06/06/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

2 Corinthians 5:17: In Christ or in a Jacuzzi Jesus?

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new Creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new" (NRSV).

I have just returned from the 2013 Southeastern Synod Assembly (ELCA) held in Chattanooga, Tenn., from May 31-June 2 following the theme "Always Being Made New." This theme was emphasized unashamedly by many speakers including the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA; Rebecca Kolowe, Director of Evangelical Mission; and our newly reelected Bishop, H. Julian Gordy.

To be "in Christ" means to let the Spirit of Christ so infiltrate your being that your very essence is affected. Every cell in your body becomes permeable to Christ's spirit, transforming you from the inside out. But a transformation this complete intimidates most people. They would rather engage in resorting to hair straightener, skin peels and the surgeon's chisel to make their veneers palatable to the crowd. The gospel's radical re-creation requires more than cosmetic changes in lives and in lifestyles which have grown comfortable, predictable and inconspicuous.

The last thing some people want from their religious experiences is disruption and challenge. What many really want is a "Jacuzzi Jesus, an experience that will leave them relaxed, warm, and bubbly, and yet at the same time feeling fit and trim when they get out -- like they've just gotten in shape." Like the unnamed but well-known California minister who preached a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments subtitled "How to Feel Good about Yourself," those who seek a Jacuzzi Jesus want their soul to feel soothed, not stirred, by their encounter with Christ. But a Jacuzzi Jesus cannot reshape your life. When you step out of a jacuzzi, the air hits your artificially warmed muscles and they all tense up again; your artificially toned sags all bag again. Nothing has really changed.

Donald J. Shelby (Santa Monica, Calif.) quotes an unnamed writer who expressed this desire for a Jacuzzi Jesus with pungency:

I would like to buy only $3.00 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of God to make me love a foreigner, or pick fruit with a migrant farm worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. (With double discount coupons, if possible!)

The promise to those truly "in Christ" is that everything will become new. How many of us long for just such a fresh start on life, a second chance at becoming the person we always hoped to be. That is what Paul's Jesus offers us. The "old things" in our cluttered lives do not miraculously disappear as if they never existed; difficult people still confront us, jobs still put pressure on us, bills must still be paid and family responsibilities met. But as transformed people problems and situations which appeared impassable before suddenly take on different hue. Once we are "in Christ" we are outside the pettiness of our previous self-absorption. "In Christ" we no longer are forced to see relationships and responsibilities from a "human point of view."

To be "in Christ" has an ecclesial as well as an individual and eschatological dimension. Romans 12:5 make explicit the connection between being "in Christ" and being "one body in Christ." We are given a new set of relationships not only within the body of Christ, but also in terms of our relationship with those outside Christbody communities. If we are "in Christ," we no longer live to oneself but to Christ. But what does it mean to live "to Christ"? It means to live for others, to serve others, and to love others.