s156e01 Somerton Park 25/3/01 Lent 4

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view ... if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation". 2 Corinthians 5.16,17

I confess I have great difficulty with circumcision. I read that the "flint knives" in our reading from the Old Testament testify to the antiquity of the practice. They did not trust the new fangled metal knifes of their more technologically advanced neighbours. I was heartened to read, in my "Dictionary of the Bible" (1924 ed James Hastings p142) that "Its original meaning and object are hidden in obscurity ..." I should think it unwise (as someone who is not of the ancient people of God, the Jews) to pontificate too much on something which is not a central part of our faith, perhaps to inadvertently to trample over someone else's sacred territory.

I confess to have been quite astonished that the issue was still being hotly debated in pre-natal classes prior to when our own children were born. I suppose it is one of those issues that will never be resolved.

I believe that if we as Christians use circumcision to differentiate between people, I think we are misusing it. It's not any different from Christians using baptism to differentiate between people. The teaching that children who die baptised before committing actual sins are undoubtedly saved - is clearly meant to be a comfort to parents of the community of faith who suffer the tragedy of the loss of a child. It cannot be turned around to say anything about a child who dies before baptism. I would not worship a "god" who differentiated between a child who was baptised and one who wasn't. We are making a sign designed as a means of incorporation and blessing for others into a mark to deny these things to others. We cannot do this.

I suppose when I've heard the "new creation" passage quoted, I've taken it to mean that post-conversion Christians have been made anew. The world is therefore divided into those who are "in Christ" and those who aren't - those who are still of the old creation and those who have been transformed. And ne'er the twain shall meet.

And I've occasionally got the impression that this passage has been used to categorise one Christian above another - those who are more "in Christ" and those who are less "in Christ". Those who seem more changed and those who seem less changed. Things like whether one speaks in tongues are a good indication of someone who is a new creation. Or is it???

Now the difficulty with this interpretation is that St Paul makes it quite clear that: "we regard no one from a human point of view". The transformation that St Paul is talking about is not in who we are ... but how we look at others.

So this illuminates the second part of my text. When we are in Christ, it is not that we have been made new, but that being "in Christ" means that the whole of creation around us takes on a whole new significance. It is the creation around us that is quite different. "Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" - not just us ...

No longer does God count people's trespasses against them and so therefore we can forget about how others do or do not live up to our expectations, or what we perceive as God's expectations. Each and everyone of us is accepted for whom we are in direct proportion to how we accept others for who they are. The plea: "be reconciled to God" therefore really means be reconciled to one another.

And I draw your attention to the words ... "we regard no one" ... "a new creation" ... "everything" ... "everything" ... "the world" .... there are no half measures here.

And on the face of it, the statement that we are to become "the righteousness of God" seems excessively grandiose. If, by righteousness, we mean never doing anything wrong, it would indeed be manifestly grandiose, indeed an unwelcome transformation, and fairly futile (at least in my case). But as we have come to realise, righteousness means God's loving concern for the poor and those who do not know of God's love.

So this righteousness only means that if God has deigned to accept me, then there can be no limits to God's love, and God has already accepted others, all others.

In the words of the favourite hymn of many: "Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound) that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found" which means precisely that God has dealt thus with every other "wretch like me", too, already. It is this fact to which, previously I "was blind, but now I see".

We can see dramatic evidence of the new creation in the opposing attitudes of the prodigal Father and the elder son as they each perceive the younger sibling, in our gospel story for today. The prodigal Father looks at the returned son in these terms: "This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'" But the elder brother sees someone totally different: "This son of yours ... who has devoured your property with prostitutes." Again we see the preoccupation of the prodigal Father to include all, and the preoccupation of humanity to exclude others, and ultimately to exclude themselves.

I was thinking recently, there would be few in this congregation who don't have someone they love, accept and care for, yet lament that they are not "Christians". Most often of course, it will be children whom we have tried wholeheartedly to bring up "in the faith and practice of the Church" (APBA p 52 the service of Baptism) as we signified our intention when we brought them for baptism. And as I pondered this, I wondered if we might usefully ask ourselves, do we love, accept and care for these our children more than God loves, accepts and cares for them? This is of course bordering on blasphemy :-) Of course God loves, accepts and cares for our children much better than we can ever claim to do. So let us look at those we love who do not call themselves "Christians" with new eyes. Rather than loving them despite their failure to acknowledge God, let us love them as wholeheartedly as God does - without conditions and expectations.

I love the Collects in our new book, but I must confess that today's seems a bit like telling God God's business. "God of compassion ... receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you, and seat them at your bountiful table ..." I think that the scriptural evidence is that we do not need to tell God to do this, and that we really need to pray that we accept these others as readily as God does.

So the plea to be reconciled to God is not something that people who have sinned have to do lots of things to become acceptable to God. The plea is that they are already acceptable to God, along with everyone else, and that no longer do people have to think of themselves as "beyond the pale". There is a welcome for everyone just as they are. There is no need to be apart from God - all separateness has been done away with. Whether we are the younger son with the prostitutes or the elder with his resentment, the invitation to join in the celebration is the same.

St Paul says that this change of perception even applied to Jesus: "even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." The risen Jesus was scarcely recognisable, even amongst his closest of followers and associates. The boundaries behind which people hide no longer can keep Jesus out. He comes and says: "Peace be with you". It is the difference between the individual and the global perspective.

We too look at the world, not as individuals to convert, reprobates to cajole into living life differently, but as people to whom we can say "Shalom" - "Peace be with you!" Jesus has died and has risen for all, despite the efforts of the religious authorities to stop Jesus associating with "ordinary" people.

So in fact our preliminary discussion about circumcision and baptism continues to be relevant. I hardly think that God is going to inspect to check that men have been properly done, or inspect our baptismal certificates either. To misuse circumcision and baptism to promote separateness rather than demolish boundaries is to fail to understand God's purposes. The ancient people of God, no less than disciples of Jesus are ever meant to be a blessing to the world. I suspect both communities have succeeded and failed about equally :-)

 

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