“ … if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 2 Cor 5:17
Guest homily from Rev Donald Grayston
Let’s start with a little singing: in your hymnbooks, #7, “New every morning is the love” – first and second verses only.
New every morning is the love / our waking and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought, / restored to life and power and thought.
New mercies, each returning day, / hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiven, / new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.
Did any of you ever meet Charlie Reeve? He was a priest of the diocese of Kootenay, for many years rector of the Anglican parish of Vernon. He and I were together at a clergy event about 45 years ago. I can’t remember what the theme was or what the presentations concerned, but what I remember is the effect they had on Charlie. He was 64, with one year to go to retirement. Things were happy enough in the parish, and he was carrying on as he had for many years. However, something happened to him at this continuing education event. What he experienced there shook up his view of his ministry and indeed of his life as a Christian; it was a kind of late-life conversion. He went back to his office (the event was in Vernon) and made a sign—“The New Charlie Reeve”—and put it up in his office above the door, a location which he could see when he was sitting at his desk. People coming in wouldn’t notice it on their way in—perhaps on their way out. But as he was meeting people there, the sign was facing him. He had a wonderful last year of ministry, renewed in heart and spirit and perspective. You’re never too old!
In the second reading for today we find our text. Paul is saying that for someone who is “in Christ”—and I’ll say a word about what that means—that person is “a new creation”—and I’ll say a word about what that means.
“In Christ” first. Some commentators say that this is Paul’s central or basic or most important concept. As he says in Galatians, for example, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free: “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). To be in Christ is to be part of a community, which you have entered though baptism, in which the distinctions that people commonly use to distinguish themselves from each other, to place themselves apart from or above others, have no relevance for you whatever. To the terms Paul uses we might add rich and poor, black, white and brown, Canadian or American, even communist and capitalist, or logger and environmentalist. To be “in Christ” is to take on a new identity in which the important features are faith, hope and love, and not any of the distinctions I’ve mentioned. This did not mean that Jews ceased to be Jews, or Gentiles ceased to be Gentiles, or men and women ceased to be men and women: it meant that these terms of identity became secondary, with their identity in Christ becoming primary.
On then to the “new creation.” Then what about the old creation? The first creation, the creation of Adam and Eve, hadn’t gone as God had planned. Forgive me for this, but I am compelled to share with you a limerick.
God’s plan made a hopeful beginning,
But we spoiled our chances, by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory:
But at present, the other side’s winning!
And I’ll come back to the point of that last line later on. Our earliest Christian ancestors saw this renewal of their community, the people of Israel, encapsulated, epitomized, represented, fulfilled in the very person of Jesus. He was the new Adam, the first member of a new humanity; he was the new Moses, the giver of the new law of love; he was the new Joshua (and Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew), bringing us into the Promised Land of faith, hope and love; he was the new David, the new king of Israel; the new Solomon, the incarnation of God’s wisdom; and the new prophet of whom Moses had spoken, the last of the prophets in the succession of the many speakers of God’s word whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible. He was the initiator of the New Covenant, the new agreement between God and humanity, created and sealed by his sacrifice. As Thomas Merton says in the title of one of his books, he was “The New Man.” He gave people hundreds of new ways to think about God, and to relate to God—as Abba, loving Father. “What is this?” said some of his earliest hearers: “a new teaching—with authority!” (Mark 1:27).
It seems to me sometimes that we are too comfortable with Jesus. We’ve heard all the stories and the teachings many times. I sometimes feel that it is too easy in the church for Jesus’s teachings to lose their edge through over-familiarity. We need to recapture the shock value, the hard edge of his teaching and his person. This is a terrible thing to say, but for many of us Jesus has become old and tired. He spoke of his teaching as “new wine,” and said that it had to be put into new “wineskins,” that if it was put into old wineskins, they wouldn’t be able to contain it, and they would burst open. This in fact is what happened with the Christian movement within the Jewish community. Its willingness to accept non-Jewish members was too much for the conservative section of the Jewish community; and so the Christian community ended up separating from its community of origin. The old wineskins, the old structures and attitudes, couldn’t contain the new wine. This of course makes me wonder now whether the wineskins, the structures, the vehicles we use right now to convey the faith are in this sense old or new, outdated or up to date—something to think about!
