Bishop Wallace-Padgett serves in the Birmingham Area of the United Methodist Church. This sermon was adapted from one delivered shortly after her appointment there.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.
II Corinthians 5:14-6:1 (NRSV)
The theme of this sermon will not surprise any of you who know me, because it is one of my favorite subjects. I want to talk today about new things. In fact, all things new.
On personal and psychological levels, this subject is real to me these days. After all, everything has been new for me in recent months. I am living in a new house, meeting new people daily, learning a new ministry role and experiencing a new Conference. I am discovering new doctors, buying from new grocery stores and banking in a new bank. After only a week in Birmingham, I realized that due to Alabama humidity I had to have a new hairstyle! New is real to me during this season of life.
However, I have bigger business to talk about today than a new house or hairstyle, as important as they may seem! I am a Christian, which means that I have experienced firsthand Jesus Christ making me new. In addition, I am a Methodist Christian and thus I believe in new life in capital letters. Plus, I am a United Methodist bishop. Believe me, I would not consider serving as such if I was not convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that God can make not only individuals, but even denominations new! More than that, God can make the world in which we live new.
Paul knew about living in a world that needed to be made new. Oh, there was peace, but it was a forced peace helped along by the presence of Roman soldiers almost everywhere you looked. There was order, but it was maintained by violence. Every major highway was dotted with several – sometimes scores of – crosses on which people were being crucified publicly to discourage crime. It was a brutal world in which to live.
A few decades earlier, this is the kind of world into which Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, entered. Jesus came to a world that needed change, light, and new life. The Christ Child came from heaven to earth to show us the way God plans for us to live our lives. But more than that, Jesus made it possible for us to know forgiveness and new beginnings in God. In so doing, Jesus brought abundant light and new life.
Nowhere in the Bible is that new life described more powerfully than in II Corinthians 5:17.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Cor. 5:17)
However, where do we begin when we talk about “all things new”? It is easy to talk about “them” – whoever them is. In fact, I catch myself doing that sometimes. It is a way to shift responsibility and the spotlight away from me and my areas of deficiency. But when I am totally honest with myself, I know that there is only one place to begin in moving toward the kind of renewal that Paul describes Jesus bringing to the world. For that matter, in moving toward greater fulfillment of the mission Jesus has for us of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The starting point is not with our neighbor, spouse, colleague, or friend. Or our Annual Conference, denomination or the Council of Bishops. “All things new” starts with you and me.
We need opportunities to start again. As Robert Donald Spector wrote in the NY Times years ago: “If I had Solomon’s wisdom, Possessed all the power of Atlas, And moved with Mercury’s swiftness, I’d find a way to mess things up, Because I’d still be me.” (The Good Life, Peter Gomes)
Spector has it right! We are imperfect beings who even when at our best find ways to mess things up. Hopefully we are making daily progress in maturing. If we are growing in our Christian walk we are further along today than we were last year at this time. We will be further along a year from now than we are today. But we will not fully arrive at perfect maturity on this side of heaven. Regularly we disappoint God . . . hurt those we love . . . are poor witnesses . . . you fill in the blank with your own confession. Charles Wesley said it well in the hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. We humans have “a bent toward sinning.” As a result we always stand in need of new starts.
Paul understood this better than most people. This is because – thanks to his relationship with Jesus – he was a new person. This former persecutor of Christians became a promoter of the Christian movement. This violent young man became an advocate for following the One called “Prince of Peace.” This one who had formerly destroyed the lives of men and women alike now offered new life. Paul was not simply acting differently. His relationship with Jesus caused him to be different! He experienced reconciliation with God and others which resulted in him being a changed man – a new person. All things became new to Paul because Jesus Christ made him new.
Paul does not have a corner on Jesus’ transforming power, though. Any person entering into a deep and committed relationship with Jesus Christ has new life. Many of us have that kind of relationship with Jesus. If we do not, we can!
It is not a onetime experience, either. I need Jesus Christ’s renewing power every day. He is up for the task – offering new beginnings in every arena of life. Jesus does more than make cosmetic changes to us, too. He renovates our hearts; he does a complete makeover of us. He does not just do a light touch up in our spiritual house. He deep cleans us from the inside out – on a regular basis.
This idea of new life in Christ is a very Methodist, Wesleyan concept. After all, God has brought renewal through Methodism before, and many leaders in our denomination believe that God desires to do it again. If Methodist is our first name, renewal is our middle name. Unlike many other church denominations, Methodists did not leave our mother church over doctrinal matters. Rather we were a renewal movement within the parent body. John and Charles Wesley had no desire to launch a new denomination. They simply longed to see the Anglican Church renewed. Yes, renewal is part of our Methodist DNA.
In England, the Wesleyan movement took people who had made a shambles of their lives and changed them into saints. In America, Methodists transformed the frontier with new churches all across the nation. We Methodists have an opportunity to do this again in our time and place. Most of us are distressed at the moral state of our nation . . . at the direction our culture has taken. Is there anything that can change this situation? Jesus Christ can – and Methodists can lead the way.
How and when will this start? How about with you and me – now. After you have finished reading this sermon, consider pushing the pause button on your day and spend some time talking to God. Do the same thing tomorrow morning before you leave the house. If you are already doing that regularly, stretch yourself by praying for someone you do not typically lift to God during your prayer time – perhaps someone who irritates you. After you have prayed, take out your Bible and read a chapter or two of it. Read for more than information. Read to hear what God has to say to you through Scripture. If regular Bible reading is a daily practice, add the habit of journaling about how God speaks to you through the Scripture. Then take action. Be kinder, more generous, and more gracious to others. Reach out to your neighbors, friends, and the strangers who cross your path. Live and share in deepened ways the new life offered to you in Jesus Christ.
If we want this nation of ours to be a different place . . . if we long for our family or workplace to have a different feel to it . . . if we dream that Methodism will be a more vibrant and life-changing movement . . . if we desire for this world to be a different place – we do not have to look any further than the mirror to discover the starting point. As you and I experience new life, it affects all those whose lives intersect ours. As Jesus renews us, it has a ripple effect that is immeasurable.
Yes, I am a strong proponent of the new. I am talking about more than new homes, grocery stores, banks and hairstyles, too. I mean new people, families, communities, and denominations. Even a new world. This is not a pipe dream, either. It is what God has been doing through Jesus Christ for more than 2000 years. And how God has used the Methodist movement for centuries. God is making all things new – starting with your life and mine.
JOHN WESLEY ON NEW BIRTH
“If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental they are doubtless these two: the doctrine of justification and that of the new birth; the former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature.”
(From The Works of John Wesley, Vol. II, p. 187)