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A New Creation

March 9, 2016

“A New Creation” Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 © 3.6.16 Lent 4C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Not too long ago, a critic on HLN blasted the current sword and sandals flick Gods of Egypt, noting that it was mostly CG effects, had no story, and starred no Egyptians. The crushing blow in the review was “We’ve seen this movie twenty times before.”

That was the conclusion about all of life from the sage of Ecclesiastes. There’s nothing that’s truly new. Everything, for this tired, bored cynic, is a retread of what was proclaimed as fresh back in the day, but actually was just a rehash of what had gone before it. Whatever effort is expended by humans or whatever natural processes produce, everything remains the same. There is nothing truly transformative, no work that brings the satisfaction of producing a revolutionary product, no thought that leads us to understanding of the unknown. The past is the future is the present is the past, an endless cycle of nonsense and futility.

We may be inclined to agree. If we live long enough, we’ll see fashions recycle, from bellbottoms to skinny ties to hairstyles. Or we will hear ideas and slogans that, if we know our history, sound very familiar, with public figures compared to those who have gone before. “Retro” and “archival” have become positive, sought-after qualities, as the new imitates the old. Cars, as the commercial points out, are produced as if with a cookie cutter. Our daily lives may consist of endless repetition of the same tasks, spinning our wheels in a rut, the same conversations, the same problems, repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseam. There is no newness and no possibility of it.

The apostle Paul would beg to differ. There can be, will be, and there is even now a new creation. That’s God’s purpose, and it’s what he’s accomplished in Christ. What did Paul mean?

There are two possibilities, not mutually exclusive. The new creation might be a replacement for the old creation, the former things, which are done away with in a cataclysm. Second Isaiah, a great influence on Paul, has God say to exiles in Babylon: “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing…” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, which was a thought world Paul inhabited, had God ending the current world in fire and blood and smoke, starting all over again. This world was so corrupt and sin-soaked that nothing less than its complete destruction could redeem it. The house is burned, the building leveled, the planet obliterated, with nothing recognizable left. There was nothing worth keeping.

Sometimes our situation or that of our neighbors is so fraught with sadness and pain and bad memories that we need to, long to, make a clean break with it, as much as possible short of some sci-fi tech that would cleanse our thoughts of everything from the past. So, we move to a new city, start another job very different from the one before, unfriend acquaintances on Facebook and delete them from our phones, maybe even change the way we look—anything to signify not just turning a page in the book of our lives, but burning it and writing a new one. That’s where apocalyptic came from: the experience of suffering, of marginalization, of deprivation, of slavery, of profound disappointment. A few tweaks, a bit of paint, a resolve to make do in the current situation simply wouldn’t cut it. Babylon, Rome, the current government and culture, indeed, the entire planet had to go for God to do something entirely different. Or, with individuals, the old way of living was so dissolute and debauched that nothing short of a complete turnaround could bring salvation, as the old gospel song says: “The things I used to do, don’t do them anymore; the places I used to go, don’t go there anymore.”

So that’s one approach to understanding what Paul means by “a new creation.” But the other possibility is more subtle and nuanced, and I think more likely. The old is not torn down or destroyed, but restored, renovated, repurposed. This is the historic home brought back to its former glory or found wood and metal turned into art or a new piece of furniture. It’s my carrying a cheap electric guitar to the luthier and changing out the substandard pickups, tuners, and strings for premium products, while the body and neck remain the same. This new creation is my nephews rebuilding a 1960s vintage truck from the frame up and making a competition-worthy beauty.

One of my favorite stories from way back in the day was about John Haycock, the poet-in-residence at a now defunct bookstore in Emory Village in Decatur, GA called “Arnold’s Archives.” He turned out fine editions of books of verse on a restored printing press. Haycock described himself not only as a poet, but as a bricoleur.

The word is French for “handyman,” “tinkerer,” somebody gifted at DIY, “do it yourself” projects. But Haycock preferred a more elaborate definition. He said a bricoleur is someone who takes the old and discarded around him or her and fashions it into something new and useful. Haycock and his team restored a rusty 1908 press that was near ruin, taking months for the work. Finding type for it turned out to be an ongoing job. But all the effort was worth it, because as Haycock put it, the press had “no sound”; it ran like it was “one day old.” (Note: This account is from the newspaper “Creative Loafing,” exact reference unknown.)

For Paul, God is the bricoleur par excellence. When we feel our lives are going nowhere, our world is spinning out of control, our institutions are self-destructing, when in the church we keep gathering for the same old lifeless liturgy, when we can’t imagine anything different or better, God in Christ conquers our despair, gathers up the broken and rusted and worn-out pieces of our lives and makes of them something fresh, opening us to new possibilities. He promises a world, a cosmos, restored to all he intended for it, a peaceable kingdom where death and tears and pain will be no more, where the lion will dwell with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them.

