2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
October 26, 2008
First there was just Extreme Makeover. It aired on Thursday nights at 9:00 on ABC. According to its website, it described itself as “. . . a real life fairy tale in which (people’s) wishes come true, not just to change their looks, but their lives and destinies. This magic is conjured up through the skills of an ‘Extreme Team,’ including the nation's top plastic surgeons, eye surgeons and cosmetic dentists, along with a talented team of hair and makeup artists, stylists and personal trainers, led by an on-camera Extreme Makeover expert.” The show concluded as each person had their “climactic unveiling” – a staged and tremendously over-hyped event where he or she finally emerged through the curtains and appeared before their loved ones, who'd hoot and holler, whose mouths gaped open in amazement, and who inevitably cried tears of joy over their “new” mom or wife.
Then came Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It had the same basic concept except it involved – you guessed it – a house. It focused on some family who had gotten a raw deal in life – a natural disaster that destroyed some or all of their home, someone in the family with a terminal illness, some kind of situation that was ripe for a shot in the arm. Over the course of seven days, the family is shuffled off for a first-rate vacation (paid for by the show's producers), while ringleader Ty Pennington rallies local contractors and other willing hands to totally redo the house – new rooms, appliances, walls – no expense is spared. Sometimes it involves totally demolishing the old structure and building a new one. At the end of the show, the family is standing on the other side of the road from their house, whose view is blocked by a bus. And when the bus is moved, the family literally freaks out as they gaze upon the new creation – all of which is captured on television for the viewing pleasure of millions.
Who knows what the next evolution will be? It's interesting how fascinated the public can be about this sort of thing – the work itself (whatever is being “made over”), as well as the emotions and drama of the final “unveiling.” Lives are changed!.......or are they? You know, it's rare that they ever do any kind of “follow-up” with these individuals or families a year or two down the road. It'd be interesting to see what happens after the camera crews leave and the fervor dies down, don't you think? I mean, is the life of that woman who lost all that weight and had that fancy haircut really changed? How about the family who is faced with trying to sell a monster of a house in this economy in a neighborhood where the average home is half its size? These makeovers make for great TV – but do they really change lives?
Changing lives, after all, was what the apostle Paul was writing about in his second letter to the church in Corinth; a church he had had a long-standing relationship with. And like any relationship, there were some good times and then there were some not-so-good times. This was one of those “not-so-good” times. Apparently Paul had endured what he referred to as a “painful visit” not too long before, and the tension and anger were still very much there as he put pen to paper.
And, you know, you gotta feel for Paul. I mean, it's not like he's trying to tick everyone off. It's not like wants to make a bunch of enemies, or be the thorn in their collective side. All he wants is for people to emulate in their lives their relationship with Jesus Christ. Not simply touched by it; not just giving them a “warm fuzzy feeling” inside. Paul wants their habits, their routines, their thinking, their reasoning and their actions to undergo radical change. He wants them to realize, as he says in the verse Octavia read, that anyone in Christ is a new creation – everything old has passed away, and everything has become new. In other words: Extreme Makeover – Soul Edition.
It's kind of funny, you know. I mean, it took a number of years before folks came up with a name for these people. “New Creations” just didn't quite roll off the tongue all that well. So eventually – years and years after Jesus' death – they took to calling them Christians. “Little Christs” is what the term really means. People trying to model one's self after what they saw in Jesus. And notice one thing – it wasn't all about what those people believed. In fact, in many ways they were still working that part out. What the word “christian” meant back in the day was how one lived, and how their relationship with Jesus changed the way they lived.
So who exactly is a Christian? It's not as easy as it sounds, is it? I mean, what ultimately makes a Christian a Christian? Is it that they once made a profession of faith – is that it? Is it that they're active in a church, or on their member rolls – is that who a Christian is? There are people who think that just because your family attends church makes you a Christian, and then there are people who believe that being a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with going to church. Defining who and what a Christian is in our day and time can be a tricky business.
Not too long ago I came across a wonderful quote by writer Henri Nouwen; and I want to lift it up to you as a brilliant way of understanding who and what a Christian is. I've asked Lynn to print it on the back of the announcements page this morning, and as I read it out loud I want to ask you to read it silently with me:
as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in,
so long as you emphasize the need of conversion both for yourself and for the world,
so long as you in no way let yourself become established in the situation of the world,
and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.
You are Christian only when you believe you have a role to play
in the realization of the new kingdom,
and when you urge everyone you meet with holy unrest to make haste
so that the promise might soon be fulfilled.
