One of my heroes of the Christian faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp for his small role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer had been teaching theology in the United States. He did not have to go back to Germany. He was free and clear. But his faithfulness to Christ compelled him to return home, face the dangers, and try to do his part to help his countrymen. He was courageous and faithful and because of that, he died.
What was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “call” from God? Was he called to be a theologian? Was he called to be a martyr? When I read a biography about Bonhoeffer, I was amazed to learn that one of his earliest jobs was as a youth minister in a German-speaking church in Spain. I thought, “I can relate to that. I’ve been a youth minister! In a small way, I can feel connected to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” What a thrill for me.
What was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call from God? He was called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is the same call God has for you and for me. For Bonhoeffer, the call dictated how he would approach dating, which he put off for a long time. By the time he was engaged to marry Maria von Wedemeyer, it was too late. He was arrested before they could marry. It’s sad, but it was a part of the testament of his life, a life lived following Jesus.
His call led him to serve as youth pastor at that church in Spain. His call led him to study theology and teach in New York. His call led him, while in New York, to worship at a black Baptist church in Harlem and teach youth Sunday school there. His call led him to go back to Germany. And while he was in prison, prior to his execution, his call led him to stay even when he could have escaped. He stayed in prison as an act of solidarity with others who were not getting out.
We have spent three weeks examining what it is to live as a person called by God. Each one of us is called. I occupy the role of pastor, I am called to that role, but I am no more called than anyone else here. My calling is different than yours, but yours is just as much a call from God.
My primary call is the same as Bonhoeffer’s and yours. His call, my call and yours all stem from the heart of God who beckons all people to come to Him in faith and repentance. We turn from sin and run into the outstretched, waiting arms of our loving father. Jesus the Son bore our sins on the cross. We are saved from death and saved to life as followers of Jesus. In the disciple life, we live the life God saved us to live.
As called people, we live in fellowship – at the communion table and at the common table. We share life together. A second way we live as called people is in the living of the Gospel story. The story of our lives and the story of God are brought together in Christ, and we spend our lives telling the story of the Gospel. A third we way we answer God and live as called people is forgiveness. We live as forgiven people which means we receive forgiveness and we give it. Today we receive as a fourth aspect of our calling. We are called to be a part of a renewed humanity.
Passages from 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 paint the picture.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead,” and he describes the contrast from the body we have now – bodies that are dying, and the body we will have when we join Jesus in resurrection. Resurrection is a part of new creation – God’s plan to reclaim His original creation, which was good. God will reclaim the world and the universe, through the cross cleanse us of sin and defeat death, and all will be as God intended in the beginning.
Right now we still live under the shadow of the Fall, Adam and Eve’s original sin. Right now we live with sin in the world and with the shadow of death cast over us. We are all dying but God calls us to something else. To answer and to live as called people, we live as those who will live eternally. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrected body is imperishable, raised in glory, and raised in power. It is a spiritual body. This does not mean it is immaterial. In Heaven, we are not shades and we are not beams of light. We have bodies, but as 1 Corinthians 15 says, we bear the image of the man of Heaven.
The Spiritual Body cannot be harmed nor can it be killed. Our resurrection into these spiritual bodies is made possible by the death of the Son on the cross and is the work of God the Spirit. As we turn to faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit goes to work in us, transforming us. The transformation is complete at the resurrection at the end time on Judgment Day.
We see signs of this transformation in how we live here and now. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes, “From now on … we regard no one from a human point of view. … If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” We are still in the world where pain is present and the effects of sin and death continue to plague mankind. However, we see this world from God’s perspective and we begin to invite people we meet to move from the story of sin and death into the story of eternal life.
How do we live with this eternal perspective when we are surrounded by cancer and depression, drunk driving fatalities and the complete breakdown of marriages and families? How do we, with a straight face, claim to see the world from God’s heavenly vantage point when stories of terrorism and refugee crises abound? How can we talk about abundant life and eternal life in our world of death? There’s an orphan crisis in numerous countries. Abortion – the death of defenseless babies – is accepted as a normal practice. Decency is mocked and political vitriol seems to lead to more success than truth telling.
I asked the discipleship groups of our church to discuss this question. If you could eliminate any one thing from human experience – arthritis, heartache, taxes, diabetes – anything, what would you choose? What would you remove from the human condition so with this thing gone, life would then be richer, more fulfilled, and happier? What would you choose to get rid of?
