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March 25, 2001
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
By Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the IICR5 and follow along as I read verses 16-21. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." (RV2:29).
16 Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.
17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In 1987, Bill Stone made diving history. He immersed himself in thirty feet of water, deep, in a network of submerged caves in northern Florida. He carried only two thirty-cubic foot oxygen tanks and a sack of novels. Had he been using normal scuba gear, he would have been forced to surface after thirty minutes, but Stone, an automation engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington D.C., was wearing a homemade rebreather. He stayed in the water one hour, two hours, 10 hours, 20 hours--just reading his novels, and breathing. His rebreather recycled his exhaled air, scrubbing it of poisonous carbon dioxide and squeezing out every molecule of oxygen in his tanks. When he finally emerged, Bill Stone had been down for 24 hours--the longest anyone has ever survived underwater with a self-contained breathing device. "When I got out of the water and checked, I found I'd used only half of my consumables," he told Discover magazine. "That was the big shock. I could have stayed under for another 24 hours."
That was thirteen years ago. Today, the latest rebreathing device, the MK-5P, features sophisticated gas and depth sensors, three microprocessors, computer displays and a $17,500 price tag. With such a rebreather, divers can stay underwater for half a day without worrying about their air supply. They can take the time they need to survey shipwrecks, study fish, or explore undersea caves. With a rebreather, they can do things underwater that were previously impossible.
A rebreather works by saving exhaled air - instead of sending it all out into the water as bubbles. The exhaled air goes through a valve into a balloonlike bag, and then into the breathing loop. The job of the rebreather is to scrub out the carbon dioxide and add enough oxygen for healthy breathing.
A rebreathing apparatus is like a set of gills. It enables divers to breathe like fish, turning them into a kind of a new creation that feels equally at home on the land or in the sea.
This is the point of our text today. In Christ, we have taken on a new set of lungs. We have a new Spirit-breathing device allowing us to live as new creations, in the midst of the old creation. This new Spirit-breathing device allows us to be citizens of the kingdom of God, while still in this world. Thus, we can say with Paul: "Everything old has passed away" and "everything has become new!" (v. 17).
Today's scripture lesson can be divided into three sections. Verses 16-17 speak of the new creation; verses 18-19 discuss the reconciliation that brought forth the new creation; and finally verses 20-21 reveal the resulting ministry that this reconciliation demands.
When Paul introduces v16 with the phrase "wherefore henceforth" or as other translations put it "from now on," he does not mean "From his present moment," but rather "From the moment of the Cross." After the events of Passion Week, after the crucifixion and resurrection, the old worldly way of looking at things is impossible. The transformation of the world that occurred in the Cross brings a completely new perspective to the believer. The present is drastically different from the past. "From now on " declares that with the first Easter we entered a new era.
Therefore, the Apostle Paul says, we can regard no one from a human point of view. People who have understood the Christ event, can no longer think in human or worldly terms. Paul continues to expound upon this in v17 saying that when we are in Christ, we are a new creation. The phrase about being "in Christ" occurs twenty-five times in Paul's letters and points to the intimacy between believers and the Lord. One who is "in Christ" lives as a beneficiary of Christ on the cross.
Having described the new creation in verses 16-17, Paul moves on to explain the monumental implications of the Christian experience. All things are from God, and God is the source and power behind this new creation; God created all things through Christ (John 1:3), and God is now re-creating all things for us. In verse 18, Paul states, "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ," implying that this reconciliation reveals God's infinite love.
Paul understands that people are the offenders who broke God's commandments, so any reconciling initiative should come from people, who are after all the offending party. But surprisingly, God has reached out and restored this broken relationship. God restores the relationship so that God's new creation can be fully realized. Paul's explanation clarifies God's intention to achieve a reconciliation that spans the entire world - all humankind is reconciled, and the sins of everyone are forgiven. All people need do is accept it. Paul's conclusion, drawn from verses 18-19, is that in view of what Christ has done for sinners, the Christian response is to live this universal reconciliation.
