a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
As a pastor, I have a bit of a strange relationship with death. I am occasionally given the privilege of being present with someone as they die, and I do my best to approach this holy moment in the same way as I do for any other event of life even amidst the understandable difficulty for me and others. A little more frequently, I am asked to preside at funerals or memorial services, where death is the unfortunate occasion that brings us together even as we often find a unique bond of life to link us to one another and to God. And then there are the times when I walk with you all or other friends through days of grief, sorting out how the death of family, friends, colleagues, or even others beyond those circles changes our lives. In thinking about all these moments, I see the incredible transformation that death brings—even as I know that it is yet another moment of life and living.
So when Paul starts talking about death in our reading from 2 Corinthians this morning, I know exactly what he is talking about. For Paul, death—specifically, the death of Christ—changes everything even as it is yet another moment in the life of the world. In the wonder of this unjust death, we are convinced that all have died. In the light of this amazing love, we are shown that he died for all, regardless of belief or practice. And in the face of this transformative moment, we are shown how this death invites “those who live [to] live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”
Christ’s death shows us the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, and that love “urges us on,” Paul says, guiding us into new life in this world and the next. This love, Paul says, gives us a new point of view: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” First, we received a new vision of Christ himself, for we once knew him as we know our human companions on the journey, but now we know that he is more than this, that in his death and resurrection he has overcome all the challenges of this world and entered into new life.
Since we know Christ in this new way, we also have to look at our human companions from a new perspective. Everything is different from this new vantage point. The assumptions we have made about others no longer apply, because we know that all are beloved children of God. The outside appearance and visible actions that have been the basis of all our judgments before now must be set aside so that we can focus on knowing one another in the way that God knows us. And the death that seems like it brought things to an end is actually the beginning of new life. One commentator summarizes this change beautifully:
Believers are not simply offered a new perspective they may or may not adopt as and when they see fit; rather, something so fundamental has changed in such a profound fashion that the old ways of looking, perceiving, understanding, and, more profoundly, evaluating, have to be let go and replaced with a new way of seeing and understanding. (J. Paul Sample, New Interpreter’s Bible)
He goes even one step further:
People have value because Christ has died for them. People, whoever they are, whether they have responded to Christ or not… are treasured by God.
In the same way that the death of Christ changes our view of death, when we look at one another from this new perspective, everything is different. We see those whom we once named as our enemies and approach them as friends. We replace our way of assessing one another based on the things of this world with assessments of one another as beloved children of God. And we stop looking at death as the end of something for one of us and approach it as the beginning of everything for all of us. Paul names this new perspective as the new creation:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
The new creation stands at the center of everything that Paul proclaims. The new creation calls forth a different way of living and loving that takes into account the love of God demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new creation makes it clear for us how faith is to be expressed through love of our fellow human beings and by extension all of the created order. The new creation shows us that redemption is expressed “as a kind of creation renewed, made over… a new thing that recaptures, not jettisons, the old.” (J. Paul Sample) And the new creation reminds us that death is not the end of the story for any of us, for one death began the process of transformation that invites us into this new life, and so death opens the possibility of something new.
This new creation begun in Christ opens us to, calls us to, even demands of us participation in, the transformation of the world. Because we have been reconciled to God in Christ, we are called to be reconciled to one another and the whole world. Because we have this new relationship with God, we need to have a new relationship with others as we appeal to them as ambassadors on God’s behalf. And because we have for our own sake been united with one “who knew no sin,” we “become the righteousness of God” as we demonstrate the new way of Christ to the world.
As participants in this new creation, we not only look at the world around us differently but also interact with it differently. We treat everyone with deeper reverence and love as we recognize the myriad ways that all are treasured by God. We live with our focus on others and especially those for whom God has particular concern: the poor, the oppressed, the victims of war and violence, the unloved and unloveable, and those like all of these. And we do our best to embody the wholeness that we long to know for ourselves and all the world.
As I journey through this life, facing the interesting challenges of life as a pastor, walking through death and life with people like all of you, seeking to offer the presence of God in Christ to all I meet, I am convinced over and over again that this idea of the new creation is what we need in our world. We do not need to turn back the clock to a day and age that are now past but rather need to hope and pray and work for God’s new way to be revealed in our midst, a way that is far better than anything we have known before.
In this new creation, we are shown that God has more in store for our world that what we know now. Through this new creation, we are called to live differently ourselves so that we can join in what God is doing all around us. And because of this new creation, we ourselves are made new as we recognize again and again that Christ has changed everything for everyone.
So may we live in this new creation even now as we wait for God to finish it in the days ahead, so that we might be God’s ambassadors of new life and reconciliation in our broken and fearful world, journeying in life and in death in the path that Christ opens for us, now and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.