July 30, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE LEAST I CAN BELIEVE: A NEW CREATION
II Corinthians 5:14-17
The sixth in a series of seven.
Some pastors have more interesting call to ministry stories than others. Mine is real boring. In contrast, there is Henry Covington. He was a drug addict, a drug dealer, and an ex-con. He had just robbed some other drug dealers at gun-point. It occurred to him as he was making his getaway that that wasn’t such a bright idea. They knew where he lived.
And so Henry Covington was hiding behind garbage cans, holding a shotgun, waiting for his own execution, when he whispered a prayer. He said, “Save me, Jesus. Save me tonight, and I’m yours tomorrow.”
He was saved. In two ways. His life and his soul. And he kept his promise. His life made one of those dramatic turnarounds that skeptics might doubt, but the evidence was there. He got himself off drugs and he became a new man. He started on the path that led him to build a thriving ministry in downtown Detroit. He called it, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.” His story has become widely known through Mitch Albom’s book, Have A Little Faith.
He and Mitch were on “The Today Show” on December 20, 2010. That night he died in his sleep. Age 53. But his ministry continues, helping many others find what he found. New life in Jesus Christ.
And that’s the point. Many others are finding this. Many others have found this. Henry Covington is not an isolated example.
It’s even in our history textbooks. In the years leading up to the American Revolution there was something happening in New England that has come to be known as the Great Awakening. People who were spiritually dead were coming to life, and in such great numbers that it was impossible to ignore.
It started in Northampton, Massachusetts and it spread to other towns and other colonies. Secular historians aren’t sure what to make of this, but they can’t ignore it. It’s been suggested that the spiritual liberation in this Great Awakening is what set the stage for the political liberation we fought for in our War of Independence.
Then there was a Second Great Awakening about 100 years later and a Third Great Awakening around 1900. It’s been suggested that there’s a Fourth Great Awakening that’s either in our recent past, our near future, or maybe we’re in the midst of it right now.
Whatever the case may be, God is still in the business of changing lives. And it’s never been through mass movements. Not really. Even when God is doing a great work that reaches many people, it’s always one person at a time.
Remember Donny? The atheist who upgraded to agnostic? One day he got up the courage to ask his pastor, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” Well, one of the things Donny needed to believe was just to acknowledge what God was already doing in his life. His life had changed and was changing and would change even more. That’s what happens when Jesus comes into your life.
I heard someone say that Jesus can turn your life around 360 degrees. Well, that would actually be a bit much. That would have you pointing right back in the same direction you were before. But Jesus is real good at 180 degree turnarounds!
The classic passage about this is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It begins by saying “the love of Christ controls us” (5:14). Let’s think about that for a moment. Some people are in relationships where they feel they are being controlled by another person. Some people just love to be the one who is in control and they can’t stand it when they aren’t. We call them “control freaks”. Some people live lives that are careening out of control. Henry Covington’s life before Christ was like that. But then he did what Paul says Christians do. He handed over the controls to Jesus. And the love of Jesus became the guiding force in his life.
Is the love of Jesus the guiding force in your life? Stronger than those at work or at home or at school who would control you? Stronger than whatever there is inside of you that insists on holding onto the controls? It may be scary to let go. But it’s also incredibly freeing.
Letting the love of Christ control you is the same thing as dying to yourself. And that’s the very next thing Paul talks about. “One has died for all; therefore all have died” (5:14). He died on that cross for you and for me and for everyone. Even those who don’t know he died for them and would be offended at the suggestion.
Usually it’s said he died for us so we could live. But Paul is saying here he died for us so we could die. Die to ourselves, that is. “He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves” (5:15). We die to our selfishness. And selfishness doesn’t die easily. But when it does die we are then free to live, not for ourselves, “but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (5:15). We die to ourselves. We are raised, as Jesus was raised, to a new life.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer” (5:16). Paul is getting autobiographical here. He’s opening the door to his own call to ministry story.
For he “once regarded Christ from a human point of view.” He saw in Jesus a dangerous troublemaker whose followers were creating all kinds of problems. They were saying he was more than a human being. He was the promised Messiah. He was God’s Son. Most dangerous of all, they were saying that he had come back to life after he had been put to death and that he was somehow with them still. Lies, all lies. Paul was certain.
Paul, who was going by the name Saul back then, saw this Christian movement as a threat to Judaism and he was determined to do all in his power to kill it before it could spread any further. That’s what he was doing that day on the road to Damascus. He was carrying papers from the high priest authorizing him to arrest any Christians he might find there. He was certain God approved of what he was doing. And then God struck him dead.
