Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
On this fourth Sunday of Lent, the epistle lesson speaks of the reality of the grace and forgiveness of God.
It proclaims that part of God reconciling the world to God’s self involves “not counting [our] trespasses against [us].” This grace engenders the possibility of transformation and new creation. We will focus on the nature and quality of that transformation.
The pericope begins by linking our future life back to assertions that have previously discussed: “From now on, therefore … ” The word “therefore” connects our future life to “the love of Christ” and Christ’s death not just for us, but “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). “He died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (5:15). Our stories emerge from Christ’s story, and our calling is to live not only in celebration of what this means for us (though that is certainly worth celebrating). Our calling leads us along the path of death as Christ died, and resurrection, as Christ was raised, for our sakes and the sake of others.
Transformation born out of death and resurrection does not entail incremental, gradual changes. It does not merely recycle old ways and tweak familiar personal or communal habits to produce slightly improved upgrades. It opens us to new modes of travel altogether, new types of journeys that we could never have imagined.
The weight of custom and tradition, polity and practice, the institutional domestication of the gospel often deceive us into thinking that, yes, like the tortoise and the hare, when it comes to the course that we are called to run, place your bet on slow and steady to win the race. However, that is not Paul’s claim in this passage. God calls for all-encompassing change. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17).
Ironically, in a world in which we so easily fall into literal, fundamentalistic readings of scripture, doctrine, and practice, we equally easily minimize the radical implications of Paul’s claim.
- “If anyone is in Christ” — well, not just “anyone,” but only the special few, like apostles, prophets, saints, and martyrs. Paul doesn’t mean everybody, particularly not those who like things the way they are — either for themselves, their families, or the church.
- “There is new creation” — well, not like big changes that could cause us to make big decisions that might make a pastor or the chair of the board or big givers unhappy.
- “Everything old has passed away” — well, practicality demands that not “everything” passes away. We’ve still got the building and the parking lot, the church graveyard, bills to pay, and a whole church year’s worth of events already on the calendar.
- “See, everything has become new” — well, no, actually, see all the things we’re already doing? They don’t all need to become new. Maybe some little things or a new project like others we’ve done before or a mission trip to places we’ve already visited — those would be okay.
We have an astounding capacity to talk ourselves out of new creation — both in our individual lives and in our communities of faith. Like the prodigal son in the middle of his story, we often squander our possibilities, turn away from the feast set out by the God of grace, and settle for the pods the pigs are eating (Luke 15:13-16). The season of Lent (or any season) calls on us to hear Paul’s proclamation anew, to open ourselves to new possibilities, new creation — whatever that might mean.
Paul goes on: “All this is from God” (5:18). Maybe that is what makes new creation seem so daunting. Maybe it’s something God could pull off, but it lies beyond our reach, our abilities. But we hold onto such reservations only by ignoring the plain sense of the sentence — all this is from God. It’s God’s desire for us, God’s way for us, God’s love for us that brings the possibility of new creation before us. We are not asked to do it on our own based on our own abilities. The call comes to us simply to step into what God has already done and to let that move us forward where God would have us go. “[God] reconciled us to [God’s self] through Christ” (5:18). That is where new creation and new journeys begin.
And, again, this new creation is not ultimately focused just on us, as wonderful as those new possibilities can be, as life-giving as an all-encompassing transformation from the God of grace can be. That new creation, based on God’s past and present action, gives us both a new future and a new ministry. “God … reconciled us to [God’s self] through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). This ministry means more than just paying it forward. It means God not only transforms us but equips us and, even, believes in us, “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us … making [God’s] appeal through us” (5:19).
New creation means really new creation. Think of people or communities who have dramatically changed — leaving behind lives of addiction, of inflicting violence, of dishonesty, of greed, of adultery, of bigotry and discrimination, of hated and exclusion. The headlines and media can make us forget that these changes really happen within people and communities we actually know. They can happen to us, too — individually and communally — based on our openness to the truth that Christ came not only to die for us, but also to die for all.
For our sake, Christ died and was raised, so that in Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Here’s an even more radical thing than new creation — not just knowing about it, hearing about it, talking about, pondering it from afar, or considering it reluctantly, but actually becoming the righteousness of God. It takes a new creation to become people and communities whose reach outside of ourselves begins to match the reach of the love of God.
Becoming a new creation means the creation of new dimensions of love and desire for righteousness and justice within our lives and the lives of others. (The Greek word, dikaiosune, used here means both righteousness and justice.) New creation means ministries and actions through which others experience the nature and reality of the transforming power of God. A Lenten path worth taking.