Imagination: What If It’s True?


We’re going to be camping out for just a few minutes in 2 Corinthians 5,
so you can go ahead and turn there.

I don’t know how the last few weeks have been for the rest of you,
but my emotions and Joy’s emotions have been all over the map the past few weeks.

One day excitement, the day anxiety.
Or sometimes it’s changed by the minute.

It’s all been mixed up.

Dreams and distress, hopes and hurts—
they’ve all been swirling together the last few weeks.

I bet you can relate.

Because I think this is the way life always is for all of us all the time—just some seasons we feel this tension—this strange mixed-up-ness of life—more strongly than others.

But it’s always there.

Life is always this confusing mixture
of weeds and wheat growing together—
of horror one day and happiness the next,
of pain in one season and promise the next.

That’s just the way our lives are.
And that’s part of the reason a local church gathers together.

Why we carve out an hour in the midst of our swirling lives—
because we’re looking for something to make sense of our lives.

And the church makes sense of the world in a way absolutely different
from any other group or religion or organization.

The church announces the king of the universe.
We look gaze Jesus to make sense of the world.

We announce that Jesus of Nazareth reigns over this mixed-up universe.

That a real human being
who has defeated death
and restarted the human race
is alive and ruling over the world.

That’s the curious confession of the church throughout the centuries:

Jesus is living. And Jesus is Lord.

And one day he will make his lordship known,
to restore and remake and recreate the universe.

That’s the moment that Christians eager anticipation
when the swirling will finally stop.

And until that moment comes
(until human history finally comes to an end so that human history can finally begin)
Jesus has sent a peculiar community of people into the world.

He’s sending us.

The last six weeks, we’ve been exploring what it means for to be this peculiar kind of people. The way we’ve summarized it is that we’re invited to trust, celebrate and embody Jesus. Over the past few weeks we’ve been exploring what it means for us to be doing this.

Trusting Jesus is about humility and honesty.
About getting under and opening up.

About submitting our lives to something greater than ourselves
and allowing its light to flood our lives.

Celebrating Jesus is about hospitality and wholeness.
About wideness and deepness.

About learning to recognize the seemingly unlikely reality of a friendly universe
and learning to embrace the sometimes painful reality that God will have us be fully alive.

And so this week and next week, we’re going to explore just a little
of what it means for us to embody Jesus in the world.

Embodying Jesus is quite fashionable right now.

There are huge movements within the Christian faith that are rediscovering the profound importance of the church being an unrelenting, unquestionable force for good in the world.

And that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. Because as swirling as our lives are—as mixed-up as the world is—we need forces for good.

But embodying Jesus means more than just doing good stuff in the world.

There are a lot of groups out there—
organizations, movements, agencies, non-profits—
that do a tremendous amount of good.

Why do we need a Jesus community
if what it means “to embody” is essentially just about doing good stuff?

The church is unique because it has a different worldview—
an entirely different creative matrix—that generates what it does.

A Jesus community has a particular inner world
that are shapes the outside world.

Jesus talks says that if you make a tree good, it will bear good fruit (Matt 12.33).

Paul tells us to “be transformed… [but how?] …by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12.2).

The process of embodying Jesus
is a movement from inside to an inside.

From our heart to our hands.
From the mind to the muscles.

From our inner lives (our thinking, feeling, understanding)
to our outer lives (from relationships to societies to the entire universe).

A movement from imagination to restoration.

Those are the two words we’re going to use
to try to get at what it means to “embody Jesus.”

Imagination and restoration.

Now there’s a word that we (tragically) don’t often associate with the church.

To clarify right from the start:

By “imagination” we don’t mean irrationally pretending the world is one way
or playing make-believe while the rest of the world uses reason.

We’re talking more learning to see the world through a different lens.

Learning to see the world differently—
to understand the world, to see the world clearly.

I think this view of imagination is central to what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 5, so let’s read it:

(5:13f) If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God;
if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

(v16) So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.
Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:
The old has gone, the new is here!

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ
and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting people’s sins against them.

And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors,
as though God were making his appeal through us.

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

(6.1) As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
    and in the day of salvation I helped you.”

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor,
now is the day of salvation.


Paul (one of the early Christian leaders) is in the middle
of writing a deeply impassioned and vulnerable letter
to a Jesus-community in the city of Corinth.

He’s explaining to them what drives him to do what he’s been doing—
traveling around the eastern Mediterranean world of the Roman empire
announcing that a crucified Jew is the true and divine king
and creating pockets of people devoted this king’s kingdom.

The crazy thing about what Paul is doing is that it’s working.
The fact that there’s a Jesus-community in Corinth is evidence of it (cf. 2.2-3).

People have been hearing and believing the news of this king (of this Jesus)
and have started reorienting their entire lives around him.