In verse 20, Paul continues to marvel at his discovery of the ministry that results from God's transforming act of reconciliation. Paul concludes that we are to be ambassadors for Christ. We are to provide the agency by which Christ is made known to others.
Messages and Messengers.I have here a letter, and a telephone. These are ways to send messages to one another. But the best way to send a message is to send a person. The apostle Paul calls us "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20), which means that we are the people that God sends as the official messengers of Jesus. God wants us to represent Jesus in the world and tell people about what he has done. Of course to be a good ambassador of Jesus, we must be a friend of Jesus. That's why Paul says that we are to be "reconciled to God." We are to be in a good relationship with God, and having that relationship, we can be special ambassadors of Christ.
A modern ambassador represents his or her government by conveying messages and faces removal if he or she expresses a personal opinion contrary to the intent of the government. In the same way, ambassadors for Christ need to remain true to their lord. Now someone may say, wait a minute, Is not Paul contradicting himself? He has said, God is going to take the initiative in reconciliation. Now he says we should do this work. However, v19 says "God was reconciling," reassuring us that the new relationship has been initiated by God. Our duty is to be drawn into this relationship. The first step, taken by God is in verse 18: "God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ." The second step is entrusted to people in verse 20: "Be reconciled to God." We need only to accept the offer of the new relationship with God. This indicates that we do have the power to reject God's offer. Scripture teaches that humans play an active role in their conversion and repentance.
V20 says that " God is making his appeal through us." This clarifies our role as ambassadors. As ambassadors, God's servants are to communicate to people the message of reconciliation.
The gospel is astounding. God went to radical lengths to save us. In v21, Paul says that God made Christ "sin" for our benefit. An exchange has taken place: Christ was made sin in exchange for our being made righteous. God did this for the sake of humankind. God undertook this action not only to clear people of sin, but to make it possible for people to walk upright beside God. To hear and respond to this call to "be reconciled" to God is to become a new creation. It means that souls that were dead are made new and alive again.
Robert Benton's Academy Award-winning film "Places in the Heart" is the story of a young widow, struggling against the principalities and powers of evil incarnate in everyday life of central Texas during the 1930s. Forces work to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children - a small farm in Texas. Lynchings, brutality, infidelity, racism, greed, duplicity--all of these are woven into the lives of those who make up the tapestry of Benton's story.
The film ends with a communion service. At first, the camera shows a few of the good folk in town, next, some of the not-so-good, then the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful black farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. As we are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds: "the peace of God." All are gathered at table, to share the bread and cup of salvation. Suddenly this is more than Sunday morning; this is the kingdom of God, eternity captured in time.
This is not a human point of view. The camera has given us a look at life the way God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come home. The apostle Paul says it this way: "In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us ... ."
Talk about radical rebreathing! Suddenly the MK-5P rebreather doesn't seem like such an innovation. Jesus Christ turns us from land-dwellers to heaven-dwellers, and from air-breathers to Spirit-breathers. "So if anyone is in Christ," proclaims Paul, "there is a new creation" (v. 17). In Christ, we enter a whole new world, a world no less exciting than the world Bill Stone entered with his homemade rebreather.
But unlike Bill, we're supposed to do more than sit underwater and read novels. As Spirit-breathing believers, we are challenged to do the work of reconciliation.
The original Greek for "reconciliation" is a fascinating word: katalasso. Kata means "together," and lasso means "wrapped" or "tied" - not unlike the lasso that cowboys use to rope wild horses. Paul tells us that God was active in Christ, tying the world to himself, wrapping it close to himself in the bond of forgiveness and love. At the same time, God was entrusting the message of tying, wrapping, and lassoing to us, asking us to go out into the world as ambassadors of forgiveness and reconciliation.
So our rebreathing lessons have two parts. One, be reconciled to God (v. 20). And two, perform the ministry of reconciliation (v. 18). Let yourself get tied close to God through his Son Jesus Christ, and then go out into the world to do the work of wrapping people together and lassoing them for God.
