What a Character!

Reading: 2 Corinthians 5.11-21

My first memory of Sid was at the opening of a new church. I didn’t actually meet him then, but his shining bald head and beaming smile up in the choir were quite unforgettable.

Later, appointed to that parish, I got to know him and discovered that he was indeed unforgettable! Already in his eighties, he was vigorous in every way. He had been and done so many things!

A World War I Major, they gave him special duty in World War II looking for Japanese spies in the Sydney Botanical Gardens. “I watched this ‘woman’ for a fortnight,” he said. “‘She’ just came and sat in the same seat day after day. But ‘she’ was really a man – and they got him!”

He spent time in Home Mission service. Here too life was always full of the eventful. I have sometimes wondered – do some people attract unusual events? or is it that they see these sort of things and we don’t?

When I knew him, Sid was writing two or three sermons a week many more than he was preaching. “I have boxes of them out in the shed,” he would say. I heard him preach a few times – always relevant, true to the Bible, true to life, well garnished with pertinent illustrations.

We were running a district youth rally once a month. On one occasion I suggested we have Sid as our speaker. You should have heard him – the man in his eighties who could hold a youthful audience in the palm of his hand!

Years later, when Sid preached on his hundredth birthday, the ABC broadcast the service nationally.

What a character!

Perhaps you know a character too. Not just like Sid. Curiously, when we call someone “a character”, we mean he or she is different from anyone else we have ever come across. So your “character” is different again!

In the Greek language the word character meant “an engraving tool”. It then came to mean the pattern engraved on a die and the impression stamped out. The Greek word itself is only used once in the New Testament – in Hebrews 1.3 where we read, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being...”

Jesus, of course, was unique – absolutely – there was only one of him. He was – and is – God the Son!

In a lesser sense, each of us is also unique. We are not mass productions – God uses a different “stamp” for each person. The sad news is that sin has distorted this “image of God” in us. As Paul put it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3.23). The good news is that Jesus – God the Son – came into this world, not just to bring forgiveness, not just to bring about a new life for us when we die, but to bring us new life and a new character now!

You can be born again!

Nicodemus, an earnest, good-living Jew, was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Already controversy was brewing in the council over this new teacher, Jesus. Nicodemus believed that the miracles of Jesus showed he had come from God and that God was with him. But he wanted to find out first-hand just who Jesus was, so he came by night to visit him.

We find Jesus speaking immediately of the necessity of a new birth. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again... no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit... You must be born again” (Jn 3.3,5,7b).

Often we are struck that Jesus should be telling this good-living man, “You must be born again!” That may not have been as much of a shock to Nicodemus as we assume. We might take offence if Jesus came up to us and said, “You must be born again!” But Nicodemus knew the contrast between his life and the image of God. He didn’t exactly see the Kingdom of God in the Sanhedrin either! His question was “But can this really happen?”

We need to hear Jesus saying to him, “You can be born again!” Not just a physical birth (a birth of water), but a birth “of the Spirit”. And it would be closely related to the very reason Jesus came into the world – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16).

Somehow, we have separated “eternal life” from “new birth”, forgiveness from a new character, the work of Christ for us from the work of the Spirit in us.

For Paul there was no question about it at all – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5.17).

Yes, Nicodemus, you must be born again if you are to see and enter the Kingdom of God, and – you can be born again!

The old has gone!

 Paul seems to be saying it has all happened already “in Christ” – this new creation, the disappearance of the old and coming of the new. What does he mean when he says, “if anyone is in Christ”?

There are two aspects. The first is that by his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has done everything necessary for us to become “a new creation”. What is required from our side is faith – a conscious dependence on Jesus. We come acknowledging our sinfulness, realising that he died paying the penalty for our sins and depending on him for his promised forgiveness.

So the old guilt and separation from God have already gone in Christ – we are new creatures, reconciled to God. That’s why Paul, in v. 16, says, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” No person is just what we perceive him or her to be. Christ has died for that person. Each one now has the potential to be a new creation in Christ.

But there is a second aspect too. Being “in Christ” is not just a status. The new creation is not something that is true even if it doesn’t seem true. “In Christ” is a relationship, a union of our being and personality with Christ. And the coming of Christ into our life is also the coming of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of holiness. So what has happened – the new creation – will lead to visible change.

