Ezekiel 36:22-32, II Corinthians 5:16-21
April 26, 2009
Last week, I wanted to be sure to talk about the Road to Emmaus. Because that’s a great story. And because it’s understood to have been part of the Easter day events. Luke wanted us to see it together with the empty tomb and the reaction of the disciples to the women’s news. I also wanted us to see that it’s a story about how God reaches for our hearts. He doesn’t just want us to acknowledge of the facts of Easter. I hope you got all that.
Today, I’d like to backtrack just a bit, and pick up on some of the thoughts I gave you on Easter day itself. And in doing so, I’d like us to consider this passage from Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian Church. By the way, if you’re into geography, the city of Corinth sat right on that that tiny bridge of land that connects northern Greece to Southern Greece. Without that little isthmus, southern Greece would be an island. Corinth was an important city, and it’s Church had to deal with a wide range of issues going on there. And to that Church Paul wrote some of his best stuff! The two New Testament letters of Corinthians speak amazingly about the faith, in words that inspire and have called God’s people to a higher level of living for two millennia.
Look at these words we read today from that second letter. In our passage today we read these most important words. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The past is finished and done, behold, the new has come.” (II Corinthians 5:17) That’s what I want us to focus on today. What does that mean to us today, two thousand years later and half a world away?
First consider this thing we call the “Atonement.” If you think about it, I think you’ll agree that there are many places in the New Testament that talk about the “Atonement.” And of course the Atonement is that act of sacrifice Jesus made that paid the price for our forgiveness. I once heard someone say that you can split that word up to better understand its meaning. I had Donna put that on the bottom of your bulletins. Look there and you’ll see “Atonement = At-one-ment.” What that means is that Jesus came to bring us back to the state of being where we are “at-one” with God. It was his at-one-ment. That’s just a handy little memory device to help us remember and understand the word.
Well, the thing about the atonement is that we tend to think of ith in almost contractual terms. Jesus did his part, so that we can accept his actions and receive God’s forgiveness. And the New Testament is chock full of places that talk about the Atonement in that way. The first one that comes to my mind is very familiar. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” He did it. We accept it. We receive it. And there are many other passages like that. And that’s what we would expect in the New Testament, isn’t it? Because the New Testament is about the Atonement. It’s about our forgiveness under the new covenant. And that’s a wonderful thing!
However, this year, I’ve been noticing something else. And I believe it’s through the Holy Spirit. I’ve noticed that, as much as there are many places in the New Testament that talk about the atonement, there are also lots of places where it talks about new life. And that’s a different thing. I hope you’ll see that more clearly today. And I hope also you’ll see that the atonement is not that far away from the idea of having new life in Christ. It’s just that we tend to think of it that way. As I said, we tend to think of the atonement like the fulfillment of a contract. But I that misses a huge part of it! And I want to fill in the missing part today.
What I mean by that is this. The Atonement is not about an aloof, indifferent God, who sees the problems with humanity’s rebellion, and just sends his son to “straighten things out” for us. It’s not about a “rescuing” God who comes in and “saves the day” and then leaves. It is about rescuing, though. As you’ve often heard me say in our time of confession. “Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners.” But remember what I say at the end of that. “He died and rose again so that we can be (what?) dead to sin, and alive to all that is good.” That’s the purpose of the atonement. New life. Being alive.
Last week I asked the folks in the first service if they remembered The Lone Ranger. How about you? Do you remember that show? Maybe some of you are able to remember Lone Ranger on the Radio?! My mom used to tell me about that! Well, remember what happened on that show. What did the Lone Ranger do at the end? He saved the day and then what? He left. He was gone. He rode away, leaving nothing but a (what? a) silver bullet! And what was it that the people usually said, after he had ridden off into the sunset? “Who was that masked man?”
My friends, God is not like that! He doesn’t just “fix things.” He doesn’t just defeat the “bad guys,” and then go riding off into the sunset, leaving nothing but a silver bullet. I guess God’s equivalent of that would be the cross. He didn’t come just to do those things! He didn’t come just to give us the Atonement – as great as that is – and then leave! Remember again why Jesus came. I said it again on Easter. If we want to know the main reason Jesus came we need to remember his own words about that. He said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly!”
