June 2 | Let’s Review: Community, Cross, (New) Creation

Let’s Review: Community, Cross, (New) Creation**
Texts: Mark 1:14-20;  Matthew 16:24-26; 2 Corinthians 5:16-18
Speaker: Joel Miller

There’s a story in John’s gospel where religious leaders bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and ask what he thinks should be done.  It was a test.  According to a strict reading of the laws of Moses, she should be stoned to death.  But Jesus had been preaching a message of mercy.  So if he says the law should be followed, death penalty, he contradicts himself.  And if he says she should be shown mercy, he contradicts the law.  Faced with this dilemma, Jesus does what any of us would do.  He stalls.  This is how John tells it: “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  When they kept questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”  And they all just leave, “one by one,” it says, until it’s just Jesus and the woman. 

There are all kinds of reasons to love this story, but for a sermon that is supposed to be a review of the New Testament, it has two especially key features.  One is that this story was a floater in the early church.  Many of the oldest manuscripts of John don’t include it.  Others put it in a different location in John.  A few even have it in Luke.  So, within that oral culture, this was likely the last story about Jesus to find its place in the writings of the New Testament.  It’s the final statement of the whole.

And speaking of writing, this story has the only mention in the gospels of Jesus doing just that – writing.  We have these 27 different written documents that make up the New Testament, the reference point for Christianity, which feature a person who, as far we know, did all of his writing in the dirt, with his finger – not a best-practices way to preserve what you have to say or found a religion. 

But some folks did write things down.  And thanks goodness for that.  We’re still pondering it all 2000 years later. More importantly, we’re trying to live out the message of the words.  Like last week which looked at three big themes of the Old Testament – Creation, Exodus, Exile, we’ll look at three from the New today: Community, Cross, and New Creation.

Read: Mark 1:14-20

These, in Mark’s telling, are the first public words of Jesus’ ministry.  To paraphrase: It’s time.  The Kingdom God is near and now.  Change your life and participate in this good news.  Jesus goes on to recruit some fisher-folk.  and soon, a core of 12 disciples, students, forms around Jesus.  It’s a symbolic number, a reference to the original 12 tribes of Israel.  This was not a replacement movement – the Christian church, the new 12, replacing the Jews as the people of God.  That was a much later idea, with disastrous consequences for Jews ever since.  This was a renewal movement within Israel at a time when there were many Judaisms, each with a different interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the God of their ancestors.  Kind of like there are many Christinianities now.  Even many Mennonite-isms.    

Jesus’ primary metaphor for this community was “the kingdom of God.”  It was not lost on the Romans who had their own kingdom, their own lord, Caesar.    

This community forming around Jesus was larger than the 12, whose main characteristic is missing the point.  The ones who received the kingdom with open arms were the poor, the blind, the sick, and even, in the case of the woman in the story that landed in John, those the law condemned.  And at the end, when all the male disciples had scattered, it was the women who kept vigil near the cross, and it was the women who discovered the empty tomb and announced the resurrection.   What kind of community is this?

The Apostle Paul never met Jesus.  He says so himself.  As the kids would say, he was not OG, original gangster, original groupie for Jesus.   

But he does have the most writings of anyone in the New Testament.  And it’s a bit mind blowing that he had very likely written all his letters before any of the four gospels were written.  So, in a way, when it comes to the written word, Paul was the OG. Original Gospel.

And when it came to community, Paul had a radical idea.  Paul lived in a world with sharp distinctions between Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female.  These weren’t just differences, but hierarchies.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  In the same letter Paul would say that the Spirit of Christ is present wherever there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

What kind of community is this?  What kind of kingdom?  Rather than a pyramid with a hierarchy of power, it’s a community where an enslaved non-Jewish woman has the same standing as a free-born Jewish man.  It’s a community of mercy.  It’s a community of those ready to change their life to participate in good news.

