Easter keeps happening, even though we are now four weeks after Easter, every time someone is converted to Christ. The Christian life comes neither naturally nor normally. Little within us prepares us for the shock of moral regeneration that is occasioned by the work of Christ among us. What God in Christ wants to do in us is nothing less than radical new creation, movement from death to life. This means that ministry among the baptized tends to be more radical, disruptive, and antagonistic than we pastors admit. We are awfully accommodated, well situated, at ease in Zion , or at least disgustingly content with present arrangements. We reassure ourselves with the comforting bromides of a lethargic church: Everyone in Mainline Protestantism is in decline, everyone has become geriatric, even the Baptists are losing members, people can’t change, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Sociological determinism has got us. What’s to be done?
Despite our settled arrangements with death, as an African American preacher friend of mine puts it, the gospel means, “God is going to get back what God owns.” C. S. Lewis spoke of his life before his conversion as “before God closed in on me.” Conversion, being born again, transformed, regenerated, detoxified, is God’s means of closing in upon us, of getting God’s way with the world, despite what that reclamation may cost God, or us.
Deep in my Wesleyan once warmed heart is a story of how a priggish little Oxford don got changed at Aldersgate and thereafter. John Wesley’s life was well formed, well fixed by a host of positive Christian influences upon him before the evening on Aldersgate Street. Yet what happened afterwards has led us Wesleyans to see his heart “strangely warmed” as nothing less than dramatic ending and beginning, death and birth, a whole new world.
Such a story, fixed deep in our souls, challenges a church that has become accommodated to things as they are, the cultural status quo. It stands as a rebuke to a church that has settled comfortably into a characterization of the Christian life as pleasantly continuous and basically synonymous with being a good person.
Scripture enlists a rich array of metaphors to speak of the discontinuous, discordant outbreak of new life named as “conversion.” “Born from above,” or “born anew” (John 3:7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23), “regeneration” (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), “putting on a new nature” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul contrasts the old life according to the flesh with “life according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-39). Baptism tries to tell us that the Christian life is at times discordant, dissonant, and disrupting. When one joins Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn. One might think people would get the message. But, as Luther said, the Old Adam is a mighty good swimmer. A conversionist faith is so disconcerting, particularly to those for whom the world as it is has been fairly good. Those on top, those who are reasonably well fed, fairly well futured, tend to cling to the world as it is rather than risk the possibility of something new. For all these economic, social, and political reasons we pastors tend toward the maintenance of stability rather than the expectation of conversion.
Paul was stunned by the reality of the resurrection — the way God not only vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, but also thereby recreated the whole kosmos. In Easter, an old world had been terminated and a new one was being born, so Paul was forced to rethink everything that he had previously thought, including ethics. Much of what Paul says about Christian behavior was formed as his testimony to the resurrection, an event that he had experienced within the dramatic turn around in his own life. Whereas Jesus did Easter at the empty tomb, Easter happened to Paul on the Damascus Road.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed
away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor.
Verse 17, in the Greek, lacks both subject and verb so it is best
rendered by the exclamatory, “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!”
Certainly, old habits die hard. There are still, as Paul acknowledges so eloquently in Romans 8, “the sufferings of the present time.” It makes a world of difference whether or not one knows the resurrection. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also now conscious of their citizenship in a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being born among us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know. And that makes us different.
Crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead – and in our continuing conversion, he takes us along with him toward new life.
William H. Willimon