Once upon a time, good Christian parents watched their teenagers rebel...
Once upon a time, good Christian parents watched their teenagers rebel and “go dancing” – ooooh! Now, I hear more stories of good unbelieving parents wondering what they did wrong – their teenagers have “become Christians”. Rebellion takes new forms.
I had a moral, but solidly unbelieving background, and my parents were clearly worried about my faith: it might get in the way of making money. It did. But there can be more signiﬁcant problems, too. As I shed the skin of my background, I wanted my new faith to mean “a new me” in all kinds of ways. And that’s how it seemed – I rejoiced. But I’ve followed Jesus now for 37 years, and I realise that some bits of me do feel new, some bits of me could do with feeling new, and most of me is somewhere in the middle!
“The New Creation” can sound incredibly attractive to the rebelling teenager. It offers hope that we can establish our own identity for the ﬁrst time. So when we ﬁnd that the idea is part of the Bible itself, we say, “Wow! My chance to start again.”
Yet it’s surprising how unimportant the idea is within the New Testament itself.
Yet it’s surprising how unimportant the idea is within the New Testament itself. As a phrase it only occurs in two letters of Paul: 2 Corinthians (at 5:17) and Galatians (at 6:15). Earlier in 2 Cor 5, we ﬁnd Paul making clear that the old creation is hanging around: we groan and are burdened. But then he switches to affirm the real change in the “now” – there really is a new creation. And how so? Because “we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died”. Yet, having made this almost the pinnacle of his argument, Paul does little more with it at the level of creation, but passes on to the ways in which the new relationship with God enables a radical life of discipleship.
The other time is in Gal 6, at the very end of the letter. Returning to his main theme, the rejection of any return to the Jewish paths of old Paul insists that, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation”. Here again, though, he ties it closely to the death of Christ: it is so “complete” a death that life the other side of it must mean a whole new creation. And then the letter stops.
It’s only in recent centuries that “newness” sounded like a good thing.
In both cases, what seems surprising is how little Paul develops the theme. It’s also true that interpreters through history did very little with these texts. Partly, that may have been because it’s only in recent centuries that “newness” sounded like a good thing – for most of history, I guess that it would have been a matter of threat and anxiety.
Of course, we know more about the physics now – a “new creation” ﬁlls our minds with all kinds of excitement, just because we understand the “old creation” more fully. But it’s also about psychology. We now know more about how much of who we are is about our upbringing and our past – how marvellous it would be if we could ﬁnd a short-cut to a more Christlike character, without tracing back the thread of our past. “A new creation” seems like the idea we’ve needed – a whole new start, available for you and me, right now.
The problem is, it often doesn’t feel like that, and, if we then encounter unexpected problems, we are put off this life of discipleship. We might hope to get rid of our taste for Best Bitter; we might hope we will change our entire sexual orientation. If those hopes aren’t brought to pass, we give up.
What we get now is the ﬁrstfruits, the “start of the new start”.
The truth is that the fullness of the new creation is held out to us only in Revelation, as a renewed heaven meets a renewed earth and all dwell with God. What we get now is the ﬁrstfruits, the “start of the new start”. In Romans 7, Paul rages with frustration that “new isn’t new enough”. And that mixed reality is obvious even in the newness we hear about in the Easter stories. When Jesus died, what died? When Jesus rose, what rose? The gospels themselves seem quite happy being unclear. Three times Jesus is not recognised by sight: Mary in the garden, the Emmaus disciples and the ﬁgure on the beach. Yet Mary recognises his voice, and the disciples remember what it felt like to have the words burn within. This is a “normal” Jesus who can eat breakfast with friends, and yet a “new” Jesus who can appear through closed doors. “Newness” is not an easy category.
New creation allows the possibility of doing good (by God’s Spirit)
We can ﬁnish this very brief survey by going back to our texts. In both Corinthians and Galatians, the model of this “newness” is not a “replacement” model, like taking out a [complete] blue pen reﬁll and putting in a [complete] red one. Rather, it is the death of something old, in order to start from the beginning; it says something about possibility for the future, not that a particular future is already fulﬁlled. So, in Galatians, the new creation is mentioned by Paul as he closes in his own handwriting. The dictated closure of the letter was an appeal to the Galatians to be known for doing good. New creation allows the possibility of doing good (by God’s Spirit), but it isn’t any kind of guarantee that we will do good automatically; the old will be a pull upon us, even if we have started on the new path.
In 2 Corinthians, the new creation again becomes the basis of an appeal: because I am a new creation, I was able to serve Christ despite hardship, says Paul; I can summon you to developing purity of life because you have that basic newness, even though you don’t have the full ﬂower of what it will be one day.
It turns out that the one person who gave us the most helpful interpretation of the new creation was Jesus himself, when he spoke of being “born again”, or “born from above” (John 3:3). The new creation means being born into a new relationship, becoming a child of God. The baby is not all that the adult will be, but the baby has begun the journey. Abbreviating a quotation from John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame): “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.”