- Ask Dr. Cobb
- Creative Transformation
4th Sunday in Lent
March 25, 2001
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Both of these passages offer rich fare for preaching. I will comment only on one point. What does Paul mean when he writes to the Corinthians that he no longer views people "according to the flesh" or "from a human point of view"? Does he offer us a way of being in the world to which we should respond? Or is his vision illusory and even dangerous? For Paul, conversion meant putting on a new pair of glasses. He had earlier lived in a world from which God was largely absent, a world that hoped for a great change with the coming of the Messiah. He now lived in a world to which the Messiah had come. But the outward changes that he and other Jews had expected with the coming of the Messiah were largely absent. It is true that there was now a church in which Jews and Genitles participated on an equal basis, and this was no small matter. But the overall course of history seemed to be little affected. That public change was still a matter of hope, but Paul could also be ecstatic about the change that had already occurred.
So what was the great change effected by Jesus? It was for Paul a new way of understanding the relation of God and human beings. In Christ God wa reconciling the world to himself. Human beings were no longer simply what they appear to be in the ordinary human perspective: partly virtuous and partly sinful; partly attractive and partly unattractive. All were creatures with whom God was reconciling himself, people against whom God was not counting their trespasses. That means for Paul that we also are to see other people as those whose trespasses and failures are not be counted against them. They are those for whom Jesus came and died. God has acted in their behalf, and the new world of reconciled life is open to them. Our task is to extend this good news to all.
Paul understands this new way of eeing as being "in Christ." That is a new way of being. Does that make sense for us today? Do we Christians really see our neighbors in a new way because of our faith? There is danger here. To overlook the reality of human sinfulness and failure and view others as if their motives were pure and their lives virtuous would be to set ourselves, up for disaster, and to do not good for those we misinterpreted. But this is surely not what Paul meant. In his letters he does not obscure the presence of sin even among the members of his churches, certainly not in the wider world. He is realistic about human limitations. Nevertheless he writes ecstatically of what it means to see that everything is new. Can we share in this? Certainly, simply being a member of a church in no way guarantees that one views one's neighbor in a different light. But there are those amongst us who do seem to look at others in terms of God's love for them rather than in terms of their unattractive appearance or irritating personalities. Some act on that perception in wonderful ways. For them, God's reconciliation of the world in Christ leads to their reconciliation with their neighbors. For them, all things are new. I have said "them." But perhaps this can also be true for "us." Although being a church member by no means automatically transforms our perceptions of our neighbors, life in a community of believers does have the provide a context in which such change can occur. By God's grace, we, too, can see our neighbors in light of God's love for them.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently serves as co-director for the Center for Process Studies and also teaches a course during the Summer Institute for Process & Faith at the Claremont School of Theology.