Saturday, September 6, 2014

Born Again as a New Creation: Homily for the Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18
John 3: 13-17
            It is amazing how blind we can all be at times to truths that are staring us in the face.  For whatever reason, we sometimes simply do not grasp even the most obvious points. 
            That is how Nicodemus, a Pharisee and expert in the Old Testament law, responded to Jesus Christ’s teaching that we must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  Though Nicodemus thought that the Lord spoke of a second physical birth, Christ was speaking of a new life in Him, a spiritual rebirth through water (meaning baptism) and the Holy Spirit whereby we participate personally in the  eternal life of God.  Nicodemus was shocked because he thought of religion in terms of obeying laws, not in terms of becoming a new creation.  
            So the Savior gave Nicodemus a practical example from the Old Testament.   Moses once lifted up a bronze serpent on a rod to cure the Israelites from poisonous snake bites.  Through this act by Moses, the giver of the law, the Jewish people were spared from death on a particular day.  But when Jesus Christ is lifted up on the cross, He makes it possible for those who believe in Him to be born into eternal life, to become a new creation in Him.  For our Lord is not merely a prophet or the giver of the law, He is the One Who came down from heaven, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Purely out of love for us, He went to the cross, not to condemn us, but to make it possible for us to be born again in the joy and blessing of life eternal.  
            This was too much for Nicodemus to understand; he had probably never heard such things in his life.  But by the end of the gospel of John, we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare the Lord’s body for burial after His crucifixion. He became Saint Nicodemus and gave his own life for Christ, following Him in the way of the cross as a martyr.
            Why would Nicodemus have done that?  He had a respectable position among his own people as a Pharisee.  But perhaps he sensed in Jesus Christ something completely new and for which he longed deep in his soul.  In this unconventional Messiah, he found an unexpected God Who took the condemnation of the law upon Himself.  He found a Father Who would offer His own Son to death out of love for those who are condemned by the law.  He found a Lord Who would be slaughtered as the Passover Lamb and rise in glory for our salvation.
            Like Nicodemus, the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee who changed completely, ultimately becoming an unparalleled evangelist and missionary and the author of so much of the New Testament.  In Christ Jesus, St. Paul experienced what he called “a new creation.”  For our Lord is the new Adam in which all that has gone wrong with human beings and the world since the fall of our first parents has been set right.  He has taken the condemnation of the old Adam—of sin, death, and corruption—upon Himself with His cross.  He has brought us all up from the pit of hades to the heights of heaven in His glorious resurrection and ascension.
            A legal code cannot do that, but the God-Man Jesus Christ can and did.  So Paul learned, as had Nicodemus, to boast in nothing except the cross of Christ; in other words, the unfathomable love of the Father Who gave His only-begotten Son, the great Mystery of the Eternal Word of God who became a Passover Lamb, became the basis of a new life for these former Pharisees, a new life that was worth dying for as martyrs.
            Even as we speak today of being born again into a new life and becoming a new creation in Jesus Christ, we remember the birth of His Holy Mother the Theotokos to Sts. Joachim and Anna.  Think about that for a moment.  We cannot tell the story of God’s salvation becoming present in the world without mentioning particular people who offered themselves as agents of the new creation, as instruments of His new life.  This is not a faith about a book or a set of laws that falls from the sky; instead, our faith is about true personal participation in the life of One Who shares and fulfills our existence in this world as we know it.  Yes, to be our Savior as the God-Man, the Son of God had to have a mother and grandparents like the rest of us.
            Joachim and Anna were a righteous, childless, and old couple, like Abraham and Sarah.  God worked through these particular people and the miraculous conception of their daughter to bring the eternal life of Christ into the world.  Perhaps laws and ideas can simply be taught or written down in general, but God’s salvation is personal and must be embodied in the lives of unique human beings.  The Holy Trinity prepared for the incarnation of the Son through so many generations of the Hebrew people, culminating with a particular couple who in old age miraculously give birth to the one holy, pure, and obedient young woman who in turn brought Christ into the world through her own maternal love.
            This narrative is the unfolding of a new creation that cannot be reduced to a set of rules or abstractions.  It is not about general ideas of any kind.  It is, instead, a particular and personal story that cannot be told without reference to matters as intimate as marriage, conception, and pregnancy; it involves men, women, the young, and the old; and its fulfillment extends from the Virgin’s womb to the Cross and empty tomb.  The shocking good news is that Jesus Christ calls each of us as powerfully and personally as Joachim and Anna were called to become the parents of the Theotokos.  He calls us all to new life in Him, to share in the new creation of His salvation, as the distinct and unrepeatable people that we are in His image and likeness.   
            So it is not enough simply to know the words of John 3:16, as spoken to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  As participants in the new creation, you and I must actually live out this new life that Christ has brought to the world in our daily challenges with all the quirks, peculiarities, and weaknesses that each of us possesses. Every bit of who we are must become the stuff of the new creation, must be shine with the light of the new birth in our Lord.
            The same sacrificial, humble, forgiving love that is our salvation must become evident in our lives, must become characteristic of who we are as real living and breathing people.  For to live as one born again through Christ is not merely to have a feeling or experience a one-time event; instead, it is the full-blown personal reality of sharing in His life, of participating in His salvation, of living as His faithful disciples each day in response to whatever challenges come our way.   It is the joy of being part of a new creation, the New Adam, the Body of Christ. It is the blessing of life everlasting, of the salvation of God, which the cross of Christ has brought into the world.
            Of course, if this new life were about being perfect in the sense of never falling short, none of us would know anything about it because we all have room to grow in holiness. None of us fully manifests the righteousness of Christ; remember, however, that He came to save and heal, not to judge and condemn by a legal standard.  So whatever progress we make in the Christian life is ultimately a sign of His mercy and blessing.  When we hold our tongues when we are tempted to curse and condemn, when we struggle mightily to turn our attention away from unholy thoughts of any kind, when we pray for those who irritate us, and when we feebly turn our attention to God in prayer and at least make it to Liturgy with some regularity, we take small and real steps in opening our lives more fully to a deeper personal relationship with our Savior.  We embrace at least a bit His new life and become more fully His new creation by His grace.  

            Judge you or me by a legal standard alone, and there will be no hope for us because we all fall short.  But in the mercy of the God Who worked through Joachim, Anna, Nicodemus, and Paul to bring salvation to the world, we have great hope as those born again in Jesus Christ.   He did not come to bring a new set of laws, but to fulfill the old ones as the Person in Whom we are all able to participate in eternal life and to become a new creation.  If you have not figured it out, that is what we pray for in every service and hopefully every day of our lives.  So just as the Theotokos and Her parents and all the Saints have played their unique roles in the salvation of the world, let us do the same with trust that, in ways that we cannot possibly know, this is all part of bringing the new creation in Jesus Christ to its fulfillment.   As hard as it may be to believe, the story of God’s salvation of the world continues each day through you and me. 

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