Back now to “the other side’s winning.” Let’s acknowledge that the messianic age hasn’t come. We still struggle with war and poverty and racism and the destruction of the planet. In our personal lives we struggle with illness, conflict, alienation, confusion or divorce. Has the new creation really come or are we just fooling ourselves? Are we as individuals new creatures in Christ or are we old and tired as believers? Do we ever wonder whether we have misplaced our faith, wasted our commitment, when we see the community of Jesus, the church, becoming smaller and weaker and more marginalized?
Let me respond to that—not solve it, just respond to it—by referring you to the two references in the Lord’s Prayer to the kingdom: “thy kingdom come” and “thine is the kingdom.” When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we pray that God’s will for the wellbeing of the material creation—the environment and the other species and ourselves as human beings—be done. We pray for the sick and for the nations living in terrible sorrow: Nepal, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, South Sudan, Libya; and we pray for those we love to find faith and meaning in their lives. Yet when we pray “thine is the kingdom” we make an act of faith that something decisive has already happened in history, that in Christ the whole of cosmic and human history finds its meaning and its fulfillment. To say “thine is the kingdom” is a way of saying that we can see beyond the surfaces of things, many of them very unhappy, to God’s longterm intention for us. The newness is there, if we will claim it and live it out; but God’s work of renewal is not yet complete, not yet finished.
Another word on “thine is the kingdom.” About ten years ago I went on a Eurail trip with my friend Doug Hodgkinson. One Saturday we found ourselves in the beautiful little Swiss town of St Gall. Not much to do there on the weekends; so we went to the Roman Catholic church Saturday evening and then to the Protestant church Sunday morning [ J ]. My knowledge of German is very limited, but I was able to recognize the Lord’s Prayer when it came in the service; and I was very struck by the German equivalent of “thine is the Kingdom”—dein ist das Reich. Yes, dein, thine, God’s is the Kingdom. So since during the Nazi period Hitler would have said mein ist das Reich, for Christians to pray “thine is the Kingdom” was in fact an act of resistance. Somewhere in the midst of this horror God’s Kingdom is at work, not least in this act of prayerful resistance.
Let’s look now at a few of the places where the Bible speaks of this newness, this renewing activity of God. At the last supper, Jesus gives us the new commandment, “love one another” (John 13:34). He promises us a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1). He says he is making all things new (Rev 21:5)—and notice: not that he will make all things new but that if we can see it with the eye of faith, he is already making all things new. Our traditional liturgy picks up on this them when in the invitation to confession we are invited to “lead the new life” and to please God “in newness of life” (BAS 239). And we are challenged, at the very end of the New Testament, to claim our citizenship in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-7).
One of the greatest things about being a Christian is that our faith contains within itself the seeds of its renewal, the seeds of new growth. I am going to give you a moment of silence now, in which I am asking you to ask yourself whether your faith is bright and shining, or is a little bedraggled, needs some renewal, some new life, some new wine.
If you answered “bright and shining,” I rejoice with you. If not, I take this a sign that you are ready to have your faith refreshed. Let me say how this has happened for me. As the years have gone on, I have more and more realized the importance of daily prayer. If you find that your faith needs refreshing, I encourage you to explore the many ways in which you could make prayer a daily reality for you. Let me share with you one way in which I try to do this myself. I developed a personal form of the Lord’s prayer in which I have inserted the word “today” in all the clauses that speak of daily life rather than eternity. So, for example, “ hallowed be your name today, your kingdom come today, your will be done today”; or, later in the prayer, “forgive us our sins today, as today we forgive those who sin against us.” What would the world be like if we forgave others on a daily basis instead of hanging on to grudges for months and years? I acknowledge in saying this that there are situations when forgiveness can’t be forced, that it can only be offered when the one forgiving is ready. I would also assert that this is the exception rather than the rule; that we would all be better off if we let go on a daily basis of the resentments that often accompany our being sinned against. And when we come to the Lord’s Prayer later in the service, I will lead you through the Prayer in the way I’ve sketched out here.
So the kingdom has come, the new life is among us; and the kingdom is not completely here, and many elements of the old life continue to plague us. This being so, let us sing the last verse of hymn 485 and make it a prayer for newness and freshness in our lives as followers of Jesus the Christ. “Finish, then, thy new creation ….”
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.
Reverend Donald Grayston