We’ll get to the heart of Paul’s letter in just a moment. First I’d like to share a personal story from the past.
Years ago our family owned a small pop-up camper, and we went camping every chance we got. The kids were little, but, as far as I was concerned, not too little to do their part. So, I gave them specific jobs to do when we reached the campsite. One would hook up the water hose, another adjust the jack stands, etc. It went without saying they were responsible for their own luggage and sleeping bags. To reinforce my authority, I quoted Paul, where he told the Galatians, “Each man must bear his own burden.” (Galatians 6:5)
O.K., so it was out of context, but it got the job done … that is, until the kids started reading for themselves. One day I quoted Paul and one of the boys said, “Yeah, well he also said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”(Galatians 6:2)
Touché. Now let’s get to the lesson for today.
Last week we got a heavy dose of the legalism that had crept into the Torah. In Paul’s day the Torah consisted of no less than 613 separate rules and regulations – “don’t boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk” – things like that. (Exodus 23:19)
While some of the laws seemed insignificant, one was huge – every male must be circumcised. Circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant. It was what God demanded of Abraham at the outset. (Genesis 17:11-14) It was the mark of the Lord that distinguished the Jews from all of the other Semitic tribes.
This wasn’t a problem in the early days of the church since all of the early Christians were Jewish to begin with. The question came up when the gospel spread to the Gentiles: “Do they also have to be circumcised?” Some said yes, others said no. The conflict threatened to divide the church. It was finally settled by the Jerusalem Council. (Acts 15:1-21) Paul’s opinion won the day. As he later told the Galatians,
“For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)
So, what is this “new creation” Paul speaks of? Would you recognize it if you saw it? What does it look like? What are some signs to look for? That’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning.
Isaiah gives us the big picture. He says,
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young ones will lie down together.
The lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play near a cobra’s hole,
and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh,
as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah. 11:6-8)
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Isaiah was not the only one to catch a glimpse of this new creation. In his revelation on the Isle of Patmos, John writes,
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away,
and the sea is no more.
I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice out of heaven
saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with people,
and he will dwell with them,
and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more.
The first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
Visions like these not only give us a glimpse of what the world might look like when God’s plan for creation is complete, they point to another dimension of life, here and now – another reality beyond space and time; something you cannot see or touch; coexistent with the tangible stuff of everyday life.
This may be difficult for you to fathom, so bear with me. Think, if you will, of two radically different worlds – one physical, the other spiritual; one temporal, the other eternal; one consumed with the stress of taking care of property and paying bills and managing your health, of the economy, the weather, the politics of the day … the other filled with peace and joy and the possibilities of life in all its fullness.
I have a buddy in Texarkana who’s terminally ill. When he first told me, I reacted like anyone else. I said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” He said, “No, it’s all right. Oh, at first I was shocked and mad and asked, ‘Why me?’ But I’ve gotten over that. Now I’ve come to see this as a blessing. It’s helped me to appreciate what’s most important. I still want to live and be close to my loved ones and enjoy life and all that. But knowing that my time is short has helped me get my priorities straight. It’s helped me realize there’s another dimension of life I never knew about before – one filled with angels and peace and blessings galore. Compared to this, everything else is trivial.”
My wife, Donna, said essentially the same thing in the last stages of her life. She said, “You need to understand there’s a bigger picture here. In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing to worry about. Everything is going to be O.K.”
That’s what you might think of as the macro version of the new creation – the big picture. The prophets give us a vision of what’s to come; plus, if you’re willing, it’s altogether possible to get a taste of it in the here and now.
Closer at hand is the church. That’s where we come in. We’re called to be a microcosm of the new creation in this community in this day and age. Samuel Stone’s great hymn says it best:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
We’re called to be a representative example of God’s new creation by the way we live and work and interact together in a spirit of unity, forgiveness and love.
In his book, Good News from Northhaven, Michael Lindvall tells the story of a single mom who wanted to have her baby baptized. The problem was this: Northhaven is a small church whose practice is for a sponsoring elder or couple to stand with the parents of the child to be baptized. The young mother had no husband, no parents, and no sponsoring elders to stand with her.
