Sermon: New Creation and Christian Ministry

I delivered this sermon at a conference recently. I hope it may be helpful for you. 

The story of "Mr Good"

Mr Good is very good. He always makes his bed. He always cleans his teeth. And he always wipes his feet. He never slams doors. He never forgets birthdays. And he never, ever tells lies. Mr Good is very, very good.

However, Mr Good lives in a place called Badland. A place where nobody is like Mr Good. A place where people do slam doors. And they slam them in your face!

In Badland, the puddles are much deeper than they look. In Badland, a dog’s bite is worse than its bark. In Badland, even the trees are bad!

One day, it was wet and windy. Well, of course it was. The weather is always bad in Badland. Mr Good was walking along, minding his own business, when the hat of the man in front of him blew off. Mr Good leapt into the air and caught it for him. The man turned around and glared at Mr Good. “What do you think you’re doing?” he thundered. “Give my hat back!”

Poor Mr Good. This sort of thing was always happening to him. You see, the very idea of doing a good deed in Badland was preposterous, unthinkable, mad. If Mr Good offered to help carry someone’s shopping, he was accused of stealing.

If he kindly held a door open for someone, then he would be kicked in the shin! Not surprisingly, Mr Good was not very happy. In fact, he was miserable. So he decided to go for a long walk to think about things. He walked for a very long time. He was so deep in thought that he did not notice how far he had gone.

And he was so deep in thought that he accidentally walked slap-bang into somebody. “Oh… oh… I… I… I’m s-s-so s-s-sorry,” stammered Mr Good, nervously. “That’s quite all right,” said the man, and carried on his merry way. “Quite all right,” repeated Mr Good to himself. “That’s quite all right?” In the whole of his life no one had ever said “That’s quite all right” to Mr Good.

Then Mr Good noticed that the sun was shining—which was strange, because the sun never shone in Badland. Further on, Mr Good found a rubbish bin on its side. Without thinking, he tidied up all the rubbish. “Thank you,” said a woman. Mr Good stared at her. In the whole of his life no one had ever said “Thank you” to him. “Could you tell me where I am?” he asked.

“You’re in Goodland,” replied the woman. “Thank you,” said Mr Good. “My pleasure,” said the woman. Mr Good beamed. And I am sure you have guessed that Mr Good now lives in Goodland. And Mr Good is happy. Very, very happy doing good deeds all day long.

The only thing Mr Good still does not trust is a puddle. Once you have stepped in a Badland puddle you never forget!
______________________________________

A lot of what we have discussed over the course of this conferencehas been to do with the relationship between “culture” and “gospel”. We’ve had important discussions about what culture is and how cultures can clash and being mindful of differences in culture. But we’ve really assumed that we all mean the same thing by the word “gospel”. This morning I would like to consider this word. What do we actually mean by it? And how do we understand Christian ministry (cross-cultural or otherwise) as it relates to the Christian gospel in the light of eternity? Among other things this really is a question of eschatology. So perhaps the question may be better asked: What is an appropriate eschatological framework for the gospel which demonstrates how what we do here and now relates to eternity?

The issue here is our “Eschatological framework” for ministry. Eschatology is commonly understood as the study of “last things”. What’s probably better is to understand it as “ultimate things”. What is God in Christ and through the Spirit “ultimately” doing in the world, and what implications does this have for Christian ministry?

Some might suggest that Mr Good is an appropriate eschatological framework for Christian ministry. Christians walk around doing nice things, trying to be good to others, taking the knocks and bumps along the way, but ultimately, one day, we’ll all take that long walk away from “Badland’ (i.e. earth) and go to this other, unrelated and disconnected place called “Goodland” (i.e. heaven) and there we’ll live happily ever after.

Is there a problem with this framework?

I would like to suggest that there is. Such a view lends itself (in some cases I must stress) to a partial or even complete disregard for this present life. It can be seen in such areas as ecology (not caring for this earth and its resources because it’s all going to hell in a hand basket anyway); interpersonal relationships (not caring for one another because the gospel becomes about me and “my long walk with Jesus to heaven”); and most tragically (in its extreme cases) when natural disasters occur. Wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and other tragedies all just become another thing to tick off a list of “signs of the ages”. It’s been a tragic slur on Christianity that some people that have labelled themselves with the name of Christ have used other peoples tragic circumstances as an opportunity to preach a kind of “I told you so” gospel…I would actually call this a disconnected eschatology. Heaven and earth, this age and the next, are disconnected from one another and in practical terms bear little or no relationship with one another. This present world has nothing really to do with the world to come, but is simply the divinely chosen shipping port of heaven and ministry is getting as many people on the boat before it leaves.

So what’s an alternative way of understanding what God is ultimately doing for creation? I guess the question here is “What is, in fact, the gospel?”

Noted Biblical theologian, N.T. Wright, has said this: “The ‘gospel’… is not simply ‘here’s how to be saved’; it is the good news that, through Jesus as Messiah, the creator God is putting the whole world right.” (N. T. Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 86) In other words, the gospel is not just about "Jesus died for my sins", or "me and my walk with Jesus", or “Jesus loves you so love him back”, but it’s about God and his activity in the world to renew creation of which we are a part.