That is so important! And I want you to know that there are many, many times that thought is echoed in the pages of the New Testament. Because that is the heart of the New Covenant God told the people through Ezekiel six hundred years before. He said, “I will put a new heart within you…” And he said. “I will put my spirit within you.” Those words were astounding to the people then. They are life giving to us today.
Those words resonate in this passage from Second Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation.” Notice, this is not an atonement passage. This is not just about that payment for sin. It doesn’t say, “If anyone is in Christ they are given eternal life.” They are! And that’s wonderful! But that’s not what it says. It says, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation!”
That’s what we’re talking about! Yes, we are atoned. We are “at one” with God. But that doesn’t mean we have simply been “ransomed” from sin. It’s so much more. We have been made into the people we were created to be in the first place – before all that Garden of Eden stuff. You can’t talk about new creations without thinking about the original creation. In the beginning we were created to be creatures who reflected God’s glory! And when the atonement brings us back to that state, it represents such an incredible change in us that Paul describes it by saying “The past is finished and done!”
You know, sometimes we say, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” And that’s true and that’s nice, but it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. Somehow it misses this understanding of the Glory of God. That’s what we have been created to be a part of and to reflect. We are the crowning achievement of God’s creation. And what does that say about upholding the dignity and honor of every person we meet?!
If we are in Christ we are new creations! One writer suggested this. And I think it’s true. Too many people become saved, and then their thoughts turn to “living right.” They become concerned about “learning the right things.” They take care that they are “believing the right things.” They want to be sure they have the right doctrine and theology. And don’t get me wrong. Doctrine and theology are wonderful things. But I’ve got to tell you. Sometimes in this day when the traditional denominations are in decline, I’ve heard way too many people talk about those “other denominations,” saying that “we have certain questions about their theology!” Holy Cow!! (“Wake up and smell the Reformed Tradition,” folks!) Sometimes I think, “Boy, When we go down the tubes completely, were going to go down with great theology!”
It seems crazy to me. But that’s where too many people’s emphasis goes once they’ve embraced salvation. They want to be sure they believe the right things. They want to be sure they are part of a Church that has “gotten it right.” They want to be sure that they’re being nice people.
My friends, the New Testament isn’t just the story about our being saved so we can be nice people. And don’t get me wrong. I think we should be nice people. In fact, that would be a really good place to start for some Christians! But it’s more than that. It’s way more than that. It’s about being new creations! Jesus came alive so that we can be alive. Not just so that we can be atoned for. That’s what he did on Good Friday. He atoned for us that day. And again, that’s wonderful. But on Easter, Jesus came alive. So we can be alive!
I’m not just talking about a living style here, though that’s part of this. I’m not just talking about attitude, or outlook, or demeanor. And all those things are affected by being new creations. But being new creations doesn’t start there. It’s not a matter of “Because of what Jesus did, I should live a certain way, or believe a certain way, or treat others a certain way.” Those things are good, but they don’t last if we do them simply out of obligation, or even devotion. Those things alone are not the way to become “like Christ,” which is the goal of every Christian, as you’ve heard me say. We do so through embracing the fact that we are new creations. It’s about having our hearts healed – replaced really, with a new heart!
Perhaps when we’ve thought of the work of Christ we’ve used the wrong tense too often. Instead of thinking about what Jesus did for us, perhaps we need to be thinking more in the present. Maybe we should think, “Because of what God is doing for me, I will become alive in him.” If we think of it that way, we’re back to what God told Ezekiel. Being new creations is about having our hearts renewed. It is about coming to grips with that deep down “soul part of us,” and making the connection there with God. It is about the recovering of our heart and drawing close to the heart of God! No wonder the writer of Proverbs said, “Guard your heart. It is the source of all life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
Friends, I believe that’s what God wants for us. The whole of his love story for us, which this book (the Bible) represents, says that he wants to know us at that heart level. That’s where it all makes sense. That’s where we know his Glory. That’s where our hearts are renewed. That’s where we are new creations.
Eternal God you have sent your son to make us new creations. Help us to know that. Help us to know your glory. Help us to reflect your glory in all that we do. Fill us with your spirit, and the joy of your glorious kingdom. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.