When God created the world, the human condition was “good” from God’s perspective. This means to be human was to be healthy, to live forever, and to be in right relationship with God and with other humans. The renewed creation, the resurrected existence in the eternal kingdom is the experience of living in healthy bodies that never die and it is the experience of being in right relationship with God and with people. James K.A. Smith says the call to new creation is “a call to be human, to take up the vocation of being fully and authentically human, and to be a community of God’s people who image God to the world.”[i]
When we read 2 Corinthians and talk about us becoming new creations, this is what is meant: healthy bodies that live forever in right relationships; relationships of love. We live to thrive and to create, just as our God created us. We live to make something of the world – something good, something useful, something beautiful, something delicious, something melodic, something joyful, something life-producing.
Of course, this call can only be answered as the Holy Spirit of God works through us. Today is Pentecost, the birth of the church when the Holy Spirit filled the original Christ followers seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit came, they were able miraculously speak each other’s languages. They were able to understand as Peter preached in Aramaic. And 3000 became Christians in one day.
Today, the Holy Spirit continues filling the hearts of Jesus’ followers and speaking through the church, which is the body of Christ. What is the Spirit saying and doing that leads us to answer and help other people answer the call to New Creation?
We cannot cure all cancer, AIDS, heart disease, and other ailments that attack the body, not with a snap of the fingers or a simple prayer. So what can the church do? We pray fervently and unceasingly. We support doctors and researchers and recognize that the work that they do is God’s ordained work and in answering God’s call, some Christ-followers go into medicine or research or nursing or pharmacy or public service as their life’s calling. Those of us who do not go into these fields support and celebrate our brothers and sisters who do. In this we way, we live into the New Creation.
Moreover, as the church, we come around our brothers and sisters who are troubled with sickness and disability. As a community, we recognize that every member struggles with something, either emotional, physical, mental, financial, or some other struggle. We wrap the arms of the body of Christ around every member in love so that while we won’t approximate the heavenly bodies described in 1 Corinthians 15, we will create space for all people to have joy, love, acceptance, and family. We work for all to thrive.
How else do we answer the call to New Creation? We won’t solve all the problems of evil and injustice, not with the snap of a finger or a simple prayer. So, we pray fervently and unceasingly. We see inequality and name it. We insist that Black lives matter, we understand why, and we renounce systemic injustice as we create spaces for all people to thrive and have a voice. We see tragedy, we open our doors and our hearts, and we creates spaces for immigrants, refugees, and homeless people to belong and be loved. We see people Jesus loves before we declare nationality. We recognize we are all children of God for whom Jesus died on the cross. We, God’s evangelical church, proclaimers of the Gospel, are the loudest, most powerful voices that call for justice and brotherhood among people of different races.
How else do we answer the call to New Creation? We won’t answer all the questions of identity and disagreement, not with the snap of a finger or a simple prayer. So, we pray fervently and unceasingly and we go out of our way to pray for people whose perspective is different than our own. This is how Paul’s vision in the two passages from Corinthians is lived out in our lives. We welcome people – even people who disagree with us about what’s acceptable in terms of marriage and sexual orientation. In the world’s fallen state, people of genuine good will have opposing opinions. Opposing opinions does not mean we draw battle lines. As it is with disease and sickness and as it is with matters of justice and equality, we approach the question of identity and gender and orientation in love as we create a safe space where disagreements can be hashed out while maintaining the dignity of all in the conversation. Creating safe space and living compassionately is how we answer the call to renewed humanity .
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer played the different roles of his life – youth minister, theologian, German Sunday school teacher of black youth in Harlem, conspirator against Hitler – in every role, he was Spirit-driven. However well I do in my roles – pastor, husband, dad, friend – I am Spirit-driven. I mess up badly sometimes, but the Spirit has led me to these roles and when I perform in them, I am answer God’s call. In the roles in your life, including getting out of bed to come to worship this morning, you have the opportunity to answer God’s call.
When we all do that – answer the call, and cooperate with one another to create a space in our church community that empowers all present to explore God’s call on their lives and to answer that call, then we as a body are living into the resurrection reality. Together, in worship, in faith, determined to maintain compassion, extend welcome, and share God’s grace-filled love, we lean in to God’s New Creation.