The purpose of God is that sin should no longer be a part of our lives. Yet so often it still is. We may be forgiven, but the old hangs on!

Part of the way to victory is in confession. John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1.9). If you confessed last year’s sins, don’t go over them again! Accept that they are forgiven. But we do need to come with today’s sins, acknowledge them to God, accept that he has forgiven them and “in union with Christ” allow his redemptive work in that area to purify us in thought, word and deed. John sees this as a continuing act that happens to us as “we walk in the light, as he is in the light” and “have fellowship with one another” (v.7).

The other part is in our conscious choice.

A little boy came home from Sunday School and his mother asked, “What did you learn at Sunday School today, Johnny?”

Johnny replied, “Today I learnt that I have two dogs inside me, a black dog and a white dog, and they are always fighting!”

Mother was quick to realise the lesson being taught, so she went on to ask, “And which dog is going to win?”

“It depends which one I feed!”

Paul tells the Galatians that the Spirit and the sinful nature are two opposing principles within us. As new creatures in Christ we choose to live by the Spirit and not by the desires of the sinful nature.

He says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5.19,20).

In another letter Paul says that we should “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col. 3.5). It’s as if he’s saying, “The old has gone. That’s no longer part of your life. It has no rightful place in you! Let it go! Stop feeding it! Stop living by it! It has no right to control you!”

The new has come!

Describing the wonderful kindness of God, Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2.8-10).

The new has come! The purpose of God for us now is not just to forgive our bad works, but to produce good works.

Do you ever feel frustrated and disappointed about the Christian life?

No doubt we have all seen TV advertisements and programmes that show homes in spotless condition – never a blade of grass out of place outside, all cleanness and tidiness inside. And we have had that guilty question – why isn’t my place like that?

Some books and Christian speakers have given us the same feeling. Here is someone loving and kind, with such a meaningful prayer life, full of good works, so different from me! But I wonder if it’s always the full picture – not deliberate deception, but perhaps a little selective truth! This is the very real danger, by the way, in receiving too much of our Christian input from books, tapes or TV programmes – where we are protected from seeing the writer or speaker “warts and all”.

What’s the secret? How can the new become visible in my life?

It is there in what we have already noted. By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has done everything necessary for us to become a new creation. “In Christ” God already accepts us as new creatures, fully part of his family. Yet “in Christ” is not just a status, as we have seen, but a relationship, a union of our being and personality with Christ. In that union, the new must inevitably become more visible in our lives.

So we must do those things that will keep us open to growth in that relationship with Christ – so that we will “live by the Spirit” and be “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5.16,18).

This is why we need more time in prayer – not just saying prayers, not just talking to God.

Reflect in awe and wonder on God’s greatness and love (we call this adoration). Open to him those parts of our life which conflict with his will so that in confession our will may become more focused on him. Consider with thankfulness God’s guidance and help throughout our day. Bring to him the needs of others, both near and far (this is intercession). Come with our own needs – with openness to God’s guidance and will for us (petition).

This can become the pattern for a particular prayer time – morning or evening. But the relationship continues throughout the day with prayer not very far away.

Prayer needs to be joined with reading the Word. The Bible is important for our spirit, our mind and our will. Reading it is more than an intellectual exercise, though our minds do need to be “turned on” as we read. There are things we need to understand in praying for others and for ourselves. Our conscience, so often dulled by social values around us, needs to be sensitised. The Holy Spirit takes the Word and applies it to our lives. Our wills need to be attuned to his will. We need to read prayerfully, “Lord, what are you saying to me?”

Fellowship and worship are vitally important. The Christian life is not to be lived in isolation, but in relationship with others. We need other Christians. John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1.7). At no point is fellowship seen as just another option. It is an essential growing place for Christian character, as well as a place of support and encouragement for Christian living.

In Galatians, Paul calls Christian character “the fruit of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5.22,23). In other words, these traits come about because of the activity of the Spirit within us, because we are “in Christ”.

But they are not meant to be “hot-house” qualities. They need to be expressed, not just in here but out there – where Christ calls us to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5.13,14).

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Possible? Yes! True for us? This is where we may hesitate, but yes – in Christ, because of all that he has done, even though not yet fully visible! The Holy Spirit is still working on us!

A new creation? What a character!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Cairns Northern Beaches Uniting Church, 18 June 2006
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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