It is not easy work. You may think that something like forgiveness and reconciliation should come naturally to people, that it is an innate skill that does not have to be learned. Not so. Learning to forgive takes training in the school of Christ.
I find it interesting that a $10 million grant has been awarded for forgiveness research. The John Marks Templeton Foundation sponsors projects that apply scientific methods to religious issues. The Foundation has launched what it calls the Campaign for Forgiveness Research. Psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists are among those who have been given grants. The intent of the project is to treat forgiveness as a kind of human behavior that can be measured, taught, or learned. Most Americans, however, consider forgiveness as an act of divine intervention. In a recent Gallup poll, more than 80 percent said it takes the help of God to show mercy
"The essence of forgiveness is always the same," says Robert Enright, who five years ago founded the International Forgiveness Institute, a training center in Madison, Wisconsin. "You've been hurt by someone. You choose to give up resentment to which you are entitled. You offer benevolence and mercy to someone who does not deserve it."
Mercy does not require compromising your standards of justice. Robert Enright says. "Forgiveness and reconciliation aren't necessarily the same thing. You don't have to cave in to the other person. But you can break the cycle of revenge if you are willing to forgive." [Mary Rourke, "Finding a formula for forgiveness," Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1999.] But what makes a person willing to forgive? Only Jesus Christ does. Eighty percent of Americans are right. It takes the help of God to show mercy.. In Christ, God has already launched his campaign for forgiveness and reconciliation. The only question is: Are we willing to be workers in this campaign?
A Palestinian priest named Elias Chacour remembers a Palm Sabbath service at his church in Israel - one in which he could see so many people who were at odds with each other. In fact, he realized that the people in his church had no peace. At the end of the service, he made a startling decision. He walked down the center aisle and at the back of the church locked the only two doors to the church and took the key. He told the people both that he loved them and that he was saddened to find them so filled with hatred and bitterness toward one another. Then, in the midst of stunned silence, he announced that only one person could work the miracle of reconciliation in their village, Jesus Christ.
"So on Christ's behalf, I say this to you," said Elias Chacour: "The doors of the church are locked. Either you kill each other right here in your hatred, and then I will celebrate your funerals, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled before I open the doors of the church. If that reconciliation happens, Christ will truly become your Lord."
Ten minutes passed, and no one said a word. The people sat in silence, locked inside their church. Finally, one man stood up. It was Abu Muhib, a villager serving as an Israeli policeman, who was in his uniform. He stretched out his arms and said, "I ask forgiveness of everybody here, and I forgive everybody. And I ask God to forgive me my sins." He and Chacour then embraced, with tears streaming down Abu Muhib's cheeks. Within minutes, everyone in the church was crying, laughing, embracing and sharing Christ's love and peace.
Elias Chacour then announced that "this is our resurrection! We are a community that has risen from the dead, and we have new life. I propose that we don't wait until Easter to celebrate the Resurrection. I will unlock the doors, and then let us go from home to home all over the village and sing the resurrection hymn to everyone!"
Rebreathing lessons can be dramatic - as they were for this congregation in Israel. Suddenly reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, they reached out to each other and to the world in an explosively exciting ministry of reconciliation. After years of being choked on the bile of hatred, they were finally able to breathe.
The point is Christ allowed them to act in a way that was contrary to their natures.
We say, "It's not in my nature to be patient and understanding."
We say, "It's not in my nature to listen first without jumping to conclusions."
We say, "It's not in my nature to share my faith."
We say, "It's not in my nature to admit I was wrong and ask forgiveness. I am who I am."
God says, I can take care of that. I can transform you from what you are to what you ought to be. God says you do not need high-tech diving devices. You need the re-breathing power of the risen Christ who transforms you into a new creation, and this transforming power will alter all your attitudes and make you an ambassador of reconciliation and love. Amen.
Jones, Gregory L. Embodying Forgiveness. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, 180-181.
Svitil, Kathy A. "To Breathe Like a Fish." Discover, July 2000, 42ff.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 04/11/01