2 Corinthians 5:16-21
A young woman, who had become a mom after many of her friends had, once spoke up in a Bible study about how she had once looked critically at the parenting of others. She said: “I would see and hear children--babies being fussy when they hadn’t slept or were hungry, or older children who seemed to make nuisances of themselves--and I’d think, ‘If I were a parent, those kinds of things wouldn’t happen.’ But now that I’m a mom of a kindergartener and a toddler, I don’t think things like that.”
After becoming a mom herself, that woman could hardly look at other moms in the same ways she had previously.
New moms or new dads (or people who have been new moms or new dads) know all about the transformation in perspective that woman underwent.
In fact, any of us who undergoes a new experience--newly wed, newly relocated, newly moved up one grade or to a new school, newly hired--knows about it too. When new things come along in our lives, it impacts the ways we look at the world. We are changed.
When we have a relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ--when we are “in Him,” trust in Him as our King and Lord and God--we look at things differently than the rest of the world does.
Jesus says that being His will also change the ways we look at others. We don’t excuse their sins or bad behaviors, any more than the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son excused the sins of either of his sons. But we are prepared to look at people differently, prepared to offer love and forgiveness.
Like the father in Jesus’ parable--like God when he looks at you and me--we who have been made eternally new through repentance and belief in Jesus Christ, can look at others with “grace-colored glasses.”
In another of His famous parables--the one about the final judgment in Matthew 25, the king who stands in for Jesus in the story tells believers astounded that they’ve been counted worthy to live in God’s eternal kingdom:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine [the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger without a place to stay, the poor without clothing, the sick, the believers in Christ doing time for their faith], you did for me.”The people in Jesus’ parable are so “in Christ,” so dependent on Him, and so in sync with Him, that they can’t even remember doing any of this good. They did good not because they decided to “do good,” but because the King (Christ) lived through Him, they viewed people differently, and His good simply sprang to the surface of their daily lives.
This truth--of how Christ makes believers new and causes them to see and serve the world in ways they wouldn’t or couldn’t on their own--lay behind Paul’s words in today’s second lesson, 2 Corinthians 5:16-20.
Paul had founded the first century Corinthian church. But since he had gone on to preach the gospel and start new congregations elsewhere, other preachers had come to Corinth.
These new preachers were flashier, more eloquent, and more impressive than Paul. Paul wasn’t a scintillating speaker; he could drone on for hours. In fact, you'll remember that in the book of Acts, we're told that one night, Paul preached for hours in second-storey room. As he went on and on, a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting by an open window, dozed off, and fell out the window to the ground and to his death. (Fortunately, God used Paul to bring the boy back to life. Otherwise, the long-winded sermon would have been a complete disaster!) So, Paul could be a bit boring.
And while the new preachers in Corinth looked successful, Paul talked about and lived a life of self-sacrifice, eking out an income as a tentmaker wherever he went.
If the new preachers in Corinth were combinations of Matthew McConaughey and James Earl Jones, Paul was Don Knotts.
As the marketing people would say, Paul’s optics were all wrong.
The upshot was that, while the new preachers enabled the Corinthians into all manner of sin--adultery (sexual relations by married persons with other people), fornication (sexual relations among people who had not committed their relationships to God in marriage), and selfishness (wealthy Christians refusing to share with fellow Christian disciples who were poor), Paul could get nowhere when he called the Corinthian Christians to repent and return to submission to Christ and the will of God. He simply didn’t have the same appeal as the new preachers.
That’s why Paul begins our second lesson at verse 16, with these words: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
The phrase translated here as from a worldly point of view is literally in the Greek in which Paul composed his letter kata sarx, according to the flesh.
Flesh, as Paul uses it here, refers to the world’s sinful way of looking at things. The world had looked at Jesus of Nazareth, a poor son of a fix-it man in Galilee, and, despite the things He taught that accorded with God’s Word in the Old Testament and the signs He performed, found Him contemptible, worthy of execution on a cross. They killed God the Son.