So, in counseling with her, the pastor said he was willing to baptize the child, but he thought it could be awkward. She said she understood, but still wanted to go through with it, that she only wanted what was best for her daughter.
So, they set a date, and when it came time in the service for the baptism, the pastor asked her to come forward with her child. Then he turned to the congregation and asked, “Who will stand with this family for the baptism?” No one moved. The moment of awkwardness had arrived.
Then came a stir in the middle of the sanctuary. One of the senior elders stood up and said, “I will,” and proceeded to the front. His wife quickly followed suit. Before they got to the baptismal font, another elder and his wife came forward; then another, and another. In time, the whole congregation was standing with the mother and her baby. The pastor smiled, breathed a prayer of gratitude and began the baptismal service.
Paul described the church as the body of Christ where every member is essential to the well-being of the whole, where every member counts … where each has a vital role to play and each is valued and loved and given a job to do within the range of his or her ability … where no one is overlooked or taken for granted or judged in any way … where,
“When one member suffers,
all the members suffer with it.
Or when one member is honored,
all the members rejoice with it.”
(1 Corinthians 12:26)
When the church is at its best, it’s one of the clearest and most tangible signs of the new creation.
Of course, the church is made up of people like you and me and, in order for us to be a sign of the new creation, we must have our own experience of regeneration. Paul told the Corinthians,
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old things have passed away.
Behold, all things have become new.
But all things are of God,
who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ,
and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation;
namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,
not reckoning to them their trespasses,
and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
(2 Cor. 5:17-19)
It goes without saying, to be a witness of anything is to tell what you’ve seen and heard. To be a witness of God’s love in Jesus Christ is no different – it’s to share your experience with others, how God has touched your life and transformed you into the person you are today.
Of course, transformation doesn’t happen overnight. When Paul says, “the old has passed away … the new has become,” it’s not just like that. It’s a long, slow, tedious process.
There are exceptions, of course, and if you happen to be one of those people who went from sinner to saint overnight, good for you. For the rest of us, Christian conversion, transformation, sanctification, or whatever else you want to call it evolves slowly over time.
This is why those who “get saved” in a moment of spiritual ecstasy often have second thoughts down the road. Whether the next day or years after the fact, they look at themselves in the mirror and see the same pimples – or wrinkles – and disheveled hair as before and wonder, “Am I really saved?”
I’m not putting down religious experiences – would that we had more of them – I’m only saying that these are not the end product. The end product is to become a new being in Christ, a living sign of the new creation. It’s to see in yourself …
• How your prayers have become less directed to asking for what you want and more directed to asking for what others need … and being thankful for what you have.
• It’s to see how your focus has shifted from looking out for Number One to being concerned about the well-being of others – and how that has led you to become more generous, more charitable, more devoted to helping others succeed.
• It’s to see how your tendency to criticize and judge and find fault has turned into a willingness to be more understanding and accepting and affirming of others.
• It’s to see how your words have become more thoughtful and considerate – less biting and sarcastic; and how you’re as apt to listen to what others have to say as to be heard.
• It’s to see how your goal-driven nature has given way to practicing random acts of kindness – stopping what you’re doing to help someone in need – perhaps a total stranger – without any expectation of thanks or reward.
• It’s to see how your demand for judgment and retaliation for wrong-doing has evolved into a willingness to forgive and, if not forget, at least to let go of the past.
• It’s to see how you laugh more often and more spontaneously – the kind of laughter that comes from within and reflects the joy of living – like the laughter of children at play.
These are just a few of the signs of the new creation for those who walk with the Lord long enough for the Spirit to accomplish its work. It begins with something as simple as the “Jesus prayer:”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,have mercy on me, a sinner.”And it continues every day, as you affirm Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and do your best to walk in his footsteps and follow his example.
Here’s the bottom line: Scripture speaks of the new creation in different ways. If you look carefully through the eyes of faith, you’ll see signs of God’s re-creation in each of them. With that in mind, let us pray:
Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready my God, Thy will to see,
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Spirit divine! Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.