Who We Are & Who We Want to Be
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on 2 Corinthians 5: 14 – 20. Focus on how we tell our story and how God tells it. Check out Rasaan Bourke & the Choir as they sing – All My Life.
A while ago I was listening to a sermon by a pastor, who speaks for all of us in the profession from time to time, who was lamenting that people don’t read their Bibles enough, don’t pray enough and were not being spiritual enough. The implied message was that if people would just do more – read their Bibles more and pray more and be more spiritual – basically just be more, then God would be happy with them.
Now there’s nothing wrong with praying and reading the Bible more; it’s just that the more he talked about doing these things the less and less I wanted to do them. It wasn’t so much what he was saying that depressed me it was how he said the things he said that bothered me. His premise was that we are sinners and don’t do enough, and if we are made to feel guilty enough about it, then we will change our behavior.
My problem with him and with those of us who lapse into this tone from time to time is that it’s not what Jesus had in mind. His greatest criticism was reserved for religious leaders who weighed people down with guilt and shame. In Luke 11: 46 Jesus says, “Woe to you religious leaders, because you load people down with heavy burdens, burdens that you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them carry.”
So what’s the message? How should we feel about ourselves?
Well according to Paul we are to see ourselves as a new creation. Once we’ve become one with Christ Paul says a profound change occurs in our identity. What we once were has died with Christ on the cross and a new being in us has arisen with Christ.
So this old nature of mine – the one that was constantly pulling me down and causing me to live in ways I wasn’t created to live – has died. And no matter how many times that old nature raises its ugly head and pretends to be alive, it is dead. And not only has that old nature died but a new nature has been born into me.
Now it’s not a matter of being perfect or that we will never have to struggle with sin again. It’s that this new way of being – of living involves a constant, conscious decision to keep dying to the old so that we can live in the new. Paul describes it as being a new creation.
So the issue isn’t about beating myself up for all of my sinful thoughts and actions, for all the things that I’ve said and done or left unsaid or undone. The issue is about letting what God says about us shape what we believe about ourselves. That’s why shame has no place in the Christian experience. It’s simply against all that Jesus stood for. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
None. No shame. No list of what we’ve done wrong to be used against us. The list has been thrown away. It’s no longer an issue. Beating myself up is pointless. Beating others up means I’m going in the wrong direction. When I do these things I end up working against the purposes of God. God is not interested in shaming us; God wants people to see who they were created to be. As Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “Let us live up to what we have already attained.”
But the problem is this: We don’t trust God’s version of our story. It seems to good to be true. So we go searching for an identity and we end up striving and pushing and performing and trying to find an identity that feels right. Longing to be comfortable in our own skin.
But this identity that we’re searching for can’t be found this way. We only find it when we give up the search, when we surrender, when we trust. Trust that God is already putting us back together. Trusting that through dying to the old, the new can take hold in us. Trusting that Jesus can repair the image God intended for us from the beginning.
Jesus said that as this new reality takes over our hearts, minds, lives and actions, we are crossing over “from death to life”. He called this new kind of life “eternal life”. But for Jesus eternal life wasn’t just a state of being for the future that we would enter into somewhere else, it is a quality of life that starts right here, right now.
This means that when I stumble, when I sin and that old person comes back from the dead for a few moments I admit it. I confess it. I thank God I am forgiven. I make amends with anyone who has been affected by my actions. And then I move on.
And I do this because I am taking seriously who God says I am. The point isn’t my failure; it is God’s success in remaking me into the person he originally intended me to be. God’s strength is the issue, not mine. God’s power is the issue, not mine.
So what does this mean for the Christian life? It means that Christians are people learning who they are in Christ. We are being taught about our new identity. It means that the more that you and I are taught about who we were really created to be, we won’t have to worry about telling each other what to do. It will come naturally.
So when Christian leaders and Christian communities spend most of their time trying to convince people not to sin they are missing the point. The point isn’t sin management. The point is reconciliation. Just as Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, so has he entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.
What this means is not an erasure of our past but we are given a new future. If I was telling the story of King David I wouldn’t be so anxious to include him in my lineage but for the Gospel writers that’s not a problem. They are proud of David’s lineage. They own it so to speak. Why because when we tell our story we tell it with all the shame we feel, but when God tells it it’s told as a matter of fact in a story that has many other beautiful parts. The hardest thing we ever do is really believe that we are loved and forgiven.
Most of us live with the Groucho line: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member in it.
But when we trust in God’s story then all of the bad parts, the ugly parts and the parts we want to pretend never happened are redeemed. They may have been painful to others and ourselves at the time, but these moments become the moments that God uses to teach us about life and about grace. These moments become the moments where God’s grace is most on display in our lives. Think the virgin birth. In her day Mary was a disgrace to her family. Today she is headlining at the Catholic Church.
That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
For Jesus the question wasn’t, how do I get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here? And when we take on the life of Christ in the here and now we bring heaven to earth and we see that we are loved and accepted, that there is nothing that we can do to lose this acceptance. And because we have this life we naturally want to share it with others.
That’s why we go out and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of Jesus. That’s why we feed the hungry, cloth the naked and visit those who are sick or in prison. That’s what it means to bring heaven to earth. That’s what it means to be a new creation in Christ. Amen