New Creation: Galatians 6:11-18
part of a new creation, through the cross, separated from this world - God’s chosen people
I know many of us have been shaken by the events of the past ten days. I certainly have been very shaken. Although for most of us it’s still just something we are reading about and hearing about rather than something we’re experiencing or directly connected with, we know there are literally millions of people whose lives have been shattered, thousands killed, and no end in sight.
It’s been hard to concentrate on anything else - and that’s probably appropriate given the gravity of the situation. So you’ll forgive me for being less well prepared today. I know people there - not close friends, but real people I have sat in a room with.
We will be meeting at 5pm this evening in person and online for an extended time of guided prayer focused on the situation. Though we might feel - and be - mostly powerless, when we pray, we speak to one who is powerful, the God who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine. So please make a special effort to join us in person or online, and whether you can join us or not, to pray and keep on praying.
Our elders - that’s the bible word for church leaders - have been talking about whether there are other things we could do as a church to help those in need. You’ll be aware there are many practical efforts to help and collections already in flight so we don’t want to duplicate. We’re also aware, while it may feel like doing less, giving money to established organisations near the crisis could ultimately be doing more: money can be used immediately at the point of need for what’s presently urgent.
I spoke last week about a post regarding our prayers from a pastor in Ukraine called Igor. Igor is the pastor of Christ's Communion Evangelical Church in Lviv in Western Ukraine. I don't know Igor or his church but he is a friend of a friend, I know the church network that they belong to (EveryNation which has a church here in Edinburgh, CentrePoint Church), and I have cross-checked via the US missions agency which supports them as missionaries.
We've been able to find the bank details for their church and we are proposing, given the urgency of the situation and how quickly things are changing, that as something we can do immediately to help, we aim to make a single transfer of funds directly into their church bank account, hopefully on Monday. It will enable them to continue serving with Christ's love those who God has placed around them. I shared a link to a video of Igor describing the sorts of things they are doing to our social media and email lists yesterday - it’s pretty inspirational and I’d love you to watch it.
If you would like to be a part of putting money directly into their hands, you can give to HopeCity via direct bank transfer with the memo "Ukraine" or you can give via PayPal right now - scan one of these QR codes to give a fixed amount. We’ll show this slide again at the close of our gathering. We'll sum up everything which comes in by Monday and try and wire it direct to their bank that day.
We don’t necessarily expect to hear or see anything from them in response - they are in the middle of a catastrophe. We’ll share anything further they share - but you'll understand making videos isn't a priority for them right now. We think it is very important that we do not place any further burden on them in doing this, just resource them when they are in the heart of the storm. This crisis is very likely to continue so we must be generous now but also expect ongoing needs - I'm just conscious they may not be able to use money or buy resources in a week.
Please don’t feel any obligation to give, or to give in this way. There are many other places you can give to, and other ways you can help. The government is match-funding gifts to the Uk’s Disaster Committee Appeal but sometimes you want something more focused and specific to give to rather than a large and general fund.
Let me pray once more and then we’ll continue.
… live prayer ...
So we’ve been working through a letter in the bible called Galatians and we’re going to continue that even in this present crisis. We believe what the bible has to say continues to be relevant - perhaps especially so as we see the fragility and brokenness of our world so awfully on display. The passage we’re going to look at today is the conclusion of the letter - and it points us towards our hope as followers of Jesus: new creation.
Let’s read together and then we’ll dig in. Galatians chapter six - that’s page 1172 in these blue bibles. Galatians chapter six - big 6 - and we’re starting reading from verse 10 - tiny 10. Page 1172, Galatians chapter six, verse 10. Leona is reading for us today.
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
The big aim of our author is to shoot down some fake news, some false teaching that’s arrived in the fledgling churches of Galatia, modern day Turkey. This teaching says an essential part of following Jesus is circumcision, a Jewish body-marking ritual. But our author has explained to us if you accept circumcision, you have to accept the whole Jewish religious way of life with it. If keeping any religious law is essential, then keeping every religious law is essential. It’s a package deal - but he says it’s a hopeless path because it’s an impossible path, like every path built on the foundation of us trying to measure up.
