II Corinthians 5:12-21
April 22, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When I was a teenager, my family always had an Easter egg hunt on Easter afternoon, but this was no tame suburban type Easter egg hunt. We lived on a six acre piece of land near Geneseo and my father would hide our colored eggs all over the property — some on the lawn but some in the barn, some along the edge of the pond, a few in the garden, and some scattered randomly along the walking paths around the property. This created a massive search area, and needless to say, when we finished our hunt and tallied our findings we always came up a few short; eggs lost somewhere out on the “lower 40” as my father used to say. Inevitably, however, a few days after Easter, Jenny, our Springer Spaniel, would return from a day of rambling in that lower forty gently bearing one of those lost Easter eggs in her mouth as a gift for us.
“Were you looking for this?” she would seem to say, proud to be of such help. Of course, after a few days lying outside in the typical chilly wet weather of a western NY spring, the eggs she brought back had lost their Easter shine. Muddy and worn, their colors running together from dew and dog slobber, they no longer looked at all like the eggs we had so lovingly decorated during Holy Week in celebration of the coming resurrection. How quickly the world had dulled the beauty of Easter.
The apostle Paul promises that in Christ, we can become new creatures; because we died in him, he argues, so too we rise again into new life with him. And Paul puts this all in the present tense: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation;” not there will be a new creation as if Easter is concerned only with what happens after our bodies are dead and gone. No, Paul assures us, resurrection makes a difference to our world and to our lives right now, and gives us hope that our old selves can pass away and that everything can become new again. And this promise is so exciting in its possibilities that we proclaim this great good news in loud music, filling our sanctuary with lilies and our homes with beautifully colored eggs, to celebrate that proclamation of Easter because here is a declaration that we need to believe can be true. How much we need to believe our world to change! How much we ourselves need to believe we can shake off the past mistakes and the stains of our sin so that we can become “brand new creations.” And so we grab hold of that promise of resurrection, hoping that this time it will be true, that 2018 will finally be the year when Easter gets down into our hearts and into our world and effects real change in all of us.
But here we are, only three weeks out and instead of new creatures radiant in splendor, we are already feeling once again old and lost, like those Easter eggs overlooked in the weeds of the lower 40. If I am such a new creation, we grumble, why am I covered with mud and dog slobber? Maybe Paul tells us that Christ’s resurrection changes everything but before even a month has passed, we are more inclined to believe the cynical words of Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In worship today, we read this passage from Ecclesiastes as a responsive reading and I followed by reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which in the bulletin I called, “Paul’s rebuttal to Ecclesiastes.” One of the things that I love about the Bible is that when the early church decided which books they would include in the canon and which they would discard, they decided to include opposing viewpoints rather than trying to smooth out all of the Bible’s theology into a unified doctrine. And so today we heard both the declaration of the writer of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, and Paul’s declaration that in Christ everything is made new. Which is it? we want to know. Is it possible for the world to change as Paul appears to suggest, or will societies spin themselves out in an endless cycle of growth and decay, every seeming advance lasting but a moment eventually to unravel and disappear as a new generation forgets the lessons of the old, as the cynic Ecclesiastes believes? Is it possible for us to become new creatures, in the words of Paul, or are we doomed to endlessly repeat the same mistakes over and over again until we grind our lives down into dust? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanities.”
In other words, is Easter’s promise just a nice myth that we trumpet to warm our discouraged winter weary hearts for a moment before getting back to “reality,” or does it actually have truth to it, the possibility of lasting significance in our lives?
