June 13, 2021 homily on 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 by Pastor Galen Zook
For the past few weeks we’ve had sort of a vivid illustration all around us of new creation – of the old passing away, and everything becoming new – as the 17-year cicadas have been emerging from the ground, and leaving behind their shells, emerging as these sort of new creatures.
A friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook a few weeks ago of a cicada in the process of emerging from its shell (photo credit Jason Wendle) – and I thought it was a rather perfect illustration of Paul’s words here in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17
Now actually, this process of transformation, and the events that led up to this cicada emerging from its shell as a seemingly new creature, took place over the course of many years.
The cicadas that we see today actually burrowed under the ground 17 years ago when they were just tiny nymphs, and for the past 17 years they remained underground, feeding on the sap of tree roots. As these nymphs grew underground, they molted, or shed their skin, multiple times. But then, several weeks ago, they clawed their way to the surface of the ground, shed their shells one last time, and now they are singing away in the treetops, singing songs that must be bringing joy to our Creator, even as they attempt to attract mates that will then help this whole odd life cycle continue. In a few months their offspring will hatch and burrow under the ground, and we’ll see them in another 17 years.
Now I confess that I don’t know why exactly God created the lifecycle of the cicada tobe this way, or why exactly they live under ground for 17 years, but for those of you who live in areas where their “singing” is especially exuberant, you might grateful that this lifecycle doesn’t take place every year!
But I do think that the cicadas can be a wonderful illustration to us of transformation and new life in Christ. The cicadas remind us that often there’s more happening below the surface than what we realize. The cicadas remind us that God’s Spirit is at work, even in ways that we can’t see or least expect. The cicadas remind us that God is in the business of re-creation, and the cicadas remind us that growth and transformation often happens gradually, over the course of our lifetimes.
The Apostle Paul’s statement here in 2 Corinthians 5:17 about the old passing away and everything becoming new might seem to suggest instantaneous change and transformation. And often we expect that when someone gives their life to Christ, that they should immediately be transformed into a new person — that all their old habits will instantaneously die away, and that overnight they should become a saint.
Now it is true that when someone gives their life to Christ, their standing before God is immediately transformed. They pass from death to life, they are reborn in a spiritual sense. They are adopted into the family of God.
But transformation of one’s character takes time. It can take a long time to give up old habits and to adopt new ones. Becoming a new creation in Christ often takes place gradually, over the course of weeks, months, and years. Like cicadas who grow and shed their shells multiple times underground before they ever come above the surface of the ground, often God is doing a work inside of us that may not be immediately evident on the outside.
The Apostle Paul’s own story illustrates this truth. Many of us are familiar with the Apostle Paul’s conversion story. We read in the book of Acts that Paul had been a persecutor of the early Christians, and prior to putting his faith in Christ he traveled around searching for followers of Christ and locking them up in prison or even (in the case of Stephen, the first Christian martyr), having them stoned to death.
In fact, when Paulad his encounter with the risen Christ, he was on his way to the city of Damascus with the sole purpose of imprisoning the believers there. But in the middle of his journey he experienced a blinding light, and he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, saying “Saul, Saul” (which was his Hebrew name), “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
After this encounter with the risen Christ, Paul couldn’t see for three days. He was led to Damascus, where Ananias, one of the followers of Christ, laid hands on Paul and prayed for him, and Paul’s sight was restored.
From that time forward, Paul never looked back. He was immediately convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and that he had risen from the dead. Paul was baptized that same day and immediately he went to the synagogue and began preaching that Jesus is the Son of God.
Now if that doesn’t sound like instantaneous transformation, I don’t know what is! Paul took a radical 180 degree turn. He went from being a persecutor of the early Church to becoming a proclaimer of the Gospel in the matter of only a few days.
But what often gets overlooked about Paul’s story is that the Paul that we see preaching in the synagogue a few days after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus is not the same Paul who wrote this pastoral letter to the Corinthians church. Now yes, technically he was the same person. But inwardly, God did a profound work in him, a transformation that took place over the course of many many years that took Paul from this violent persecutor turned proclaimer of the Gospel to the pastoral figure who planted churches and loved and cared for his children in the faith through sending pastoral letters to them for years after he established their churches.
You see, in the beginning, immediately after his conversion, Paul had passion, but very little compassion. He seemed to take all of that energy that he had been directing against the Christians before his conversion, and redirected it towards those who weren’t convinced, as he now was, that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he was and is the Messiah.