Somehow, God has accomplished what he purposed “in Christ” who was “made sin” for our sakes. We aren’t told the specifics of the process. It’s all very mystical, and I must confess in all my years of ministry and study, I have never understood what the apostle means by “in Christ.” Yes, of course, there is the man Jesus dying on a cross. But what Paul seems to intend here goes beyond a historical event. It’s almost as if “Christ” has come to mean an all-encompassing Reality in which we can be and are enveloped, included, loved, nurtured, transformed. “Christ” becomes not just Jesus the Messiah, but the one whom a disciple of Paul would later say “fills all in all” and who ascended that he might “fill all things” (Ephesians). This is the One whom scholars have called “the cosmic Christ,” who though retaining his humanity, now is in all times and places and among all peoples, a Presence beyond comprehension. Crude metaphors might be that the cosmic Christ is a womb in which we grow, a cask in which we ferment and change, a cocoon in which we are transformed. As I said, mystical, and beyond my pay grade.

What is clear, however, is that the new creation is all about reconciliation, a word repeated over and over in the brief space of the morning’s text. The Greek is katallasso, which has nothing to do with roping cattle, despite its sound, and it has two senses. The ancients used it when spouses got back together and settled their differences following a separation. And it also meant to put someone in friendship with God.

We often hear that the gospel is something like “God hates you because of your sin, but Jesus died to convince God to take you back. He bore all your punishment.” But that’s not it at all. Paul’s gospel is that God has never turned away from us; instead it is we who have gone to a far country or else feel as if we are being treated like a slave, as in the story of the two lost sons Jesus told. God is always watching, waiting for us to come home, to accept his love, to come to the party. The message is not “accept Christ and God will be reconciled to you.” No, as Paul Tillich said: “The message of reconciliation is…cease to be hostile to [God], for he is never hostile to you.” Christ’s death is the demonstration of the love of God, the lengths he is willing to go to in order for us to cease our enmity toward him and accept that we are accepted.

When we have turned again to the loving God, and been reconciled, we are then to give witness to our new reality by being and becoming reconcilers. Theology for Paul is never abstract ivory tower talk. It always has to be worked out in real world relationships. So, believers individually and corporately are and are to be “ambassadors for Christ,” urgently bidding all to be reconciled to God.

Such a message will be rejected as phony, inauthentic, if the Church does not demonstrate reconciliation in its common life even as it calls for reconciliation in society. Sadly, the Church and the churches are just as broken as the rest of the world. But that does not negate our calling to be the “demonstration of what God intends for all humanity,” as our standards once put it. Among believers, reconciliation and reconciling ought to be the rule, not the exception, if we claim to be in Christ who has brought a new creation.

Part and parcel of being a reconciled and reconciling community of the new creation is to regard no one from a human point of view or by worldly standards. The literal Greek says we no longer regard anyone “according to the flesh.” It sounds silly, but maybe we could think of how we treat people as instead “according to the fresh,” the reality of the new thing God has done and is doing in Christ among us.

What does it mean to cease treating others from a worldly point of view? How about seeing a person and not a stereotype? What if we related to folks not on the basis of their level of education, but their love; not their influence, but their individuality and imagination; not their color or their clothes, but their character; not their ZIP code, but their zeal to do good; not their success, but their sensitivity and service; not their wallets or their waist size, but their witness; not their politics, but their purity of heart? The commentator Paul Sampley makes the point this way: “The most basic fact for Christians is this: People have value because Christ died for them. People, whoever they are, whether they have responded to Christ or not—Christ died for everyone—are treasured by God. From the moment of Christ’s death, everyone, everyone has value” (2 Corinthians in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI: 98).

The new creation is both the present and coming reality, our calling and our hope. Wherever reconciliation happens, there it is. Whenever anyone is engrafted into Christ, there it is. Whenever and wherever hope and peace and love win out over despair and conflict and fear, there it is.

The hymn writer David Gambrell offers a wonderful summary of that message from Paul, as well as today’s well-known gospel story: “There is now a new creation through the grace of Jesus Christ, peace and reconciliation with the God of endless life. Call the lost and found together; tell the news to everyone: now the past is gone forever and a new life has begun. Wrap the prodigal in welcome; run to greet the wayward child. All is finished and forgiven; let us now be reconciled. Come and join the celebration; come and join this happy feast; Jesus makes an invitation to the greatest and the least. There is now a new creation through the grace of Jesus Christ. Sing, with thanks and adoration, to the God of endless life!” (“There Is Now a New Creation,” in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal).

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