not just about a personal change, but a transformation of the entire created order.
I know that I began this morning by talking about my personal call, the beginning of my walk with God toward ministry. In many ways it is very similar to what happened to Paul, but it is not what Paul is talking about in 2nd Corinthians. It is instead the reason why he and I feel called to the ministry at all.
If we are in Christ there is a new creation; when we gather together this morning we are participating in the new created order of the kingdom of God. We are affirming that Christ has offered us a place where the entire world can be, and has already begun to be, transformed. CASS United Methodist Church and CASS Community Social Services are responses to the new created order established by Christ. When you take down this cross above my head and drag it through the streets of Detroit you are initiating the new creation. You are participating in the greatest gift ever given to humanity. You are making possible the existence of this reality.
I have to warn you again that being in Christ will not fix all your problems; it will not give you a lucrative career, it will not provide you with a home, nor will it cure your diseases. Instead, being in Christ helps to create a new community, one like CASS, where the new creation can take place. That cold night when I prayed on my knees and responded to God’s call on my life, I did so because I believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. That the new creation is possible: where those who suffer can be taken care of, where the homeless can be given shelter, where the hungry can be given food, and where we can learn to live for one another.