Their personal behavior.
Their social lives.
Even their economic practices.

The news of this new king is changing everything.

Paul’s been like a father to this little community,
but now he’s having to do a little bit of long-distance defense
of both himself personally and his actions.

That’s a flavor for the letter as a whole.

For our purposes this evening, I want to start in verse 16. There’s a lot in this passage, and it might be tempting to blow past it—but I think it’s offering us a glimpse into the sort of life that has been turned completely inside-out by Jesus:

(v16) So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.
Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

“We once viewed Jesus and everyone and the world a certain way.
But we don’t anymore. We can’t anymore.
Because Jesus has changed the way we conceive of the entire world.”

He says that he had once regarded Jesus kata sarka
“according to the flesh” or from a worldly point of view.

From purely human perspective.
From a small and limited imagination.

And from that perspective, his life made perfect sense.
(Well, as much sense as our swirling, mixed-up lives ever make.)

But he had a general sense of the story he was in.

Paul understood the situation of his people (the Jewish people):
were waiting on their God (Yahweh) to come and rescue them
from what felt like centuries of slavery (cf. Ez 9.9, Neh 9.36)
under the domination of foreign powers (Babylon, Persia, the Greeks, the Romans).

Rescue them from what felt like a living death.

Paul understood what he was supposed to be doing:
that he and his fellow Jews should try to be faithful to Yahweh
as they waited on Yahweh’s rescue.

On the time of his favor.
On the day of his salvation.

Here’s a prayer found in the Jewish writings
that Paul could very well have been praying:

(Dan 9.14-16a) The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

“Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill.

(9.17-19a) “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act!

(That’s a snippet from a prayer in Daniel 9.)

The Jewish people understood that God was right (was righteous)
in bringing disaster and curse on their ancestors.

But they also trusted that because God is righteous—
because God does indeed act rightly—
he eventually turn away from his anger and wrath:

(9.16) Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath

Because God doesn’t break his promises.
And he had made all kinds of promises to Paul’s ancestors.

That he would breathe new life into his people
and would resurrect them (Ezk 37).

That he would make a new beginning with them—
a new covenant with them (Jer 31).

That he would remake and restore the world
(he would make a new creation)
and it would begin with them (Isa 40-66).

That he would establish a descendant of David to rule the world forever (2 Sam 7).

That all the world be blessed through Abraham’s family (Gen 12).

In light of these promises, Paul understood Jesus:
Jesus was clearly some kind of failed insurrectionist
who had failed to rescue the Jewish people from their foreign overlords
and was handed over by local religious leadership for a state execution.

And Paul understood Jesus’ followers:
they were fanatics who were continuing to make noise and make waves.

They were potentially going to make trouble for all of the Jewish people
while they ought to be faithfully waiting on their God to rescue them.

Paul was no dummy.
He knew his Bible.

He knew things were supposed to pan out.
He knew how the story was supposed to go.

He was waiting on God to act powerfully.
Waiting on God to rescue.
Waiting on the day of salvation.

He had a pretty good understanding of
what the story of history was about,
what his life was about,
what his place in the world was,
what he was supposed to be doing.

An executed Galilean woodworker
(and his lingering, trouble-making cronies)
made were just marginal distractions.

Paul’s world made sense.
Well, it made sense kata sarka—from a limited imagination.


But Paul began seeing something about Jesus
that has caused the entire world to shift under his feet.

It was like an avalanche had changed the side of his mountain,
like an earthquake had changed his entire landscape,
like tectonic plates had shifted and changed his world.

He now understood that this man—this Jesus—was central to his people’s history.
And because he was central to Israel’s history, Jesus was central to the world’s history.

Suddenly an executed Galilean woodworker outside the walls of Jerusalem
had captured Paul’s imagination—had shifted Paul’s entire understanding
of life, of the story, of his place in the world.

Do you hear how he talks about Jesus?

He says that somehow the death of this man was made “to be sin” (v21).
Or a “sin offering” is another way to translate that.

But Paul sees meaning and order
in the darkness and earthquakes around the cross,
in the bloodied, battered, broken body of Jesus.

He sees that place
where darkness seemed to extinguish the light,
where hate crippled love,
where the jaws of death swallowed life—
that’s the place where sin was dealt with once and for all.

This man had died—he had died for all (v14).
The Greek there is the little word pas which means… all.

One died for all
and therefore all died.

This man took the living death of Israel into himself,
and, in doing that, he took all the literal death of the world into himself.

…now that right there is a seismic shift in the way we understand the world.

We died when Jesus died.

Your death isn’t when you thought.

It’s not one day in an accident,
not down the road with cancer,
not in the future peacefully surrounded by family—

the deepest reality of your life
is that you died before you were ever born.

