“Therefore, if any person is in Christ, she is a new creation.
The old has gone, the new has come.”
You might rush to the words “new creation” or the famous Pauline phrase “in Christ” and begin to contemplate the deep realities that lie behind them. I’m captivated on the other hand by what reality must lie behind the small and seemingly insignificant word “any.” Who really notices it, that little three-letter word? And yet it contains the entire gospel. Anybody — Jew, Greek, Roman, Barbarian, man or woman, Republican or Democrat, Evangelical, Muslim or Pagan. If you come to be in Christ, then you’re something today you were not yesterday — a new creation.
This goes for people who typically don’t even make it on our radar of candidates for change. I traveled for more than twenty years speaking in churches about the Middle East and still today recall the surprise and sometimes astonishment on the faces of American Christians when they heard I lived among Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, Lebanese, whatever. I could see the red flags go up. To most these words all refer to the same violent images they see on the evening news. And those images shape peoples’ feelings and beliefs about whole people groups and cultures. What people most often thought about when they heard the word “Arab” or “Palestinian” or “Muslim” were violent images portraying teens dressed in army fatigues carrying guns, beheadings, kidnappings, and the list goes on. Of course, similar violent images can be retrieved from non-Muslim lands and developed western cultures too.
Who can deny the horror of today’s violence in the Middle East? But I could argue there’s a pace-loving Middle East most know nothing about and which doesn’t make the evening news. But let’s just go with the violent stereotypes since that’s what has so many western Christians concerned or paralyzed with fear. I know. They’ve sat in my office confessing it. But it’s our gospel we pretend to believe in. So do we? Do we believe “any” person — no matter their criminal involvement or intentions, history of violence or perversion, can be recreated in Christ? It might be helpful to ask ourselves why Paul believed that. After all, his Jewish cultural/religious affiliation drew a hard line between Jews and everybody else in the world. The entire world was a single thing, namely, not what they were. But here is Paul basically dismissing the distinctions he grew up with. Of course, he admits that he was only able to dismiss those distinctions as irrelevant “in Christ.” Why?
I’d like to suggest that it was because of v. 16 of 2 Cor 5. The real treasure isn’t in v. 17. It’s in v. 16, where Paul says:
“We regard no one from a worldly point of view.
Although we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.”
Only then does Paul in v. 17 say, “Therefore, if any man….” It’s v. 16. It’s what you see when you see people. What’s it mean to regard someone “from a worldly point of view” (lit, “according to the flesh”)? It means evaluating people according to the customary distinctions that divide us, even ascribing them worth on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexual orientation, their political affiliation, their religious and cultural heritage, their economic status, etc. To “regard someone form a worldly point of view” is to define and ground their worth, significance and relevance in terms of such distinctions, to reduce the person to them, to say there are just the sum total of these distinctions and so fail to see what there is about us that transcends these distinctions, unites us all and gives us value.
St. Paul used to see people that way. In fact, he used to see Christ that way. He once saw Christ as a threat to Judaism, to his faith, a threat that had to be silenced. And so Paul became the early Church’s Osama bin Laden, the one person they knew hated them with a passion and who was committed (and indeed, Paul was) to wiping them off the face of the earth. He sought them out, stood approvingly over their stoning, and cooperated with religious authorities in hunting Christians down in foreign cities to arrest them. He was, to put it today’s language, a religious fanatic, a card-carrying extremist Jihadist.
When Paul finally came to faith, who believed it? Nobody. God had trouble convincing Ananias to be the first to risk approaching Paul after his conversion experience. Ananias actually reminded God of what a violent not-to-be-trusted sort of Jihadist Paul was. “You know who this guy is, right God?” Nobody could believe he had converted. People like that don’t change. Paul was the Saddam Hussein of the New Testament Church; their Zarqawi, their al-Baghdadi. Barnabas (that wonderful man of grace) finally had to take Paul by the hand, escort him to Jerusalem and introduce him to the Apostles privately to convince them. Only then, when the Apostolic office sent out a mass email to all the Christian churches confirming the genuineness of Paul’s faith, did people open up to the idea.
Even then people had trouble believing that little three-letter word “any.” It’s really a huge word, because it embraces ‘everyone’, excludes ‘nobody’. It’s too generous for some and too risky for others. But Paul knew were he had come from. He once regarded Christ “from a worldly point of view.” But no more. And because he saw Christ differently, he saw in Christ every human being differently.
Can you imagine Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden writing 1 Corinthians 13? “Love is patient, love is kind, is not jealous or boastful or proud,” or “If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, but didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” Can you see one of them writing those words? I have news for you. An Osama bin Laden did write those words. That’s the point. Our inability to imagine it is the problem. We have no imagination. And that’s exactly what Christ unlocks and unleashes — our imaginations:
“Anyone in Christ is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”