Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
I was born in the South. I’ve lived in the Midwest and made nine or ten trips outside the United States, but in my heart I’m a Southerner. This means I know the difference between a hissie fit and a conniption fit, and that you don’t “have” them, you “pitch” them. It means I learned not to assume the car with the flashing turn signal is actually going to make a turn, and the car in front of me could turn in spite of the absence of a blinking light on its rear end. I learned at a very young age that “fixin” can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adverb and “y’all” is a very proper pronoun. And I never scream obscenities at older adults who drive 30 miles an hour on the interstate. I just say, “Bless his heart” and go my own way. I don’t just act like a Southerner or copy the behavior of people from the South. At my core, I am a Southerner. It’s part of my identity.
The epistle writer Paul would understand the point I’m making here if he were with us this morning because he made it eloquently in our text. Now I know Paul is not a favorite here at Pullen. He’s typically viewed as conservative and even misogynist. In fact, he’s reputed to be the source of much of the anti-woman passages in the New Testament and a few anti-gay ones, although many scholars believe he didn’t write a lot of what has been attributed to him. For this reason, progressive biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote a book to reclaim the radical Paul from his conservative reputation. It’s this book, The First Paul, and another older one by a United Methodist pastor named Maxie Dunham that I want to integrate in the thoughts I will share with you this morning. I stumbled onto Dunham’s book in the 1980s and it was transformative for me.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” says Paul. Now comes my second caveat. I need to say that even reading this passage in worship is a bit scary in a church that has just removed references to “Christ” from the purpose statement in its constitution. I should note that we did so following a very hearty but respectful debate about the use of this name for Jesus. If you missed this recent Pullen conversation and vote, you can ask someone who participated about the details. But the short explanation is that for many Pullen people, the implication in the name “Christ” that Jesus was divine makes them uncomfortable. As one person said with great sincerity, he feels excluded from the purpose of the church if “Christ” is the focus. So Jesus is there in the heart of our governing document, but Christ is referred to only by calling ourselves a “Christian” congregation.
So, since we had this lengthy discussion about the term “Christ” just a month ago today, why dissect this passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians rather than something else? Why take on Paul and Christ in the same sermon?! Why not just talk about The Prodigal Son, that beloved tale of a wayward son welcomed home by his forgiving father that was another lectionary option for today? Because whatever name you use to refer to the first century rabbi who is the reason for our being together today, I want to suggest that there is an important distinction between the laudable goal of following Jesus – that is, copying his behavior – and what Paul means by being “in Christ.” So bear with me for a few minutes while I explain what I mean – with some help from the unlikely trio of Marcus, Dom, and Maxie, which sounds like a 60s rock band!
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” My summary of this is “being ‘in Christ’ changes things.” For Paul, being “in Christ” is shorthand for a particular kind of life, say Borg and Crosson. They are quick to point out that Paul wasn’t just calling people to personal conversion, but to life together in communities. Life “in Christ” is always a communal matter. Therefore, Paul’s purpose and his passion was to create communities whose life embodied this alternative way of being in the world. He uses the phrase “in Christ” more than 100 times in his letters because it was the core of his mission. So let me say a bit about what it meant to him and what it might mean for us.
As I noted, for Paul, being “in Christ” is not about personal salvation, as least not in the way some corners of Christianity would have you believe. It’s about transformation – of individuals, yes, but also of the world. The new creation he refers to means a new era, a new age, a new way of doing business, a new paradigm, a new social order. At this very moment, there’s a lot of talk in a lot of churches about knowing Jesus personally. But we’re not called to the “me-and-Jesus” spiritual intimacy that is often described as the Christian goal and even attributed to Paul himself. There is certainly a personal component here for Paul, but it’s based on Jesus’ own words when he said: If you have fed someone, clothed someone, visited someone in prison, given someone shelter, then you have loved me.
Being “in Christ” is about unity, but more than unity. In spite of our negative feelings about Paul, we do like at least one of the verses attributed to him: For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one “in Christ Jesus.” There’s that phrase again. Paul says there are no distinctions among people and we are all one, but this isn’t a touchy-feely, Kum Ba Yah kind of oneness. It’s not just unity. It’s equality. And we don’t have to go far to find proof of this because the letters to the Corinthians address the issue squarely. Unlike in some other churches mentored by Paul, there were stark differences in the degree of wealth in the Corinthian church and its members took for granted the hierarchical social arrangements of the culture. So Paul calls them out when in their practice of the Lord’s Supper some began eating without waiting for all to arrive and some were getting more or better food. For Paul, all were equal. All parts of the body of Christ were important. So being “in Christ” isn’t just about unity, as important as that is. It’s about equality.
