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by Eberhard Juengel
Monday, Mar. 29, 2010 at 5:38 AM
Jesus calls us to a new language and a new mathematics. "The world will be changed when people speak as Jesus spoke, in a liberating not a religious way so people are shocked and drawn by its power" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
NEW HEART, NEW SPIRIT AND NEW PERSON
SERMON ON 2 CORINTHIANS 5, 17-21
By Eberhard Juengel
[This sermon from November 15, 2009 at the Berlin cathedral is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.berlinerdom.de/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_view/gid,664/lang,de/. Eberhard Juengel is an emeritus professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen and author of “God as the Mystery of the World.”]
“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, beho9ld, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Grace be with you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us hear several sentences of the Apostle Paul from the 5th chapter of the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians:
Beside oneself! As a rule, a mad or enraptured one is beside himself and no longer entirely in control. What a strange existence! How frightening! Martin Luther described a Christian as being completely beside himself and not in control. However that was something engaging and attractive for Luther, not anything terrifying. In faith, he wrote to the pope – a Christian like a mad one journeys beyond himself in God. Paul says: in faith, a person is so beside himself “in Christ,” rediscovers himself in the new person raised from the dead and begins to live a new life.
That was the Good News with which nascent Christendom distinguished itself in the ancient world. A new person lives and will live eternally and you shall live with him, now and in eternity.
This message is certainly not one of the “novelties” of this world or the “news” that the media tells us everyday. The novelties of this world become outdated; the latest news goes out of fashion very fast.
Sometimes it lasts a little longer. But even the newest of all becomes old and older with time. The new born child becomes older, becomes an adult and is at a loss when everything goes well, becomes old satiated with life, tired of life or world-weary.
As a rule, the newest of all is the “snow of yesterday” tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, it begins to become tedious, uninteresting and stale. It bores us to tears.
Why should this be different “in Christ”? Why should one “in Christ” become a new creature who unlike the novelties of this world does not become outdated? How does one fall beside oneself so he/she rediscovers himself “in Christ” as a new person?
Whoever wants to answer this question must say what is special that happened and happens “in Christ.” This must be something very special and unique. Since time immemorial, people have dreamt of this without ever being able to realize this dream that one simply slips off the old and antiquated and somehow is completely renewed. The myth of the fountain of life is as old as the hills and appears again and again under different names. As an old person, one goes overboard in this fountain of youth and returns – one dreams – as a young renewed person.
Many ideologues do not only dream of the myth but of being able to create the new person, if necessary with state force. I have experienced this myself, making a new socialist person out of a middle class individual. With this “goal before his eyes,” Walter Ulbricht – stylizing himself as the second socialist Moses – even decreed “Ten Commands of Socialist Morality” to people in the DDR.
However that did not work in the Bible. The Mosaic Law cannot do what the gospel promises, produce a new creature. No law moves a person in the innermost to be beside himself.
With commands and laws, the “old Adam” cannot be made into a halfway civilized person. One can prevent a person becoming a wolf. Commands, laws and strict imperatives can preserve us from this danger. The state should “ensure law and peace under threat and exercise of force” (German Barmen Theological Declaration of 1934).
But if the state with its sanctions becomes the moral lawmaker taking possession and governing our hearts, then it threatens to become a kind of super-wolf that bites its citizens if necessary and is even ready to kill them in the name of the law.
In our supposedly enlightened age, many states still threaten their citizens with the most perverse of all punishments, the death penalty. In this way, fear, horror and a servile spirit of submissiveness can be engendered but certainly not a new person. The allegedly “new person” produced in this way would only be a terrible caricature of the old person.
How would it be if I completely repositioned, rearranged and even rediscovered oneself without any outward pressure or any kind of command?
Rearranging or reinventing oneself sounds promising. It would be promising if we really had the strength and ability to reposition, rearrange and even reinvent ourselves.
Let us be sober! We are not capable of all this, says common sense that understands life and what the norm is.
Is that true? Is there no exception from the rule? Four days ago on 11/11 at 11:11, the crazy carnival time began. A very earnest, serious person slips into a strange role. He forgets what he was in the past; he forgets himself and reinvents himself, at least for a day. He is beside himself as a carnival prince, caterpillar or in whatever role he appears.
The mad change of roles gives a hint why it was an apostle who claimed, whoever is “in Christ” and “positions” himself in him is “a new creation.” “In Christ,” the creative God with all his inventiveness came on the scene. Now an unheard-of role exchange occurred that consisted in a change of location.
“In Christ,” in the man Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son came to the world, to our earth. Since then, he can be encountered everywhere where a God according to our religious imagination simply does not belong.
God belongs in heaven, in a heaven superior to the world, above the starry heavens, not in the visible night sky, not only above but higher than every conceivable above. This heaven is meant when we appeal to God as “our Father in heaven.”
Now he is below the eternal and omnipotent, enthroned beyond all things. Now he is completely below and among us. He has brought down to us his heaven from the highest heights, opens it wide and makes it accessible for us more or less sad clods of earth.
The divine movement from the highest heights to the lowest depths makes that dirty and disgusting “place” that religious imagination calls “hell,” this repulsive place intended for sinners. This “place” made filthy by sinners and their sins seems to be diametrically opposed to heaven. God’s change of placed changes this messy and repulsive “place” so it becomes squeaky clean.
