PROPERS: 4 LENT, YEAR C
TEXT: 2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-21; LUKE 15:1-3, 11b-32
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, MARCH 31, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: As Paul Tillich notes, what matters is a “new creation.”
You have heard me refer to Paul Tillich here before. He was, arguably, the greatest theologian of the 20thCentury.
Tillich was born in Prussia – an area of modern-day Germany – in 1886. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Tillich, too, was ordained at age 26 and became a military chaplain during World War I.
He continued his academic pursuits. His public lectures brought him into conflict with the Nazis who had come into power in 1933. He was dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Berlin.
Another great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer, had already fled from Germany to the United States. He invited Tillich to come to America’s welcoming shores. Tillich did, and took up a teaching position with Union Theological Seminary in New York.
It was there in 1955, after more than a 20 year teaching stint, that Tillich preached a retirement sermon – a sermon that was among his finest (and his sermons were excellent). The sermon was entitled The New Being, and it is based on our second lesson today.
Tillich hears Paul’s words:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
What is this new creation? Tillich grounds his approach in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – Chapter 5, Verse 6:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
The great theologian is saying that nothing counts for anything except reflecting a New Creation – which is characterized by faith acting through love.
The church has historically said that this approach is to clarify the early understanding that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; between Jew and Pagan. Tillich says the difference is greater.
He contends that Paul’s words read down through the ages say that nothing matters other than the New Creation. No institution, no ideology, no political philosophy, no creed.
He says that it does not matter if a person is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or member of any other faith tradition if that person does not embody the New Creation in Christ. Nor are those folks excluded from the covenant community if they do manifest that New Creation.
He goes on to say that rituals of any tradition – as he says with the Jewish rite of circumcision – do not make any difference, in and of themselves, without the New Creation.
Since Tillich preached that sermon in 1955, he was bound by the times. He listed the various political philosophies in vogue and said that they do not provide what is essential to the person of faith. He listed Fascism, Communism, Secular Humanism, and Ethical Idealism. No matter how high the ideals and aspirations of a movement, they do not bring the New Creation.
What we need to hear, I think, is that we are called – as are all people – to manifest the New Creation that is provided through the life and teaching of Jesus – and that is seen in a life of faith, acting through love. If we do not, we are like Paul’s description in First Corinthians – “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
All of this sounds like our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, calling us to follow the Way of Love. He expressed it so well in his sermon at the Royal Wedding last summer. If we are not motivated by love, we are not motivated by Christ.
You may ask: What does this New Creation look like? How will I know I have reached it?
I would respond to the second question first. It is an elusive goal. It is similar to catching smoke in your hands. You may do it one moment and not the next; one situation and not another. But the message is to keep trying. You are human. Sometimes you will realize the goal; other times, not.
The first question: What does the New Creation look like?
We have an excellent example in the gospel lesson today – the Prodigal Sonor, more accurately, the Loving Father.
The Prodigal Son, seeking forgiveness, and the Father, forgiving, are wonderful models of the New Creation. Their actions reflect their motivations.
The older brother, who resented the younger one, has yet to be made a New Being. He continues to rely on legalisms and what seems right. On a human level, he is right. On the divine level – the level to which Christ calls us – he is not yet a New Being.
You may have already taken on the life of the New Being. That may be your manner of life. At the very least, you probably know someone who has reached that way of being.
But most of us can attain that New Being in the same way a musician gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Like all other elements of walking in faith, we strive, we fail, we fall down, we turn about, we give ourselves over to Higher Power, and we continue to strive.
It is in following the one who most clearly lived the life of the New Being – Jesus, the Christ – that we find the way to being made new.