Read: Matthew 16:24-26

For a community overflowing with Spirited life, an instrument of death plays a noticeably central role.  A cross was not the kind of thing you wanted to be around.  Crosses were the property of Rome, and they were powerful symbols of law and order.  And not just symbols.  They were instruments of state execution reserved for the lowest criminals, slaves, and dissidents.  Crosses were displayed in highly visible public places.  They were a deterrent against getting out of line, lest you end up on one.  When Jesus told his disciples to be ready to deny themselves and take up their cross, he didn’t just mean little personal sacrifices like cleaning up your plate even though you don’t like vegetables.

The cross was a way of holding community together under threat of violence.  Not that we do that anymore.  This way of forming community is exactly what Jesus rejected.  The woman will not be stoned to death, and neither will the man she was with who conveniently slipped away from the story. 

The kin-dom Jesus preached, and the church that formed after he was gone, were based on invitation rather than requirement.  They were and are held together by persuasion and love rather than coercion.  It’s a soft form of power, if you want to call it that.  Or, better yet, the power Jesus held exposed violence as having no power at all because violence only gets its way by destroying something, not by creating anything.  At least that’s how the early Christians saw it.  The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross”  (2:15).  How’s that for irony?  The person on the cross was supposed to be the public spectacle, but instead Jesus made a spectacle of violence itself, exposing it for what it is.  Disarming it. Paul would also use the cross as a symbol of disarming the violence we each hold within us.  “I am crucified with Christ,” he wrote, and “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”    

The cross is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament.  It’s such a pervasive symbol of Christianity now that we easily forget it stands for the very thing we reject.  Or, it stands for the thing that Jesus disarmed, and by keeping it in front of us, we allow ourselves to be disarmed.  For our peaceful humanity to come alive as Christ in us.  We are a community of the disarmed.  The cross is our reminder of the kind of power we exercise, and the kind we resist.   

Read: 2 Corinthians 5:16-18

If you listen to me enough, which, I know, many of you have, you’ve probably picked up that I have a thing for looping back to where we started.  So of course, a quick review of the biblical story that started with creation last week has to end with new creation this week.  But it’s not just me.  The Bible does this.  Paul talks about the new creation here to the Corinthians, and in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, we meet back up with the Tree of Life, which we hadn’t seen since Genesis.  The Tree of Life is for the healing of the nations, under a renewed heaven and earth.

Not only that, but Jesus’ favorite title for himself was the Son of Man, which simply meant, the Human Being.  And Paul referred to Jesus as the second Adam.  If Paul lived in the 21st century, he might have referred to Jesus as Human 2.0, and the church as humanity 2.0. 

In evolutionary terms, maybe we could think of what happened through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a moral mutation.  Like rather than just replicating the same moral DNA generation after generation Jesus embodies a new possibility of humanity.  Rather than homo sapien, clever human, maybe its homo pacificus, peaceful human, or homo liberans, liberating human.  It’s the vision from Galilee dawning in a world littered with crosses.  A new creation.   

The world is still littered with crosses, which isn’t what Paul, for one, was expecting.  It’s fairly clear he was convinced Jesus would return in his lifetime to usher in more fully the new creation.  “Listen,” he writes to the Corinthians, “I tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”  Or, in his very first letter, the first written document of the New Testament, to the Thessalonians, when he says “we who are alive” will meet the Lord in the air (1 Thes 4:17).

The New Creation, Humanity 2.0, did not come about the way Paul imagined, the way he wrote to those little outposts of the kingdom of God living within the Roman Empire.  The world is still littered with crosses.  And the world still contains these communities who believe in the New Creation.  Communities that are carriers of the mutated moral gene of homo pacificus, even if it isn’t always perfectly manifested among us. 

I think it’s a good thing Jesus didn’t write anything down.  If he did we would be so obsessed with the words that we would miss the life behind them.  We would miss that the word, as John says in his gospel, the word becomes flesh.  And now we’re the ones with the flesh.  We’re the ones living within these floating stories of mercy and grace that will soon find their place in the grand narrative of the New Creation.  For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the message of the Human One still holds: It’s time.  The Kingdom of God is near and now.  Change your life and participate in this good news.     


**These three items are mentioned in a book I haven’t read but appreciate the title: The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, by Dr. Richard B. Hays of Duke Divinity School.  I do know that in it he argues for a biblical case against homosexuality, and that he has since changed his mind.