So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order,
a new structure, a new life.
(http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/nouwen-quote.html, visited on 7.8.2008)
How about that! You know, you could take each one of these stanzas and make an entire sermon out of them! Maybe I'll do that sometime. Because it's not a bad understanding of who and what a Christian is, is it? It's so much broader, so much deeper than what you and I tend to think of. It's not about what family someone comes from, or where someone attends church, or whether they even attend church at all. What it boils down to is the rather simple yet terribly difficult notion of allowing your relationship with Christ to change not just your life, but the lives of those around you.
And that is precisely what the apostle Paul was trying to get across to those Christians in Corinth – those wonderful, spirit-filled, faithful, divisive, argumentative, misguided Christians. People who claim Jesus as Lord don't see things or do things like the way the world sees them and does them. People who claim Jesus as Lord pose questions to the greater society that no one else dares to ask. People who claim Jesus as Lord do not only see the need for conversion in everyone else, but first see that same need in themselves. People who claim Jesus as Lord do not sit idly by, but instead are actively engaged in doing their part to usher in God's kingdom on earth. And people who claim Jesus – and I love how Nouwen puts this – urge everyone with holy unrest to join in the mission. “Holy unrest” - there's no time to waste! The extreme makeover, soul edition begins right now.
And so I wonder – how do Paul's words challenge you, some 2000 years later? That's the question, isn't it? How do we enact this new creation as members of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy? Just days away from an important election, how does Christ call us to behave and vote our conscience instead of our fears? How do we as Christians engage issues like hunger and poverty, torture, AIDS? Those less fortunate than us, a dying world, a lonely child, a fractured family, a church preparing to conclude its 150th year of service?
You're beginning to see, I hope, that being a Christian is a whole lot more involved than simply following that “A-B-C” formula on the back of the tract you find stuck in the frame of the mirror in the public bathroom. And the beauty of it is, the kind of “extreme makeover” that Paul talks about – seeking reconciliation and being ambassadors of that reconciliation – is not restricted at all to the confines of a church building. The embodiment of this new creation can take place just about anywhere.
Tony Campolo knows this is true. Campolo is a wonderful speaker, writer and evangelist who has an uncanny way of seeing the church in the world around us. A few years back, Tony traveled to the east coast for a speaking engagement. It was late at night when he got there, and the time change had played havoc with his sleeping pattern, so he found himself in a run-down doughnut shop well after midnight. As Tony enjoyed his doughnut and coffee, he also picked up that this place was a gathering point for, of all people, some of the local hooker crowd.
At one point his booth was adjacent to two of those young women in conversation; one of whom was named Agnes. He heard Agnes say to the other, “You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39.” Her friend snapped back, “So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” With a sullen look on her face Agnes replied, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
The two women eventually left, but Tony stayed. He stayed because hearing this exchange gave him idea. He got up and found the doughnut shop owner and asked him if Agnes came in every night. And when he said yes, Tony invited him to take part in what he called a “surprise party conspiracy.” The owner's wife even got involved. Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes, who, other than a familiar face, was known to none of them. They planned all of this out for the next night, when Tony and the others would spring their surprise.
Tony got there a little earlier the next night, just to be sure. And when Agnes eventually walked in, Tony and all the other patrons shouted out, “Surprise!” At first Agnes was clueless – and a little frightened! But when she finally made the connection, and realized what was going on, and realized this was all for her, she couldn't believe it. The doughnut shop patrons sang, and when it came time to blow out the candles Agnes struggled to do so through the tears rolling down her face. And when it came time to cut the cake, Agnes asked if it would be okay if they didn't cut it, and if she could take it home just like it was, to keep it for a while and savor the moment. So she left, carrying her cake down the street that night as if it were the greatest of treasures.
Tony led the guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the shop owner told Tony he didn't realize Tony was a preacher. He asked what kind of church Tony came from, and Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
The shop owner couldn't believe him. “No you don't. There ain't no church like that, he said. If there was, I'd join it. In a heartbeat.”
(As told by Brian McLaren from his book The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006 pgs. 144-145)
Folks, it's true that our church is in the middle of a makeover of sorts. And there may be a little dust and dirt around, and the staff can tell you it gets pretty noisy around here sometimes. But the real important makeover is the one that takes place in each of our hearts, and how that makeover plays itself out in the lives we live as followers of Christ. “New Creations,” Paul calls us. Christians. With God's blessing, may we be the kind of church that changes lives, and that others, like that doughnut shop owner, long to become part of. Thanks be to God. AMEN.