Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Imagine this: a good friend discovers this dirty little secret of yours: you go to church. Or, you’re trying church out, even. Imagine that they discover this. But they don’t roll their eyes—they’re genuinely interested. And imagine that this curiosity leads them to ask one simple question: “In one sentence, what’s Christianity all about?” What’s Christianity all about? One sentence.
Would you say Christianity’s about “morality?”
Or would you say Christianity’s about “social justice”?
Would you answer that Christianity’s about sound doctrine, or “belief”?
Or would you answer that Christianity is about “afterlife”? Life beyond physical death.
One sentence. What would you say?
Now, none of these answers would be wrong. They all contain a crucial element of truth. But the thing is that they aren’t sufficient in of themselves. They don’t make for a good comprehensive, or overall umbrella answer to the question, “What’s Christianity about?” Because as important as they may be, they’re only partial aspects. Which also makes them partial answers.
Today’s scripture, however, may provide us with a much better answer. A fuller answer to the question. In this paragraph, tucked way deep in the backwoods of your Bibles. You might remember from last week that this letter is all about a conflict between the Apostle Paul and the Corinthian congregation, a community he helped establish, and continues to oversee. Their relationship is broken, Paul’s done and said things, and they’ve done and said things. And this letter is Paul’s attempt to mend the rift.
And one thing you do when you’re dealing in conflict resolution is that you try to find a common ground between two parties. You try to remind people of shared values or principles. Questions like “What is Christianity all about?” might be helpful on such occasions. And that’s sort of what Paul does here. Goes back to first things.
But the conviction he goes back to isn’t about morals. It’s not about justice, behavior, belief or afterlife. No.
Paul’s answer to the question, “what is Christianity all about?” is found right here:
“So,” Paul proclaims. “So if anyone in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away! See, everything has become new!”
It’s a teeny-tiny conflict between a pastor and a local church. But Paul goes big. He goes deep, he goes wide. He goes cosmic. Paul’s answer to the question, “what is Christianity all about?” is “New Creation.” New Creation.
Now before we fully understand what New Creation means, we need to understand its opposite.
Because in the Bible, the central problem at the heart of human life isn’t just that we do bad things to eachother. But that humanity itself since before historical memory, has decided to live out of step, out of tune, with the Creator. All those things that are destructive in our lives: greed, selfishness, war. Addiction, broken lives, broken families. Bigotry, exploitation of human beings and plundering of the planet. All these things. Signs of our collective turning away from life in harmony with the Creator, which has resulted in our dis-harmony with each other. And the rest of creation. Our human brokenness not only effects us, but like a speed boat on a small lake, it has this ripple effect outwards. Touching each and every living thing in its wake. (I mean, you could look at something like climate change as some ultimate proof for this—if you wanted to).
Our world as it is, human life as it is. With its violence, injustice, struggle and despair—that’s Old Creation. One captive to, enslaved and imprisoned by the forces of Sin and Death. And so for Paul, his community’s hostility towards each other, its dis-unity isn’t just a personal grudge. But he sees their conflict as symptoms of a much larger disease. He sees their broken relationship with each other as a mark of humanity’s broken relationship with God. They aren’t just fighting with each other. They’re stuck in the Old Creation. They’re clinging to it. They won’t let go.
But just as the Bible presents us with the problem of the Old Creation. It also offers us the promise of a way out. And that way out isn’t leaving the world behind for a new one. But a New Creation. The renewal of all things.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah gives a vision of new rivers running through dry deserts blooming with flowers, lions lying down with lambs. The prophet Ezekiel gives an image of a river running from the throne of God that covers and renews all living things. And way at the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation we hear echoes of this, too. This promise of a “new heavens and a new earth,” where there will be no more weeping and every tear wiped away.
It’s this future, promised by God. New, not as in a blowing it all up and starting over. But the whole world set right. A renewal, a restoration, a regeneration of the world as God created it to be. Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, two evangelical theologians put it this way: “Salvation means Creation healed.”[i] Salvation means creation healed. All things made new.
Now, obviously Paul doesn’t think that this New Creation has arrived yet. Clearly, based on the behavior of the Corinthians it still looks a long way off. But it’s also not just something to bide our time on. For Paul, this New Creation has already touched down.
Paul says that “In Christ there is a New Creation.” And “all this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, we already have a glimpse of this New Creation. In Jesus, he says, God was reconciling the world to himself. Reconciliation is such a popular word these days. But it really means an end to hostility. The complete mending of a broken relationship. Though we humans continued to work against God’s purposes, God wasn’t giving up. In Christ, God was and is healing, reconciling, making new. We don’t have to change God’s mind about us or God’s posture to—God’s attitude’s been the same yesterday, today, and forever. Even though we put God to death on a cross, God would go to hell and back to mend that relationship. And make us new. So it’s our orientation to God towards God that now needs to change. Not the other way around.
And the change happens by giving our lives over to it, joining in.[ii] We can become part of the New Creation, we can live “in Christ” by directing our whole lives towards following Jesus. By “setting Christ as the compass for [our] existence,” as Brad Braxton, former minister of Riverside Church in New York puts it.[iii] And when we do, the promise is that when we do, our own lives will start to be healed by God’s Spirit. The promise is that even when we have one foot in the Old Creation, the other is moving forward. And being drawn into the new. On a pathway to a whole new world in the imprint of Jesus’ sandals.
It’s God’s work from beginning to end. And it’s already begun. But this is also only half the picture. Because when the New Creation takes root in us, and takes hold of our lives, we are activated for a life of service.[iv]
“So we are ambassadors for Christ,” Paul says. “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Paul sees us, sees the church as kind of an embassy for the New Creation. It’s not the new creation, but when you’re “In Christ,” you’re standing on home soil. And he sees those who have experienced healing, those who’re caught up in the New Creation, as ambassadors, as its representatives to a world that longs to be set free. A little old ragtag community like Corinth. A little old ragtag community like St. George’s. A community of people experience the gift of new life. Becoming who God created us to be. Imperfect people being reconciled to God and each other, and extending that new life beyond their walls to anyone longing to leave the Old one. Our work may seem tiny, insignificant. But it’s not just us. It’s not just here. It’s part of something much greater.
The New Creation hasn’t totally arrived. But in Christ, it’s begun. The seed’s been planted. It’s beginning to sprout. And eventually it’ll overtake the whole garden. The New Creation has begun with Jesus. We get to be part of it. Here and now. With the church as its embassy, and us serving as its ambassadors to the whole world. Beginning with the person next door.
So, the next time somebody finds out your dirty little secret. That you go to church, you’ve been to church, or have a vague interest in it that you can’t explain or understand. The next time somebody asks you what Christianity’s all about, you’ve got a better answer. A fuller answer, a truer answer. Christianity is first and foremost about “New Creation.” Reconciliation. The mending of the world. All things new.
It means the world doesn’t gotta be this way. Our lives don’t have to be this way, either. Because in Christ, the New Creation has begun.
“In Christ, there is a New Creation. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. And has trusted this ministry of reconciliation to us.”
It’s good news. Maybe the best. “It has appeared, and it still appears. It is hidden, and it is visible. It is there, and it is here. Accept it. Enter into it. Let it grasp you.”[v]
[i] See Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation is Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce between Earth and Heaven (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011).
[ii] So says the influential New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.
[iii] Brad R. Braxton, “2 Corinthians,” in The Theological Bible Commentary, ed. Gail O’Day and David Peterson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 395-396.
[iv] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 343.
[v] Paul Tillich, “The New Being,” in The New Being (New York: Scribner), 24.