Here it is! Another sermon for your reading/listening enjoyment. Audio Here!
Newness is a theme that comes up over and over again in scripture. Maybe it’s ironic, because every time it gets used it’s old hat. It’s happened before. Someone else has already talked about newness. It’s not a new idea.
Today we hear it in Isaiah. “For I am creating a new heaven and a new Earth…”
And we’re going to hear it in a moment in Paul, who speaks of newness of life.
Why does newness come up so much in scripture? Maybe it’s because newness requires us to give up our own comfort, our own security, in exchange for what God is calling us into. And so, Newness comes up so often in scripture because it requires in us a faith that God is, indeed, working in our world, creating new creations.
Listen now to our scripture today from the 6th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
I am the kind of person who has trouble with new stuff. I fear risk.
This past week, I went hiking up Shaw Butte, part of the North Phoenix Mountains. It’s a pretty easy hike, and when you get to the top you can pretty much see all of Phoenix, east, west, north, south. It’s pretty dramatic. And, it was really nice out when we went.
We got to the top, however, and came upon a pretty amazing site we hadn’t expected: at the top a para-glider was getting ready to take off. As in, there was a guy attached to a parachute, wearing what looked like a duffle bag on his back. A few minutes after we reached to the top, he throw the parachute up into the air, and was quickly lifted off the ground, curling his legs into the bag, which served as what looked like a little flying canoe.
Moments later, it got even a little weirder. Another guy grabbed a hold of a hang glider, as in a giant flying wing looking apparatus. After checking all of the pieces, he ran towards the edge of the mountain and jumped off, and quickly his glider picked him up, and he was off. We watched him fly several miles, around all of the North Phoenix Peaks.
The entire time we watched this show, I thought about how scary it would be to try these sports, even as we talked to one of the guys who staffed the walkie talkie on the ground tell us how safe it actually is. There’s risk, for sure, but the chutes are designed to work with the wind, to fill and allow those flying control over where they’re going, and how fast, and what direction.
I kept thinking about that first step, what it has to take to grab on to the glider and jump. To run to the side of the mountain and place my foot on that rock and push off.
It’s the fear of pushing into something new, before you know what it is you’re going in to, before you know what will happen, while all you know is what it’s like on the ground, and what can happen to people who try to leave the ground before.
No one was hurt, by the way.
Isaiah and Paul both understand this difficulty. They understand the fear that comes with doing something new.
For Isaiah, the people have recently come out of Babylon, and are preparing to rebuild the temple. The “Newness” for Israel is actually a return to the old. But when the old got you thrown into exile, maybe it’s a little unsettling. Making matters more complicated, many in the community were born, grew up, came of age in Babylon under exile. Perhaps there are fears in the community, apprehension about what will come next. And so Isaiah assures the people that what is being created, what is being built is not the same; rather, in the construction of the temple, God promises the people “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” The building of the temple signals the end of the exile, not just physically, but spiritually. It’s like God is speaking to Israel through Isaiah saying “welcome home!”
The people are asked to take the next step. Into something many of them, having been born in exile, don’t remember in the first place.
We find Paul, in Romans, struggling with very similar problems.
If the covenant has been defined by the law of faith, “then,” he asks “are we to go on sinning?” Are we to go on living the same way we had been living? Are we to act as though nothing has changed? Of course not. We spoke last week of how living as though Christ is risen, as though God dwells among us, changes who we are.
For Paul, newness is about transformation. It’s about moving from an old way of being, from death in sin to life in righteousness.
What step’s are we taking to live in a new way, maybe one which makes us nervous because we know what’s happened before?
I remember learning about the Sanctuary movement, which happened in Tucson in the 80’s, while I was in college. Just hearing the story was a major step in my own faith journey because is came to represent what the church was capable of in the world.
The way I heard it was that a group of local ministers in the Tucson area had gathered together for a long time, as a group of colleagues. One day, one of them mentioned to the others that there was a problem with an influx of refugees coming from Central America, where civil wars had broken out.
Fleeing from persecution and war, people started leaving and heading north, hoping to gain asylum in the U.S. When they got here, they were not granted asylum, and many were sent back to places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, places where death squads and guerilla fighters would plow through villages, making the peasants, who wanted nothing to do with the war, constant victims of the violence.
The local churches met together to discuss whether or not sending innocent people back to a place where they would surely be killed was representative of the kingdom they preached.
A handful of churches decided to begin to harbor these refugees, fleeing from political persecution in their homelands. They began offering shelter, and food, a bed and a meal to eat, all while trying to avoid the authorities, which they knew would be unhappy with what they were doing.
John Fife, long time pastor of South Side Presbyterian, and one of the founders of the movement, once told the story something like this:
Over time, the pastors and the churches realized that the federal government knew what they were doing. They were being watched, and studied, and spied on, and they knew it was only a matter of time before what they were doing was stopped. They feared that their mission, which they saw as of the utmost importance, would be put to rest, and that many of them would face the consequences of breaking federal law (even though they were providing humanitarian relief).
And so their solution? The way they decided to avoid being shut down? The step they took, into the unknown, to try to salvage what they saw as the needs of the kingdom being fulfilled?
The leaders decided that rather than remain silent, they would beat those trying to shut them down to the point: they called a press conference and announced to the world what they were doing, how they were taking in refugees (even as the U.S. government wouldn’t recognize them as such), how they were feeding them and clothing them, and how, regardless of what response the government gave, they would continue to do so until the wars in Central America ended and it was safe for the people to go home.
The new life their communities discovered was that if their mission was truly as important, as essential as they thought it was, then coming to the American public with it would result not in death, but rather in renewed life, in a new creation. There was nothing to hide, because they were, they assumed, doing the will of God.
The movement did continue, and even spread throughout the country, including (by some estimates) nearly 500 congregations around the country, all offering sanctuary to those fleeing political persecution and danger in their home countries.
They took a chance, stepped into unfamiliar territory, into a place they feared because of the possible ramifications, and what happened?
“Behold, I am creating a new heaven and a new earth, the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
“What are we to say? Shall we continue to live in sin so that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
What steps are we taking, towards new creation? How do we navigate the dark corridors, the spaces between what was and what is? We are, after all, all being called by God into this new world, as a new creation. Isaiah Knew it, Paul Knew it, we know it.
Taking the first step is the most difficult part because it requires that we admit that we don’t know the answers, that we don’t have the solution, but rather that God knows. We are called to affirm that grace abounds, to move out into the world and seek the kingdom. It’s not our doing; it’s God’s.
Be ready, then, for that which God has promised, which is emerging, which has already begun, which, to use some language of Paul, “is here but is not yet.”
Be prepared, because if we are to heed the gospel, know salvation, recognize the power of the law of faith and accept the newness which is beginning to emerge, as we’ll learn next week, for Paul all roads lead to Rome.