That may not be how you remember the story, but that’s really what happened. There was a blinding light. He fell to the ground. He heard a voice. It was the voice of Jesus. “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) At that moment he died. He died to himself. What happened to Jesus on that cross happened to him. And then having died, he rose, as Jesus rose, to a brand new life.
There is no more dramatic story of a life heading one direction being turned 180 degrees to the opposite direction than the story of Saul, who we know as Paul. His life was changed by Jesus. Public enemy number one of the Christians became the leader of the Christian movement. He had experienced what he is describing here. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (5:17).
We use that phrase “pass away” as a euphemism for death. That phrase means here “death.” “The old has died.” It’s dead. It’s gone. It’s over. To make way for the new. “Behold, the new has come.”
We’ve heard Henry Covington’s story about what Christ can do to change a life. We’ve heard Paul’s story, and also this passage he wrote to the Corinthians in which he gives us the theological framework for all this. I want to close by addressing a very practical concern about this whole business of lives being changed when Jesus is given control.
This is sermon six in our series. We have one more to go. We started the series by looking at negative impressions people have of Christians. One is that we are hypocrites. We hear the refrain that “the church is full of hypocrites.” When I hear that, I want to say, “No, we’re not completely full of hypocrites. We have room for a few more.”
But what they mean when they call us hypocrites is that people who go to church are no better than people who don’t go to church. Christians talk about what we’ve been talking about today – this amazing transformation that happens when Jesus comes into our lives – but where is the evidence of this amazing transformation? Non-Christians are watching, believe me, to see how we Christians are living our lives. They are watching, they are hoping they are maybe even praying they can catch us in the act of falling short of our own Christian ideals.
People aren’t impressed by words. They want to see deeds. They want to see results. They want to see the evidence that Christ really can change a life. That there really is a demonstrable difference in a person before the love of Christ takes control and after the love of Christ takes control. They want to see the before and after picture of a Christian, and be able to tell the difference between the two.
Here’s a before and after picture.
Why, people wonder, isn’t the before Christ and after Christ picture this dramatically different?
Three quick thoughts and we’ll close. First, we usually only have the after picture to look at. We don’t have the before picture to make a comparison. So we don’t know how big a change there has been.
There’s an old saying about a dog that has been taught to dance. Except the dog isn’t a very good dancer. The dog has, we might say, four left feet. The saying goes something like this: “The wonder isn’t that the dog dances well, but that the dog dances at all.” It’s a wonder some of us are as good a Christian as we are! We still have a long way to go, but considering where we started, we’ve already come a long way.
Second, the Christian life is a journey. This is something John Wesley stressed. He called the journey “sanctification.” We don’t just flip a switch and suddenly the new creation is there and we are done. It’s a process. Think of it this way: We’re not the finished work of art. The artist is still working on us. That means there is still work to be done! That means in this life none of us is perfect.
I’m sure Henry Covington wasn’t perfect, even after his conversion. I know from reading the Bible that Paul wasn’t perfect, even after his Damascus Road experience. None of us is. There’s a saying, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I would add to it. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven, and being perfected by the grace of God.”
The third reason our churches aren’t necessarily filled with exemplary Christians is this. Sinners tend to be attracted to church. Sinners who know they are sinners are more likely to show up in a worship service than people who feel just fine about themselves and whose lives are going just great.
Remember, that was the experience of Jesus. Sinners were flocking to him. It was the righteous people, the religious leaders, the ones who thought they had life all figured out, who were the biggest thorns in Jesus’ flesh. I can imagine these sinners who were drawn to Jesus and who were the first to experience the new life Jesus had to offer were not instantly transformed. The scribes and Pharisees would see them and sneer at them because even though their lives had been turned around they still had a long way to go.
The people who attended Henry Covington’s church still had a long way to go. Mitch Albom asked if it bothered him that drunks and drug addicts were filling his pews. Here’s what he said:
Not at all. You know what I tell them? I don’t care if you’re drunk or you just left the drug house. I don’t care. When I’m sick, I go to the emergency room. And if the problem continues, I go again. So whatever’s ailing you, let this church be your emergency room. Until you get the healing, don’t stop coming.
We all have a long way to go. At least I’m speaking for myself. My before picture is very different from my after picture. But I expect that as Christ keeps working on me, I’ll have a new after picture that will be just as different from this one as this one is from the earlier one. I like the way Chuck Hunter said it: “If you could see the person Christ is calling you to become ten years from now, you would applaud that person!”
We thank you, Lord Jesus, that you are creating in each of us something new and something beautiful. Like a master sculptor you are chipping away at what needs to go and forming us ever more perfectly into your image. As we are each works in process, we pray for patience with others who are also works in process. We pray for humility that we might not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think and that all praise and all glory might go to you. Amen.