Let’s consider this in big picture terms…

God creates the heavens and the earth. He looks upon his creation (i.e. heaven and earth)and declares that it is very good. He partners with his creation in the management of his “very good” creation – we call this stewardship. God understands that this task is too big for humans to accomplish as individuals – Gen 2:18 “It is not good for man to be alone.” His solution to this is community. In the context of the story it’s community in a nutshell (i.e. marriage) but community nonetheless. In spite of the “lets do this together” approach built into God’s design, the story takes a tragic turn when both Adam and Eve decide to go it alone. Remember, we’re given a hint that this might be coming earlier in 2:18 - “It’s not good for man to be alone”… Eve chooses to respond to the questions of the serpent on her own (individualism). The results of her incorrect choice have cosmic consequences.

Here’s where many people (in my humble opinion) get the gospel message wrong. What do we see as a result of sin entering the world according to Genesis 3?

1. enmity between the woman and the snake
2. pains in childbirth
3. enmity between the man and the land.
4. death
5. and humans driven out of the garden (away from the Tree of Life)
In essence what we have now is discord in creation. Where there was once harmony between the heavens, the earth, everything in the earth and with God, now there is pain, suffering, disharmony, and death. This is what we know as “fallenness”.

What we don’t see, and where I think many people get it wrong when they describe this situation, is separation from God. Again, in eschatological terms, for some this so-called separation is the problem that God is overcoming and all sorts of fantastic images are drawn up to describe this. The most notable of which is this one…


We’ll leave that image for a moment except to say that the suggestion that we are “separated from God” is (again, in my humble opinion) a false one.

How can this be?

Well, I just don’t see "separation" at all. As I read on from Genesis 3 into Genesis 4 I see that God follows Adam and Eve out of the garden. Although humans are driven out of the garden, for their own good, God follows them out. That’s not separation, that’s grace. Immediately in Genesis 4 we have the story of Cain and Abel, in the midst of which the Lord is talking to Cain. In fact this is the pattern of Genesis 1 – 11. Humanity sins, God punishes, but then immediately afterwards God is gracious towards humanity. We see that in Noah with the rainbow as well as Babel and the dispersing of all peoples, which is followed immediately by the promise of blessing to all peoples through Abraham and his seed (“Tongues” in Acts 2 should be interpreted as a the reversal of Babel).

For the rest of the Old Testament we see God seeking to restore creation to its original status – “very good”. In the words of NT Wright, God is “putting the world to rights.” Although the fallenness remains, and that is clearly evident in the stories of Noah, Babel, Egypt and others; even so, God is interested and active in partnering with his chosen people to achieve his purposes.

Importantly in this regard, throughout the Old Testament, God is described in terms that are relational. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is not just the Holy One, but the Holy One of Israel. And my personal favourite: “I will be their God, and they will be my people”; an eschatological promise that is repeated in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and picked up in the New Testament by the writers of Hebrews and Revelation.

These are all relational terms, describing a relational God, who has, since the creation of the world, been in partnership with people in the stewardship of creation. Even though sin has entered the world, in a strange yet grace-filled paradox, he continues to partner with the very beings that brought that sin in. He partners with them to achieve his purposes – putting the world to rights.

“Separation from God” therefore does not describe the Biblical picture of God. It actually describes the Biblical picture of hell. Consider the tragedy of the “goats” in Matthew 25 in this light.

The eschatological framework I would like to suggest that is appropriate for understanding “the gospel” is that of “new creation”. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we find a very famous verse; “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This is quite a lengthy sentence in comparison to the Greek, largely because we need to fill it out in translation in order for it to make some sense in the English language. However, in the Greek you get the sense that the “new creation” part is just breaking into the sentence… “If anyone is in Christ – New Creation!” I get the sense that Paul is saying “here it is. It’s arrived!” With Christ we have “New Creation!”

Here we catch a glimpse of this eschatological framework. This New Creation, is not something we’re just biding our time waiting to happen when Jesus returns. It has actually broken in upon this present age. With the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, and the inclusion of God’s people into himself, New Creation has begun. In theological terms this is an inaugurated eschatology. There remains a tension here between the old and the new creation which we could explore, but the point here that I would really like to make here today is this; the “old” and “new” are intrinsically and vitally linked.

What is the evidence for this? The incarnated and resurrected Jesus. In the incarnation we see the perfect unity of creation, heaven and earth permanently united in one person – truly and properly human and truly and properly divine. In the resurrection we see this one person as we will eventually be – as a part of the new creation. One of the big features of this is where the resurrection took place – here on earth. That is significant. It demonstrates that the “new creation”, God’s ultimate desire for creation, of which Jesus is the “first fruits” as Paul describes it in 1 Cor 15, is intimately connected with the old creation. The old is not on its way to hell in a hand basket, but on its way to recreation. If anyone is in Christ – New creation! The old is gone, the new has come.

So what does this mean for Christian ministry? Cross-cultural or otherwise?