They looked at Jesus “from a worldly point of view.” Jesus wasn’t the king people were looking for, just as Paul would later not be the kind of preacher many in the Corinthian church were looking for.
Paul is saying, Before the crucified and risen Jesus Christ came into our lives, we saw things differently. We saw people different from ourselves and we either judged or hurt or ignored them. We saw the poor, the weak, or the despised and concluded that they were lazy. We saw those without faith and concluded that they were bad people.
But, Paul is telling them, we are not of this world any more! For us to accept the lordship of Jesus over our lives meant that we had to first accept that we are sinners in need of rescue, that we can’t rescue ourselves from the punishment of death we deserve, that we are unrighteous and only those who surrender their lives to Christ can be made righteous by God. Our old worldly ways of living and of looking at life are through! We love others because, despite our unworthiness, God has loved us and save us from sin, death, and the grave because of all that Christ has done for us and our surrender to--our belief in--Christ alone.
“So, why,” Paul implicitly asks, “are you looking at me like something that the cat dragged in? Don’t you remember that I am a redeemed, baptized child of God?”
Paul had been, you remember, an enemy of the church, a snake in the grass. But the grace of God given in Jesus Christ had literally blinded Paul one day on a road to Damascus, and once his eyesight was restored, he saw everything differently.
In the bargain, God gave Paul a new mission. Verse 18: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The word translated here as reconciled was, as Paul dictated it, katallasso, meaning changed to the exact point. When Christ lives in us and we are part of His new creation that will live eternally, as opposed to the old creation that will die eternally, our point of view, our perception of reality is changed. The scales of sin and prejudice and pretense drop from our eyes and, imperfectly in this world, we begin to see people and life as God sees them.
God frees us to stop looking down on people, but instead look at them in love.
God frees us to stop demeaning ourselves, whatever our circumstances, and to see ourselves for what we are: people made in the image of God who God counted worthy enough to go to a cross and tomb and hell to set us free from sin and death and give us life with Him.
By grace, all who believe in Jesus are given the righteousness of Jesus, made right with God for eternity.
Our point of view is changed, by this, to the exact point of righteousness from which God looks at us: with self-sacrificing love, passion, forgiveness.
But God doesn’t impose this new life on us. God won’t force any of us to be part of His new creation.
It’s God’s desire to give His new creation to those who want Him, who want Jesus, more than they want anything else.
That’s why God sends people like Paul, people who may be unimpressive in the eyes of the world but with whom, in our own neediness, sin, and imperfection, we can identify. It's through imperfect people like Paul that God makes His appeal to us and to the world.
“We implore you on Christ’s behalf,” Paul says. “Be reconciled to God.”
That word implore means beg.
Folks: God ain’t too proud to beg.
God begs us to be reconciled to Him, just as the father in today’s Gospel lesson begged the elder son to lay aside his worldly way of looking at things, to repent for his sins of superiority and smugness, and to humbly, gratefully, and joyfully enter the celebration over the return of his formerly sin-lost brother.
And God wants to use us, just as he used Paul, to beg the people in our lives, to be reconciled with Jesus and so to have new and everlasting life with God.
When we dare to look at the world through the eyes of the God we know in Jesus Christ, we see a whole world to love and beg into relationship with the One Who has made us part of His new creation.
As we close, let me ask you to consider doing four things this week.
First, think of someone who annoys you or with whom you’ve had a falling out.
Second, ask God to help you to see that person as He sees them, in need of His love, made in His image, maybe in need of the Gospel.
Third, ask God for the opportunity to live differently toward that person: to be as compassionate and caring toward them as Jesus is toward you.
Fourth, if this person doesn't have a relationship with Jesus Christ, pray for the chance to one day, as an ambassador for Christ to that person, beg them in Jesus’ name, to be reconciled to the King Who changes everything for those who follow Him.
Please prayerfully consider them.