In Acts 9 when Paul went into the synagogue in Damascus and began preaching a few days after his conversion, one of the words that’s used to describe what he was doing is often translated “confounded.” Acts 9:22 says, “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” But the Greek word translated “confounded” here can also mean “to disturb the mind of one, to stir up to tumult or outbreak.” And in fact, that’s exactly what happened!
Paul so disturbed the peace in the city of Damascus that they wanted to take his life, and he had to flee the city by being lowered over the wall of the city in a basket. Paul then went to Jerusalem, where he stirred up more trouble. When he arrived in Jerusalem he immediately began preaching in the Temple — or as one translation says, he “disputed against” the Hellenists or the Greek-speaking Jews there, and once again there was an attempt on his life.
And a few verses later, in Acts 9 verse 30 it says that “When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.” In other words, the believers – the followers of Christ – sent Paul home, since Tarsus whas where he was originally from. And the next verse tells us that “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31). Given Paul’s proclivity to arguing and disputation and stirring things up, it’s no wonder that when Paul was sent home “The church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up….[and] increased in numbers”! (Acts 9:31)
But what happened to Paul after he got sent home? How did this fiery evangelist that everyone wanted to get rid of become the bold yet compassionate pastor who planted churches and referred to people as his brothers and sisters in Christ (see for example 2 Corinthians 1:8) or even in some cases his children in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2)?
Well first of all we don’t know exactly how long Paul spent in Tarsus or what exactly he did while he was there. Biblical scholars estimate that it could have been anywhere from 9 months to 8 or even 10 years that Paul spent in Tarsus, but however long it was, we don’t hear anything about him during that time.
The next time we hear about Paul is a few chapters later, in Acts 11, at which time we see Paul being invited to a sort of pastoral internship under Barnabas – a seasoned Christian leader – in the city of Antioch. (We know Paul was the assistant pastor or intern since Barnabas’s name is listed first, and since he was the one who recruited Paul). And it’s not until the successful completion of Paul’s pastoral internship in Antioch that he is then sent off to become a missionary and church planter throughout the Mediterannean world.
Whatever it was that happened to Paul while he was in Tarsus it seems clear that his time at home, combined with his pastoral internship in Antioch, helped him grow in his love for God and his knowledge and understanding of Christ’s love for him and for others.
Pastor Adam Hamilton writes that
While living at home, Paul certainly must have continued to contemplate the meaning of the gospel. He undoubtedly grew in wisdom, which included both head and heart knowledge gained through lived experience. I’ve found that often the greatest wisdom-building experiences are those that come in the midst of disappointment, adversity, and waiting. Our faith often grows deeper, though we may not recognize it at the time.
Although Paul’s conversion was instantaneous and immediate, his process of transformation and maturation took place over many years. In order to become the compassionate church planter and pastor that God wanted him to be, he needed to not only be convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but he needed to learn what it meant to walk in the way of Christ, to love as Christ loved, and to live as Christ lived.
And so when Paul writes this 2nd letter to the Corinthians, and speaks of anyone who is Christ being a new creation, of everything old passing away, and everything becoming new, I think he has both this instantaneous standing-before-God transformation as well as the slow gradual maturation transformation in mind.
As so Paul writes to these brothers and sisters in the faith who he cares so deeply about. This is a church that Paul had planted and pastorally cared for over the course of many years. And it’s a church that is now struggling with various issues and facing numerous obstacles. And Paul wants to see them experience new life in the Spirit. He knows that the process of growth and transformation takes time, but he wants them to be reminded of the new life that is theirs in Christ Jesus, and he wants them to know of the victory that they have because of Christ’s death and resurrection. And so he reminds them – and us, of the confidence and the hope that we have in Christ. That we walk by faith, and not by sight. That one day we will go to be with Jesus, but that even now Jesus is in the process of transforming us and making us more and more into the likeness of Christ.
And so Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “the love of Christ urges us on.” Paul was compelled – driven by the love of Christ. He was no longer in the business of simply trying to win arguments- but now he was compelled by Christ’s love. And Paul says, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” In other words, we try not to look at outward appearances because we never know what God is doing inside of a person. And then he says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Friends, this process of transformation does not always happen overnight. Spiritual growth and maturity takes place over the course of our lifetimes. We never know how God’s spirit is working below the surface of someone else’s lives, and how God is using the events in our own lives to grow and mature us in the faith. We can and should rejoice in the new life – the new standing – that we have in Christ – while also opening ourselves up to the transformation that God’s Spirit is doing inside of us. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or even years, for that transformation to take place. And so let us be slow to judge, and quick to extend grace. Let us regard no one from a human point of view, but instead look for and celebrate those instances and signs of the new life that we see in Christ. Like Paul, may the love of Christ compel us, and may we extend that same love to those around us.