I would like to answer that question firstly by looking at one example from the ministry of Jesus. It’s the story of the demoniac from Gerasenes. Jesus has been on the Israel side of the lake teaching in parables. He and the disciples get into a boat and begin to cross the lake. Jesus falls asleep, a storm arises which Jesus sleeps through, and the disciples panic about. They wake Jesus up, he calms the storm, and in the morning they arrive at Gerasenes. The location has some textual discrepancies, but the point is that it’s in Gentile country. Here is the first of many alarm bells that would be ringing in the heads of Jews hearing this story… Jesus gets out of a boat in Gentile country, confronts a man possessed by many demons, presumably naked since we’re told later that he’s dressed, he lives in or at least near tombs, AND there are pigs nearby! Everything about this story screams “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” to a Jewish person. A Jew would know that they would be ceremonially unclean by this location and this man who lives there, meaning that they would be excluded from the temple, and hence worship. Yet Jesus is completely unconcerned by this and as a result “New Creation” breaks in upon this mans life. The old is gone, and the new has come.

Was Jesus really ignoring the Jewish purity laws? From one perspective yes, but from another no. I think Jesus was truly a Jewish man and would have concern to be obedient to the law. Craig Blomberg offers a solution to this problem in his book Contagious Holiness

Unlike so many in his world... [Jesus] does not assume that he will be defiled by associating with corrupt people. Rather, his purity can rub off on them and change them for the better. Cleanliness, he believes, is even more "catching" than uncleanness; morality more influential than immorality. (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, (Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 128.)
This, I think, speaks volumes to us about Christian ministry, or perhaps better said the ministry of those who are “in Christ”. Being “in Christ” means that his holiness made real in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Holiness) is more catching than the uncleanness of this present age; wherever we confront that uncleanness. Not only are those who are in Christ a part of the “New Creation” they are also partnering with God in bringing New Creation to places where it currently does not exist—the poor, the dispossessed, the prison, the street, our workplace, the school, the sports field. This is the privilege and the paradox of ministry. God, in faithfulness to his covenant promises, continues to partner with humanity in his mission to put the world to rights. He is doing this through Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit, and he invites us to join him.

This has implications not just for who is involved in ministry, because I would like to suggest that it includes all. It also has huge implications for some of the big questions of our day – questions of the environment, of interpersonal relationships, and of our use of the resources of this world, including money. If there is an inseparable link between old creation and new, which I think the resurrected Jesus has demonstrated in himself, then what we do here and now actually matters. It actually makes an eternal difference for all of creation. Yes we believe that God will achieve his purpose and will put the world to right regardless of whether we help him, but since he has invited us in to be active participants in that mission, our participation must have an eternal effect.

One of my favourite passages in recent times has become 1 Corinthians 15 and I’d like to close with a quick reference to this chapter. The chapter opens with Paul suggesting that this is a reminder of the gospel that the Corinthians had first heard. Clearly, in this chapter there is a strong emphasis upon the reality of the resurrection. Jesus has been raised from the dead, therefore those who are in Christ will also be raised with him. There is a lot that could be said about this passage to do with inaugurated eschatology, however here is my shorthand summary…
1. Jesus is resurrected
2. “On that day” those who are in Christ will be resurrected like him
3. Their perishable body (old creation) will be clothed with the imperishable (new creation) – note the connection here.
4. In the mean time, and here is the one thing I want you to take away from this, verse 58:
“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
God is putting the world to rights. We look at Christ, the first fruits of New Creation and know this to be true. God has done it for him and this is the guarantee that he will do it for those who are “in Christ”. We are “in Christ” because the Spirit unites us with him and therefore we anticipate being “clothed” in this New Creation, just like Jesus is. In fact, for anyone who is in Christ – New Creation! In the mean time, we partner with God, following his lead, walking in the footsteps of Christ, and walking by the Spirit, remaining steadfast and firm, knowing that our labour in the Lord is not in vain. As we do, we wait in hope, not to leave “Badland” behind and take the long walk to “Goodland”, but believing that God will achieve his purposes by recreating “Badland” and renaming it “Goodland”.

Lord, may it be so.

Comments

  1. I'm afraid that I am lax at the writing and blogging thing, but I have just posted my first sermon on my blogspot and it happens to be about holiness. As I am currently serving as a corps officer in Brazil I have posted it in English and (faulty) portuguese. It represents a simplified response to my experience of a lot of talking about and pleading for holiness. It was the 10th in my series on the articles of doctrine, so strangely enough, my next sermon will be on article 11 and thus, judgment, heaven and hell, and I may well post this one to the blog too. Enjoyed your sermon on goodland/badland, a very helpful perspective. In respect of which, I always (half) remember the line that Christopher Marlow has Mephistopheles say in his play, Dr. Faustus, when asked by Faustus what he is doing out of hell - “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it."
    the blog address for the sermon is http://paulsbrazilianblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/holiness-and-service.html - God bless!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is helpful Adam, particularly you reorienting (if that is a word), people on eschatology, that is, the importance of continuity and discontinuity. Need to think about your view on separation from God. Good to have my thinking challenged.

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