What an unheard-of change of place! God now seems beside himself: the eternal and omnipotent God in a person, heaven on earth, a spotless hell. What a change!
But the mysterious change that is the real ground for the emergence of a new person for the apostle is even more important than this unheard-of change of place. The apostle’s formulation is very paradoxical: God put him who knew no sin in our place and made him sin for us. In Christ, God was at work. The holy and just moves into the role of sinner to transpose us guilt-laden persons into the role of saints and the just.
That is the new news, the new message with which the gospel deeply irritated the old world at that time and regularly turns our world upside down up to today. God in the role of sinner and we in the role of the just – that is crass. There can not be a more crass change. This is certainly hard to understand. But it is possible with a good will. Let us make the attempt!
In Christ, God took our place and was at work. But God was not only at work and very active in Christ. He also enters the scene passively in a peculiar way: as a person who can be burdened and weighed down.
Yes, dear community, God can be burdened with everything that strains us. He can be weighed down with everything that oppresses and depresses us, with our slips and our failures with the depressions assaulting us, for which we are not responsible. Even top athletes suffer hardly endurable fates, depressions leading to hopelessness and even the hopelessness of death as we saw last week. This is horrible. For shocked fellow humans, it is good to know God does not abandon the person who abandons himself but holds him in the midst of death and bears him like a mother bears her small child. That is comforting.
In our text, the Apostle Paul thinks of persons who need comfort for another reason. He thinks of persons who are burdened by their guilt, culpability and sin. With their very own sin and culpability, they are the true representatives of an old and worn-out world. The Apostle thinks of us. God thinks of us. God does not only think of us; he supports us so the representatives of an old and burnt-out world are renewed through and through.
How can I, an old sinner, become a new person?
Answer: When Jesus the innocent was put to death like a guilty party, culprit, offender or blasphemer sinful to the core, God was at work and made the struggle against the power-hungry and domineering sin into his “top priority.”
Whoever makes something his top priority incurs hatred when he brings it to a good end. When that happens in politics, the economy or in some important institution, the message made into the top priority is a novelty and belongs to the news of the media. However in politics, the economy and the church, when a powerful one declares something the top priority, this matter is usually dealt with through commands and imperatives.
God is different! When God makes the battle against sin the top priority or his cause, his intention is to suffer himself, to burden himself with our sin and culpability and destroy it in the fire of his love, not in a hellish fire.
Certainly, this is a passion narrative but an extremely creative passion narrative! This is a passivity but a very creative passivity! This passivity is creative because it overcomes death through love and is perfected in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
The new person is there on Easter morning, not in splendid isolation but “liberated from sin and error” leaving the old Adam behind. This only succeeds when we are not fixed on ourselves but in a relaxed way come out of our shell so we really are beside ourselves.
Who or what makes us so relaxed? Who or what draws us out of our shell?
For that, a new heart is needed, a heart that beats for others. For that, we need a new spirit, a spirit that thinks more of others and not only oneself and does one’s utmost for them.
We best support others, our fellow humans by standing up for the truth. But the truth has no more wicked enemy than the half-truth. Half-truths are usually worse than a juicy lie.
Therefore may all who wield power have a little of the new spirit that pleads for fellow-humans by championing the truth. This means championing clarity in our dubious world. We beseech all with political and economic power to spare us the half-truths. Clarity is the twin sister of truth, the truth for which the new spirit pleads.
A new heart, a new spirit, a new person – that would really be a “general overhaul” of our life. That certainly cannot be achieved violently. A human heart can be “conquered in the storm” but renewal only occurs with care. Nothing is accomplished with orders, commands, imperatives or force.
The Apostle attempts this very differently. He beseeches “on behalf of Christ.” Christ himself is the petitioner. He pleads that we be reconciled with God. He asks each and every one of us, dear community. He also beseeches everyone who does not belong to the church to whom we should give this petition: Be reconciled to God!
How can one be reconciled to God? How can one receive a new heart and a new spirit?
Christ takes one’s place when one simply entrusts oneself to God. We cannot rearrange, reposition or even reinvent ourselves in Christ. But we can trust Jesus Christ’s appeal and attractiveness. We could believe him.
At least once in life, nearly every one of us has come to know an attractive person. One is attracted and beside oneself. The new person resurrected from the dead is a very attractive person. In him God’s very own force of attraction is present luring us to himself. In the Gospel of John, he says himself: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (Joh 12,32).
Then we are beside ourselves. That is the mystery of faith. There is no better definition or paraphrase of our faith, dear community. Faith leads us away from our old Adam and brings us to the new person to go new ways with him, paths that he has already initiated.
In his Easter hymn, Paul Gerhard says: “I depend on Christ as a member. Where my head has gone, he takes me along. He sweeps me through death, through the world, sin, distress and hell. I am always his companion… He brings me to the gate that leads to heaven…”
Unlike Christ resurrected from the dead, our own new person is “under construction” – to speak with Martin Luther. At times something goes wrong at the building site. The person renewed in faith can be challenged; his faith can be fragile. But the new Adam cannot be broken or crushed.
Let me say this with a parable! As long as I am not at that “gate” “that leads to heaven,” my I renewed in Christ, my new Adam, is like the light that we all know – broken in various ways but never shattered. The light remains bright. Amen.
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