Before we take the easy way out and say, “Well, Christ came after Ecclesiastes and therefore the message of resurrection negates the view that nothing changes,” remember that the decision to include Ecclesiastes in our Christian Bible was made by church officials living hundreds of years after Christ. They obviously didn’t believe that Christ had made Ecclesiastes irrelevant. In fact, those early Christians must have felt a great kinship at times with the cynicism of Ecclesiastes, especially as time passed and the new world that they had hoped for didn’t look a lot different from the old one before Jesus’ resurrection. Roman soldiers still marched through their streets, slaves were still subject to their masters, and poverty didn’t cease. Even Paul acknowledges that people didn’t become instantly saintly as they stepped out of the waters of their baptism. The writings of Paul that we read as scripture were not theological treatises but were letters that he wrote to those first congregations because they were having problems and so in one way, those letters are a strong argument for Ecclesiastes’ proclamation that there is nothing new under the sun. We may get awfully tired of the schisms and arguments among Christians today, but they sound a lot like the arguments and schisms among those first Christians two thousand years ago. They too argued about who was in charge and who got to make the rules. They took nasty shots at one another, sometimes even dragging fellow Christians to court. Some of them strutted around in self-righteous arrogance, while others indulged in immoral living, reveling in the expansive promise of God’s grace, and many were certain the all the others were doomed in the eyes of Christ. Even our esteemed apostle Paul struggled with the realities of being all too human: though our scripture reading is called the Second letter to the Corinthians, we know that it is at least the third letter that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, because he refers to a previous exchange of letters which are now lost to us. That exchange included accusations and hurt feelings between Paul and the congregation. Paul’s conversion didn’t make him an instant saint either and he admits in his letter to the Roman church, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
And yet, even in the fullest awareness of his own continuing struggle to change, Paul is still able to proclaim that in Christ, he has become a new creature. So which is it? Are you made new in Christ or are you the same old same old? What real change does Easter make possible for you?
I found the answer to that question — or at least a signpost toward the answer — from a more modern author than Paul. In college, I went through a “Lord of the Rings” period when I, like so many my age, absorbed tons of fantasy literature, but unlike so many others of my age, I also geeked out on reading a lot of the precursors to that fantasy, earlier works that influenced the development of the fantasy genre. I read medieval Welsh legends, and the original Arthurian cycles — all rather tough going — and I read an I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend whole heartedly to you, George McDonald, a 19th century Scottish poet, author, and Christian minister. McDonald’s books had a profound influence on people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, all of whom not only wrote fantasy, but like McDonald, grounded their stories in their faith understanding. G. K. Chesterton pointed especially to McDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin series as having “made a difference to my whole existence,” which of course meant that I had to go and read those books for myself. There I found, hidden within a tale of goblins and the adventures of a boy who will become a prince was this beautiful passage that for me captured and continues to capture the essence of the entire Christian proclamation:
“There is this difference between the growth of some human beings, and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection…. [The person who chooses a continuous dying] grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid of it that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner; to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”
For McDonald, Paul’s proclamation that in Christ, we are new creatures is not a photograph of what we look like right now but is a time motion video of which way we are moving: in a continuous dying as we pull ourselves more and more tightly into our shells afraid to trust or love, or in a continuous resurrection, insisting on opening our hearts ever outward in faith and hope.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God stands with the Israelites on the threshold of the Promised Land, and knowing the fears that they are facing and the suffering that they have experienced, God exhorts them to choose life. Don’t go back, God says, but go forward. Paul too invites the Corinthians to choose between living in Christ in continual resurrection or turning away in a continual dying. The question for each of us is not whether we will fail or whether we will sin or whether we will struggle — because the answer to all of that is yes, yes we will. We will fail; we will sin; we will struggle; we will suffer; all of us; every single human being without exception. In that, Ecclesiastes is absolutely right — there is nothing new under the sun. The real question for us — the one which Paul addresses in his letter to the Corinthians — is which way will we move when we get back up?
“In the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection.”
In the time motion video of your life, are you continually opening your face toward the sun of God’s love, willing to trust and love and try again in spite of the hurt of the past, or are you shrinking into your shell afraid of being taken in, coming finally to believe in nothing but your next dinner?
In the words of the Message translation, Paul says to the Corinthians, “Christ’s love… is the first and last word in everything we do. Our firm decision is to work from this focused center…” To choose to live in continual resurrection is to make Christ the focused center of our world so that when others reject us, when others disappoint us and hurt us, the center of our world will continue to be the unfailing love of Christ. And when we fail ourselves, when we give in to our laziness, our temptations, our anger and our despair, the center of our world continues to be the unfailing grace of Christ poured out on our sins. Like a flower turning its face to the sun, we continually turn our faces to him, and grow in continual resurrection. When the troubles of life tempt us to close our hearts, we will turn our faces to him and find comfort and hope. When sorrow nibbles of the edges of our spirits, we will choose to place our eyes on him and find joy in his presence. When despair at the world’s awfulness weighs us down, we will choose to stand up once more, place our hands to the plowshare, and get back to work, keeping the sight of Christ striding ever before us.
And when our mortal days are finally over, may the time motion video of our lives show not a continual dying and shrinking until we were simply dust and decay, but rather a wonderful blossoming of continual resurrection because we trusted Christ’s word that this is the way of love, and peace, and true life.