If there is one thing I have learned in the past couple months in my study and work on Romans along with 1 Corinthians while at the University of St. Andrews, it is that there is a peculiar social reality that is envisioned by Paul that comes about under the shadow of the cross. For Paul, the calling from God is not framed in terms of an either-or scenario, where to be on God’s side, to be part of God’s people, you can’t be on the other “side.” For Paul, the calling from God is a work of God to orchestrate the lives of specific people to play a special part in the redemption of the world, with Jesus Christ as the “Temple plan” to fit all the called people together into through the power and pedagogical instruction of the Spirit.
Firstly, it is helpful to state that this group of people is not, properly speaking, the Church that we Christians know of today. This calling of God’s people includes Abraham and specifically chosen descendants of Abraham that came before Christ. In Romans 8.29, Paul speaks of those who were foreknown, which for Paul includes many Israelites prior to Christ as in Romans 11.1-6, as being predestined to be conformed to Jesus Christ. Not all of them understand or even see the fruition of their work, as the author of Hebrews state in 11.13 about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob along with Abraham’s wife Sarah: “All of these died without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Going back a verse to Hebrews 11.12, Abraham was one such person whose life was specially called to be a part of God’s promised plan for the world. This calling spans the long distance of human history. This calling that spans history means the called in Jesus Christ in today’s age have more in common with a nomad and his wife from many millennia ago who seem to have no children in sight than they would with the neighbor who lives next door when it comes to consider how they are at work in God’s plan.
I say that to say that God’s vision for the world did not suddenly get off the ground when Jesus Christ came into the picture. It was going on long beforehand. But what happened in Christ coming into the world is now the vision of what God is doing made visible before human eyes, knowable through the testimony of Scripture. As Romans 3.25 says, Jesus Christ was “publicly displayed as a mercy seat,” describing Jesus as the golden lid on the Ark of the Covenant, where atonement was made and above which stood a pillar of smoke representing the presence of God. However, Paul does not say Christ died and therefore all is simply well, but rather those united in Christ are being brought to a new life in the pattern of Christ (Romans 6.1-4). The revelation of Christ provides the vision of God’s redemption of humanity that becomes realized in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit, by Whom the condemnation of sin in the body of Christ becomes realized in people to live out the true righteousness that God had been teaching (Romans 8.3-4). The calling of God is not a call to simply flee the wrath to come, but it is the call from God to be God’s secret force equipped from heaven, sent to fight a spiritual war by being the first spiritual combatants to land on the beaches of the unredeemed kingdoms of this world, who fight not with weapons that pierce flesh that takes life, but with the Word that can wound the heart to give people life anew.
From there, the called come together in colonies among the world, by which others can come to hear and in the midst of the hear, hear a calling and come to faith. When Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles, writes to the largely Jewish Christian congregation in Rome, he says he wants to come to get some fruit among them (Romans 1.13), it isn’t to reap from Jewish believers as people, but rather, it is almost as if the presence of believers in Rome were planting seeds, some of which would be harvested. They had made a colony of God’s Kingdom, finding the opportunity to plant seeds among the fields of people’s hearts, to which Paul comes as one who is specially trained to be one of the harvesters, whereas others lacked the gifts to effectively cross the boundary between Jew and Gentile.
What is important to understand here is that God’s calling brings people to bond together with others similarly called as part of a larger mission. People are not called as individuals to find a new way of doing religion and spiritually that suits them, but that they are brought together to be part of a newly formed people, calling them from among the diverse peoples. These people are not called to abandon their present identities however, as Paul does not tell Jews to cease to be Jews, nor does he tell Gentiles that they must live as Jews. Rather, each are called to submit their past way of life the would be expected for those who were members of that social identity to now be accountable to and empowered from the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but not calling them to forget everything that made them who they once were. An African American who hears the call of God is not called to stop being black to be part of God’s People, but he is to live his life as a black person with the dignity and significance that Jesus Christ gave to them, as He died for them. A gay male powerfully called by God is not called to cease to forgot his past, but he is called to submit his life to the Lordship of Christ to be a beacon of His word. A woman unsure and uncertain of her place with others and in the church, remains a woman but finds her calling as a woman of God to go where many men of the world would not allow her to tread. A white, heterosexual male who hears and dreams a calling from God doesn’t have to cease to be who they are, but in Christ they are called to understand what those like him have long forgotten. The calling of God does not lead us to abandon all our identities and become simply “Christian,” but rather the call of God calls us to live into our old identities with new significances and purposes as God’s people, point forward to new creation, where in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, where there is neither marriage nor being given in marriage, even as in the present day these identities and statuses still have purposes.
This is what awakenings look like: people awakening to a new purpose and way of life that Christ calls them to, as God proleptically brings His future into our present through the Spirit giving us the foretaste of the age to come. However, the world, even the Christianized world, can hinder awakenings because of the difficulty that comes with seeing the new creation stemming from the way our social identities can perpetually hinder a vision of God’s future. The world can only see the future through the lens of the past, whether to rebuild it once was or or tear it down to build something to replace it. As a result, people’s identities are constantly being fit into the ways of the past, while changing more in response to the conflict than for some greater purpose. Incredulity and disbelief that “those sorts of people” could be favored by God; anger and rage when a member of tribe steps out of line to follow the call. But for those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, a calling from God into the vision cast forth in Jesus Christ lay in front of them.
In the midst of this past, the liminal transition from seeing the future in terms of the past to seeing the present in terms of God’s future goes through the practices of repentance and forgiveness, for the sins of the past to be simultaneously acknowledged and let go, so that people can move beyond the past and follow the calling of God to live as part of God’s future that He has brought into our present. Jesus Christ, His cross, His ministry, and His teachings are a pedagogical training give to us that, when followed, brings about our transformation from this old way we have left behind with repentance and forgiveness, so through bearing our own cross in faith, we can see in the midst of the desolation in the present, there sits the Son of Man on His throne in the Kingdom of God right in the middle of the kingdoms of this world and, even to this day and is expanding to this day, and that the gates of hell will not prevail over it, even as the kingdoms of this world crumble.
One of the hopes I had had if the day were ever to come to be a scholar, professor, and/or writer was to write a New Testament theology. It is this that I would put forward as perhaps a partial, organizing theme for how to understanding the New Testament as a vision of how God’s redemptive awakening in Christ through the Spirit takes place, works, and is realized. If, by chance I am on the right direction, then this tear stained fabric of my life in the 2010s may have served a purpose, as this is the fruit of my journey in this decade and the decades past. But, even in this, there is something further to come to comprehend: love and the refreshing rest that God gives in the midst of the desolation.