He says, instead, all our hope should be in what Jesus has done, not in what we do. He says to them, having started out in grace - that is, being right with God because of what Jesus did for us - they need to continue in that grace; that’s our series title: “continuing in grace”. They - and we - are not to turn back to the old way of trying to measure up by ourselves, through our performance. He talks about this as freedom rather than slavery - “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” we read a few weeks back.
Here in this closing section, which it seems our author, the apostle Paul, penned himself, picking up from the scribe who’d captured the rest of the letter, he talks about motives: what drives his opponents, and what drives him.
His opponents, he tells us, are in it for themselves: to protect their own skin. “the only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” They don’t care about the people they are speaking to - they might pretend, but it’s not real care. They only really care about themselves. Bragging rights are their bottom line. It’s all self-focused.
Paul is the opposite end of the spectrum: he isn’t in this for himself, to protect his own skin - he has the scars to prove it. That’s how most commentators understand “the marks of Jesus” here - scars Paul has as a result of following and sharing the good news about Jesus, scars from the various attacks and beatings he has suffered as a result. These opponents want to avoid persecution but Paul’s served Jesus through it.
Why? What motivates him? What drives him? “The cross of our lord Jesus Christ”, he says: that’s what he’ll boast in. That’s what he’ll suffer for. That’s what drives him to be so radically other-focused rather than self-focused like these opponents.
As we live through these troubled times, it’s the hope which we have through the cross which I want to focus in on this morning, something Paul describes as “new creation” - the only thing, he say, that ultimately counts: “what counts is the new creation.”
Sounds cool. Sounds significant. But what does he mean by that? Let me try and unpack this briefly for us:
neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, he says, in contrast to this “new creation” which means everything. What’s he telling us here?
circumcision means nothing - sure, we understand that: those Jewish religious rites won’t save - circumcision doesn’t mean anything. We’ve talked about that a lot over these last months. But uncircumcision? Why does Paul tell us uncircumcision is meaningless, insignificant too?
Circumcision was the dividing line between Israel, God’s people, and “the rest”, the Gentiles. That dividing line is meaningless now because of the cross, Paul is telling us. Where that used to be a boundary, some inside, some outside, based on our performance, that’s meaningless now. That old way of doing things belongs to a previous era, one which has begun to pass away with the cross.
What counts now is new creation - and by that, he means not just pressing “reset” on this world, winding the clock back and starting again, but the transformation and renewal of creation from within, through God’s direct action.
Starting with the incarnation, Jesus - God come in the flesh - begins to act directly in his world to transform and renew. At the cross Jesus absorbs the full power and penalty of all our wrongs, taking it to the grave, finishing it. With the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new life, God’s new creation begins in earnest.
And through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, alive within every true Christ-follower, this new creation expands, transforming as it goes through the power of the Spirit inside us, bringing righteousness, justice, holiness, goodness - and eternal life.
The dividing line is no longer performance based: circumcision vs. uncircumcision; that wall has been demolished. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.” The dividing line is between what Paul called back at the beginning of this letter “this present evil age” Gal 1:4, which is passing away, and this “new creation” which is breaking in - through the cross, by the Spirit. “What counts is the new creation.”
Here’s the difference: that old dividing line was on the basis of how we perform; whether we keep the rules or fail to - and in truth no-one could keep all the rules. This new division is on the basis of what Christ has done, and our relationship to it. Is our hope and trust rooted in our performance? Then we’re thinking about that old dividing line. Is our hope and trust rooted in his performance? Then we have already crossed this new dividing line; we are a new creation. This same Paul writes in another of his letters:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
This is the only thing that matters. Any question related to our performance, any identity flowing out of our performance, whether that’s being “in”, or being deliberately and resolutely “out”, is meaningless. The only thing that counts is new creation, flowing out of Jesus’ performance.
Paul tells us the path to this new creation, and what to expect as participants in it. First let’s look at the path: the cross is the path - the one thing Paul is willing to boast in, to boast about. New creation comes through the cross - but Paul expands on that for us here, too: through the cross, he says “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”. What does he mean by that?
