Monday, June 18, 2012

Receive What You Are: A New Creation

Sermon preached on June 17, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

            If you were to memorize a handful of verses from St. Paul in order to have the basics of his thinking, surely this verse would be one of them.

            But what does it mean?

            What does it mean to be “in Christ?”  What would it mean to be “a new creation?”  Is it really possible for “everything” to “become new?”  Does that mean everything “old” was bad?

            On our little vacation last week, I took along a little book published in 1963.  It was in a box of books that friends sent me who had recently “down-sized.”  I love getting things like that, hoping for one gem amidst the stones. I found it.

            It’s called Instead of Death and it’s written by a man named William Stringfellow.[1]  Some of you may remember that name, because in the 15 or so years following the publishing of this little book, Stringfellow became a very important writer and thinker in the Episcopal Church, and, indeed, the church at large.  He was a lay person, and a lawyer by training.  He taught a generation of people how to unite spirituality and politics, theology and social justice.  The first book of his I ever read, in my first year of seminary, was indeed titled, The Politics of Spirituality.[2]

            Well, the truly remarkable thing about this little book was that it was produced by the Department of Christian Education of the Episcopal Church.  It was meant for use with Senior High School age kids and young adults.  There is a remarkably straightforward chapter called “Sex and the Search for Self.”  And in that chapter the meaning of being a new creation in Christ became clear to me like it never has before.

            Stringfellow begins by saying that the primary issue in sex for all of us is not pleasure or lust, but identity.  Sex is a way (there are many others, but sex is a big one and certainly on the minds of teenagers, whether in 1963 or 2012) in which we try to understand who we are.    He is quite scathing in his criticism of the church for not daring to talk honestly and openly about sex.  Unfortunately this little book did not change that reality.

            The reason for the scathing criticism is that we miss the opportunity to talk to our young people about what sex is for and what the Gospel is for.

            To put it succinctly, what the Gospel is for us is the gift of personal identity.  And, more importantly, only the Gospel is about our identity. Which is to say that the only thing we need to understand our core being is what Paul calls being “in Christ.”

            If I find my identity only “in Christ,” that means I do not have to find it anywhere else. I don’t have to find it in my relationship with my parents or my children or my spouse.  I don’t have to find it in my possessions or my passions. I don’t have to find it in my work.  All of those things are important expressions of who I am, but they do not make up who I am.

            To use a very important word that Paul uses in this passage, if I have confidence in myself as I am in Christ, I don’t need anything else to justify myself. I am, in the words of our baptismal liturgy, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

            Making the switch between all of the stuff in my life making up who I am to who I am expressing itself in all the stuff of my life—that is what it means to be a new creation.

            Here’s what that switch means for sex, for example, from Stringfellow.

For sex to be so great an event as [to be called sacrament and holy], it is essential for a person to know who he is as a person, to be secure in his own identity, and, indeed, to love himself.  Too commonly sex does not have the dignity of a sacramental event because sex is thought to be the means of the search for self rather than the expression and communication of one who has already found himself…[3]

            So where to find one’s self, Stringfellow asks. He answers, with Paul, “in Christ.”  He ends his chapter on sex with a great litany that I will paraphrase.

In Christ.  That means seeing in Jesus the true human being:  living in complete reconciliation with God, with his fellow men and women, and, indeed, with the whole creation.

In Christ. That means believing that by coming into this world to search for us, God ends the search for all for ever.  We no longer have to find ourselves if we know we have been found by God.

In Christ. That means accepting the reality of death existing in every aspect of our lives, while receiving a new life from God, that is, a life free from death.

In Christ. That means that this new life free from death there is no separation from what we do from who we are, meaning everything we are and everything we do is a sacrament of this new life.

In Christ.  That means the real possibility of experiencing and enjoying God’s love in all people and all things, including all the circumstances of our lives.

In Christ. That means confessing that all life belongs to God and so is being made new in our living and our loving.[4]

            Because we are human, the new creation, our new creation, is not a moment, but a process, a lifetime. But it is a lifetime of living into what is already reality for God.

            St. Augustine said of the Eucharist,

Receive what you are.[5]

            Each week we leave this place, empowered to become what God has already made us to be.

[1] William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (New York: Seabury Press, 1963). There was a 2nd edition published in 1976.
[2] The Politics of Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).  Part of a series, Spirituality and the Christian Life, Richard H. Bell, ed.
[3] Instead of Death, p. 37.
[4] Ibid., pp. 37-38.
[5] The entire quote is “Be what you see and receive what you are.  It is from Augustine’s Sermon 272.

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