II Corinthians 5:6-17
May I speak in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Spirit, Amen.
At the end of May, I spent a week in Atlanta, Georgia, attending a conference called the Summer Institute on Disability and Theology. This conference brings together a diverse bunch of friends, from priests and pastors to theologians and community activists, people with and without disabilities. This interfaith gathering seeks to create spaces of belonging in the church for people with disabilities. And the conference seeks to renew how we see our neighbors with disabilities.
Having attended the Summer Institute on Disability and Theology in previous years, I am well known to several of the conference’s leaders as an occupational therapist with experience working alongside individuals with disabilities. My friend Bill who is the primary organizer for the conference emailed me several weeks before the conference started, and asked if I would consider supporting an individual with severe cerebral palsy throughout the duration of the conference. Bill mentioned that her name was Christy. He wrote to me that Christy used a wheelchair and was very independent, except that she was unable to get food and feed herself at mealtimes.
I distinctly remember my first impressions of Christy upon reading this email from Bill: she was a nuisance and would be a drain on my energy during a conference where I was presenting my work in theology and also hoping to have fun with my friends without being tied down to helping someone with a disability who I didn’t even know. I deleted Bill’s email.
When I arrived in Atlanta and checked into the conference, I saw Bill, and it quickly became clear to me that Bill had interpreted my lack of response to his email as an enthusiastic “yes!” to helping assist Christy during mealtimes throughout the week. I tried to smile and nod but my heart sank. I knew that assisting Christy would require me to rise at least an hour earlier than expected each morning, in order to make it to the dining hall with time enough to gather food for the both of us, and feed it to her. I was disappointed that my lunches and dinners would no longer provide me the chance to socialize with my friends, come and go as I pleased, and maybe even skip out on the conference’s sometimes undesirable catering to hit a restaurant with friends – restaurants where wheelchairs could not fit, and even if they could, were generally unwelcome.
I saw Christy as her disability. I saw Christy as an inconvenience to me. And I saw Christy as a burden.
In today’s epistle reading from second Corinthians chapter 5, Paul has a strong word for us regarding how we see others. Paul offers a word that seeks to trouble and then transform our vision of our neighbors. Paul proclaims, “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” (II Corinthians 5:16) Paul’s words challenge our ways of seeing others that are based on the exterior. We are no longer to see our neighbor primarily as someone who is disabled or able-bodied, someone who is white or black, someone who is easy to be around or is a burden.
Instead, Paul turns our eyes to see our neighbors as new creations in the body of Jesus. Paul exclaims, “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation!” ( II Corinthians 5:17) Paul implores us to look around us and gaze upon our neighbors as beloved children of God.
Our neighbors are God’s good and beloved creation and we are to receive and cherish them as such. We are to see our neighbors not through a human point of view, but through Jesus, the one who died and rose for each one of us and every single one of our neighbors. (II Corinthians 5:14)
This way of seeing that Paul talks about, a kind of vision grounded in Jesus, disregards outward advantages (or disadvantages) that block us from seeing others as good and beloved new creations of God.
Paul’s strong word, that we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, is a very hard word within our culture that exalts the exterior. Our society places economic value on human bodies based on what they can do, and how they look, how old or young they are, how they speak, and how they think. A human point of view exalts these exterior aspects of our neighbors. And Paul says that this is a kind of vision that has no place the new creation brought about in Jesus.
But be encouraged with me that we do not have to muster a transformed and Jesus-centered view of our neighbors out of thin air. We inhabit a space, as Paul says, where we are each “well known to God.” (II Corinthians 5:11) This is a space where “the love of Christ urges us on.” (II Corinthians 5:14) This is not a space of fear, and not a place where we don’t know who we are and therefore can’t begin to know others. We are in a space where we are well known by God – we are God’s beloved children. And God’s love for us urges us to open our eyes to God’s same love for each of our neighbors, and God’s love urges us toward our neighbor, even if we find our steps hesitant and small.
Looking at our neighbors through Jesus doesn’t require a degree in theology, or some kind of fancy, spiritual glasses. How we see our neighbors, our perspective on those we find ourselves around at home and in our community, gets changed through living real life together. We practice seeing our neighbors through Jesus as we gather in this space to sing together, and take God’s body into our bodies together, and to have our paths interrupted by the waters of baptism. As we come in and out of the doors of St. Joseph’s, the baptismal font gets in our way. It reminds us of our shared identity as God’s beloved children – those who have died and risen with Christ in the glorious new creation.
So how will Paul’s hard word for us on a renewed vision of our neighbors, especially our neighbors who we think are too smart, too young, too poor, too awkward, or too dirty to engage with, how will Paul’s hard word today change us? Will we let Paul’s word put our bodies among people and in places we haven’t gone before?
Perhaps part of participating in a renewed vision of our neighbors here at St. Joseph’s will include imagining and enacting ways for our neighbors like Christy, to roll into our building and participate richly in our worship and shared life, regardless of limitation in ability. Perhaps part of our work of envisioning Jesus’ new creation here at St. Joseph’s will be finding new ways to facilitate belonging for all people who may crawl, or roll, or walk to our doors.
May we be both encouraged and challenged by Paul’s hard word for us today as together we seek to know both ourselves and our neighbors as beloved children of God.