You died with Jesus. And so did everyone else.

I don’t exactly understand how that works or what that even means in detail—
but that’s what the earliest church claimed.

And now everyone who died is invited to live—
to really and truly live.

We’re invited to live (v15) no longer for ourselves
but for him who died and was raised.

Because God raised Jesus from the dead—
because light banished darkness,
because love overcame hate,
because life ripped death open from the inside.

Because Jesus is living
and Jesus is Lord…

…What if it’s true?

I know this is church,
I get that this is a sermon,

I’m aware that this is the time and place
where we talk about the strangest things with familiar yawns,

…but what if it’s true?

What if the world is a different place than we think?
What if there’s another way of understanding it besides kata sarka?

What if the human race did somehow die
in the first-century outside the gates of Jerusalem?

What if the moment of greatest tragedy, horror, and villainy
was actually the moment of greatest transformation, hope, and victory?

What if it’s true?

What if Jesus really did rise from the dead?
What if he really is sharing his indestructible life with us?

What if it’s true?

What if the world is magic?
What if we’re actually living in fairy tale?

What if it’s true?

How would that change the way we think? the way we feel?
the way we perceive our circumstances?
the way we understand our mixed-up lives?

What if it’s true?

A Jesus community is invited—
long before we apply anything to our lives
or gravitate to the practical
or plunge ourselves into doing doing doing—

we are invited to imagine the world as it really is.

We are invited to be the peculiar community in the world
who is beginning to imagine and to see the sunrise of a new world.

A world in which—despite all evidence to the contrary—God is healing.
God is saving. God is rescuing.

A world that God has reconciled to himself—
through the darkest of moments, we might add.

To “embody Jesus” begins in our imagination.

We’re invited to open our eyes to the reality of this sunrise.
and begin inviting others to open their eyes.

We say, “God has embraced us—so embrace him back!”

Paul quotes Isaiah at the end of this passage,
and this is exactly what Isaiah was getting at:

(Isa 49.8-13)
“In the time of my favor I will answer you,
    and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
    to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
    and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
    and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’

Isaiah and Paul are saying the same thing:
that God doesn’t just answer and help us for our sake,
but for the sake of the world.

God saves people—
rescues people, helps people,
answers, chooses, elects people—
so that he can give those people to the world.

He gives them to the world—gives them as a covenant to the world—
so that the world can be invited out of darkness and captivity.

Paul has begun reimagining the world because he says—
it’s happening right now.

Today is the day of salvation.
Now is the time of God’s favor.

Maybe he’s crazy.
If he is, it’s for God.

Or maybe he’s starting to see the world rightly.
And if that’s the case, (v13) he’s realizing that his entire life exists for the sake of others.

In this man, in this Jesus,
God was reconciling the world to himself
and God invites us to become miniature versions of that.

We are meant to become the righteousness of God in the world.
Meant to embody the rightness of God in the world.
Meant to incarnate the faithfulness of God to the world.

Because if Jesus is the epicenter of reconciliation—
where sin no longer counts (v19)
and where love alone compels (v14),

if the cross is where a seismic shift in history occurs—
if it’s the place where death dies
and where we discover an entirely new world (v17);

if God made him who had no sin to be sin,
he’s done it so that we can become the aftershocks.

So that we can become little pockets of new creation
carrying a new world around with us.

When we stare long enough at Jesus,
we start reimagining everything.

We begin regarding no one from a worldly point of view;
we begin realizing that the day of salvation is today.

That God has already reconciled the world to himself
and is already working to restore and remake and recreate you.

As impossible as it may be for you to believe—
as difficult as it may be in midst of swirling darkness and difficulty—
the moment of God’s favor is now.

St Catherine of Siena once said,
“You must believe in truth that whatever God gives or permits is for your salvation.”

That’s an audacious claim.

And that’s why century after century the church
has followed a different kind of calendar
than the rest of society.

We follow a calendar
that grounds us
and centers us
and reorients us
around Jesus.

The church follows a different kind of rhythm
because that rhythm helps kindle our imagination.

Helps us to reimagine the world as it truly is—
and as it truly will be.

The local church gathers together each week—
we come to this table each week—
to reimagine the world we live in.

In a minute you’ll be invited to come up and dip some bread in the cup.
When you do, you’ll just be seeing and touching and tasting common, ordinary things.

Bread and wine. Crackers and juice.

But here especially we’re invited to imagine—to really begin to see—what is actually being given to us—the very life of God broken in order to put us back together:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

If you find yourself gripped by the news of this Jesus,
if you find yourself wanting to trust him and reorient your life around him,
if you aching for his very life to begin embodying itself in your imagination,
then you’re invited to come to this table.