A sermon based on Joshua 5:9-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 preached on March 6th, 2016
The summer after I graduated high school, I went with my church’s youth group to Montreat for my 4th and final Youth Conference. We just heard Tatum tell us about her time there. I’m so happy that time spent at that conference, and in the thin spaces up on top of the mountains of Western North Carolina, is still changing hearts and lives. Part of the Montreat experience is getting to know other people your age in small groups.
So, there I was, gathered with my small group—about 30 of us—in a room. It was a sunny day with a nice cool mountain breeze blowing, so we had an exterior door propped open to let mother nature in, and on in comes a butterfly. But instead of scurrying in random directions, it flies around the periphery of our room, high above us, instantly capturing everyone’s attention. Ever so slowly and carefully, the butterfly dances its way around the room, flying overtop of each one of the small circles that we were congregated in, almost like it was there to deliver a message to each one of them. And only when it made its way around the entire room did it fly out the same door it came in. Our entire group was silent. What we saw could not have been some sort of random mistake of nature—some haphazard coincidence. Our small group leader broke the silence and said,
You won’t believe it, but for the last 3 weeks, a butterfly has come into this room and has done the exact same thing each time.
Do you know how a butterfly is made?
A caterpillar somehow knows when it’s time to try something new. It climbs a tree to hook itself to the bottom of a leaf and begins to turn its own skin into a chrysalis, basically turning its body inside out, basically destroying its old self and melting down, becoming nothing more that an ooze—something that’s neither looks like caterpillar or butterfly. And it’s from that ooze—that nothingness—that some brand new creature begins to take shape. And in the span of 7 to 10 days, a butterfly is hatched. In order to become the next version of itself, the caterpillar gives up its old way of being, somehow knowing that giving itself up leads to new life.
It’s the mysterious and wondrous transformation from caterpillar to butterfly that will help us understand what Paul is talking about here in 2 Corinthians. Paul says that we are being invited into a new creation. A new way of being. We can participate in it if we want to, but the catch is that becoming a part of the new creation means ditching everything we’re used to.
See, we’re used to the old creation. The old creation, Paul says, sees things only by human standards. In the old creation, it’s those human standards that are of utmost importance. Human standards tell us that there are divisions out there that are real and meaningful. That the lines we draw and the walls—either physical or metaphorical—that we put up to keep everyone who’s unlike us on their own side, are real and important.
That old creation says there’s Us and then there’s Them. Jew and Greek. Slave and Free. Black and White. Male and Female. Gay and Straight. Rich and Poor. Muslim and Christian. We know, for each of them, which ones are lifted up as the ideal and which ones are struck down and scoffed upon by this way of seeing. By all human standards, we know which ones have more power and say-so than the other. And in a world that exists in, functions under, is fueled by, and maybe even celebrates, these clear divisions between Us and Them, we Christians, we the people who follow Jesus, are to reject all of it. We’re to reject all of it because any notion that we’re supposed to separate ourselves from those who don’t look like us, believe like us, love like us, live like us, is an old notion, it’s old news it’s a worn out way of being, a part of the old creation, and see, something new has arrived! With Christ, there is a new creation, a new way of being, a new way to see. And in this new creation, none of those distinctions matter. Why? Because Christ’s love is greater than any of them.
The world though, the world is steeped in the old order. We are exceedingly aware of it right now in our current political climate. Actually, it seems like the dividing lines of the old order are becoming bolder than ever before. We’re building bigger walls to keep each other on their respective sides.
But this passage says that all those political and social distinctions that we’ve been indoctrinated into are falsehoods of the old order. They rope us in real good, though, don’t they? We’re championing our own side like never before. But all of it, every single bit of it, is a lie told to us by people who really love the way the old world works—who have no notion at all that Christ has already come and given us a new way of being in and for the world. They either don’t know a new way exists, or they just simply refuse to see it, or maybe it benefits them to keep the lies of the old order going strong.
the old things have gone away; see, new things have arrived.
We need new eyes to see, and transformed minds and hearts to know, that this new way of being is here and available to us. This new creation Paul is telling us about and inviting us into is called the Kingdom of God. This isn’t John Lennon dreaming of pie in the sky notions of the world living as one, this is Gospel. It’s a real thing, a completely different way to see ourselves and each other. One where the world’s categories melt away. One where we become reconciled to one another.
Let’s stop there with the word reconciliation. Reconciliation is big word with a simple meaning, but it’s awfully hard for us to live into. Reconciliation happens when the distinction between Us and Them disappears, when the walls come down, when the distance between the two collapses, the fear between us floats away into thin air. It happens when we start looking into each other’s eyes and start sharing our stories with one another, so that we can better understand our differences. It’s not that all of our differences disappear. It’s just simply that our differences cease to threaten each other.
There’s only one way to be reconciled to each other, and that’s to regard our neighbors as we would like to be regarded ourselves—with dignity and respect. That’s easier said than done, I realize. Maybe the Charter for Compassion founder Karen Armstrong’s way of saying it is easier:
Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.
If we were reconciled to each other, we who have homes would be offended by homelessness in our community, in fact there would be no homeless; we who have full bellies would be offended by hunger in our neighborhood, in fact there would be no hunger in our neighborhood. And on and on the examples go. You get the idea. That’s what it would be like to live as a part of the new creation. All those old dividing lines erased. All those walls torn down. Understanding instead of fear. Taking care of each other instead of fending for yourself.
In our passage from Joshua this morning, we have this crazy story of a mysterious divine presence visiting the people of Israel as they are encamped in Gilgal. At this point, the people of Israel are a war-torn nation. All they know is fight. All they see around them are enemies. Whoever you are, you’re either you’re with them or you’re against them. This man, the text says, is from God and he has a sword. Joshua approaches this man and asks him,
Are you on our side or that of our enemies?
What a timeless duality that is! A false dichotomy. This all happened 3,000 years ago, but we’re still such a war-drunk people that we can’t see why that’s a shortsighted question. This divine presence answers:
Neither. I’m not on your side. I’m not on their side.
See, when God shows up, He doesn’t take sides. When God shows up, He takes over! And when God takes over, swords drop to the ground. Our old way of Us and Them is exposed for the ridiculous and destructive thing that it is, and just like Joshua, our eyes are open to a third way. There’s three sides to every bible story: How we see things. How those people over there see things, and then there’s how God sees things.
Our vocation as followers of Christ is to wake up to that Third Way—that new-world way of seeing everything, to work our hardest, to pray our best words, so that those distances and divisions of the old-world way would one day collapse for good, that the walls and the wars between us would crumble into nothing. That our swords would once again be beaten back into plough shares. That through our work as Christians in the world, all those old worn out ways of being might melt down to nothing, and our world might be transformed into something entirely new. Because that’s what happens when God takes over.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!