The cross was the Romans’ chosen instrument of death for the worst criminals: painful, slow - but certain death. When he talks about the world being crucified to him, and him to the world, he’s talking about that certain and final parting which is death. He says he is parting from the world - released from it in a way - certain but not yet concluded. Think about how we might talk about someone being “dead to us” when we’re going to completely ignore them - that’s effectively what he’s saying about this passing material world: it’s dead to him now. He’s let go - but notice this parting is in both directions; the world is parting from him too - it’s letting go of him; its hold on him is failing - its interest in him is waining. The cross hasn’t just changed Paul - it’s changed the world.
We’ve talked a bunch about “now and not yet” over these last months - the idea that there’s an assured final conclusion which is so certain that we can talk about it as true right now - but it’s also a destination which we’ve not yet reached. That’s the case with this parting of the ways. It’s assured. It’s true now - it’s real, certain, happening - but it’s not yet reached its destination, its culmination.
That’s what the cross does - to us and to the world. That’s the path to new creation - but what are we to expect if we’re participants in this new creation? peace and mercy: “peace and mercy to all who follow this rule”.
He writes these blessings of peace and mercy belong to all who “follow this rule” - but haven’t we just said this isn’t about following rules? So why’s he talking about rules here? What rule would he have in mind?
Well, the Greek language underneath that phrase puts two terms together: first, the same term we met a few weeks’ back when we talked about “keeping in step with the Spirit” - the idea of being in line with something, keeping in time with something, marching with it, conformed to something, in accordance with something. And second the idea of a measuring ruler, a standard, a yardstick. What he’s getting at is the group of people who are in line with this measure, who correspond to this standard - and “new creation” being that standard or measure.
That make sense? So peace and mercy to the participants in this new creation, he says. Now mercy, we often talk and think about as “not getting what you deserve” - so here we’re thinking about not getting what we deserve for the wrong ways we live, act, respond, think - things which God rightly and justly stands against and tells us he will punish. Instead of judgement, those who are part of this new creation through the cross, receive mercy: Jesus took the judgement in our place.
But then he adds peace. God is not at war with this new creation; because of his mercy, through the cross of Christ, there is peace with them. And actually it goes further than that. To us, the word peace means simply the absence of war but the original audience would understood it to have a much wider meaning of right-ness: everything as it should be. “the good life”, flourishing. Not just a ceasefire where the bombs no longer drop. Peace is much bigger. Everything restored to how it was meant to be - rebuilt; secure; right.
But how can we talk about this bigger version of peace - or peace at all - given what’s going on in our world? We’re painfully aware there are many who, through the cross, through faith in Christ, are a part of this new creation, but for them there’s no peace, not even a real ceasefire. Is this just words to those facing life and death close up just now? More talk, no action?
No - these are not mere words. These are God’s words. He stands behind them. There is mercy and peace for all through this new creation. But just like this separation from the world we talked about, there’s a now and a not yet to this.
New creation is real now. If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come. You are not who you were. You are not a slave to sin as you were. You are indwelt and empowered by God’s own Holy Spirit. You can produce the fruit of the Spirit. Followers of Jesus in Ukraine right now are living out this new creation in their amazing acts of love, kindness, gentleness. There is a supernatural peace for them in the Spirit. Still, I am sure many are afraid; I am sure, like us, they make mistakes, do wrong, choose evil. It’s not a finished work - but it is a started one.
Our ultimate and sure hope is the “not yet” of peace. As new creation breaks into this present evil age - and this present evil age tries to stamp it out and crush it and destroy it - people die, as multitudes have before them. But new creation extends beyond death - as Jesus himself shows us: 1 Cor 15:20
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
His resurrection is the final and ultimate breaking in of new creation: an indestructible new life. When we’re told he is the firstfruits it’s like he’s the first apple ripe on the tree - the first of many who will follow him into this ultimately new creation and new life. And that is our sure and certain final hope of peace - not just a ceasefire, the absence of war, but everything restored at last. That is the real hope for followers of Jesus living in the face of death - and the real hope for us.
The hope that we are, as this passage puts it, “the Israel of God” - we are his chosen people. He will live among us as our God and we will all be his people, gathered. We are his family - so we will rise just like his Son rose - it is his promise, and his Spirit alive within us is the down-payment, the security, the “sureity” is the old-fashioned word - the proof.
Through the cross, there’s a new creation coming, one which will overtake this whole world. This new creation is their hope and ours.
A moment to reflect and then we’ll pray.