Thankfully more and more faith communities are moving toward this conclusion. Recently the pastor of a church asked me if I would take a look at the approach his congregation is considering regarding their welcome of the LGBT community. In a faith group that can sometimes be theologically conservative, they are wrestling with this question in the context of their calling as Christians. So the pastor asked me to review where their conversation has taken them and offer feedback about how it might be received by LGBT persons. In my view, they still have a way to go. But I give thanks that these good people are engaged in a thoughtful and prayerful process. My prayer is that they will eventually conclude as Pullen did more than twenty years ago that equality is a hallmark of the new creation.
Also imbedded in our text are popular verses on the topic of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Like the verse about Jews and Greeks, we like to lift this verse from among some we don’t like so much to talk about our calling as reconcilers. But again, Paul is not talking only about reconciling with people close to us, although that is important and sometimes the hardest work we do. It’s a global calling to transform the standard ways of doing business, which these days seem to require backing up one’s positions with concealed or not-so-concealed weapons.
Reconciliation is what our membership in the Community of the Cross of Nails is all about. As I said a few weeks ago and some of you know well, we have some “stuff” about the cross here at Pullen. One consequence of our ambivalence about it is the absence of crosses in our sanctuary. Except for those in the stained glass windows that can’t be removed without making it a bit breezy in here, there is only one. Centered on the back wall is a cross made of large nails. It was given to us in 1977 by the Provost of Coventry Cathedral in England when he came here to welcome us into the Community of the Cross of Nails. It remains in our worship space because it represents the reconciling work undertaken by the parish of the Cathedral when it was destroyed by the Germans in World War II. It reminds us of the ongoing work of CCN partners around the world who are transforming broken relationships in places like the Czech Republic, South Africa, India, and in Germany, where CCN may be its strongest.
For Paul, the only way to do this ministry of reconciliation – the only way to have what we need to participate in God’s cleanup of the world’s brokenness – is by being “in Christ.” And he did not mean that we should accept the empire’s power and control but practice love in our personal relationships. As Borg and Crosson put it, “Jesus and Paul were not executed for saying ‘Love one another.’ They were executed because their understanding of love meant more than being compassionate toward individuals, although it did include that. It also meant standing against the domination systems that ruled their world, and collaborating with the spirit in the creation of a new way of life that stood in contrast to the normalcy of the wisdom of this world.” Jesus and Paul were killed because they were trying to build a kingdom not of this world. As others have reminded us, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is a very political prayer.
Thus the distinction Paul is making is a simple but profound one. It’s not enough to be inspired by the words and actions of Jesus, as inspiring as they can be. Jesus is not only the example we follow but the enabler of a new quality of life. So we’re called to more than just patterning our lives after his. Being “in Christ” is a transformative process that thoroughly changes us. It gives us eyes to see the world as God sees it. It breaks down divisions so that there is no longer East or West. Its discernment takes into account more than personal needs. As John Cobb explained more than thirty years ago, “With respect to the decisions in life, instead of asking the question if I can afford something, I’m asking whether God favors it, but that’s also whether the world can afford it. I don’t read the newspapers and ask how beneficial certain developments are for my class, my race, my nation, whatever, but rather how this is affecting life on this planet in the most comprehensive sense.”
If you don’t like the phrase “in Christ,” feel free to call this way of being something else. What’s important is that we do our best to get to such a place. How can we do that? Well, I’d love to hear your ideas. For me, I believe it happens when we open ourselves to the Holy and to becoming something new with a willingness to have our lives shaken up a little – or a lot. And it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all to think beyond myself and my needs. It’s hard to think beyond the needs of those close to me to consider the needs of strangers who live across the globe or across the state, including the half million who won’t have access to health care. It’s not my nature to consistently live beyond myself. But I am trying to make one of the prayers of St. Benedict my own: “God, give me the grace to do what is not my nature.”
You see, you Yankees and Midwesterners and West Coasters and New Englanders can move here and learn to say “y’all.” You can acquire a taste for grits and sweet tea. You can even learn how to pitch a hissy fit. But you won’t be transformed into a real Southerner until your heart truly aches with the natives as our lovely, hospitable state is turned into the greedy, unfriendly, 48th-in-everything place it is quickly becoming. It’s like being “in Christ.” You don’t have to give up yourself or your roots or your love for where you came from. You become one of us when your heart grows larger and takes in more than you ever thought it could – like a new home.
When we are hurt by what hurts God. When we are passionate about what God is passionate about. When we care deeply about all of God’s creation and act accordingly, Paul would say we are “in Christ” whether we like that name or not. So call it whatever you want. Paul’s not around and I certainly don’t care how you describe it. Just know that there is a qualitative difference between following Jesus, as good as that is, and becoming transformed into a new creation. It’s a heart thing. It’s an identity thing. And it’s a crucial thing if our goal is a just world.