Resurrection and our World

To those of you who are Christians working in the complex tangle that is International Development (the primary audience for whom I created this blog in the first place!), friends, I salute you. N.T. Wright has written, perhaps more than anyone else in the last 30 years, regarding the robust meanings of resurrection. Below, is a short quote from him.

“…the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility ….When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus…”

“Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world….  The music he wrote must now be performed.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: 2006).

As we approach Easter, may the image of resurrection be a powerful driver in your work. The resurrection/ new creation is the template for reconciliation, restoration, redemption, healing. And may new creation in us make His Way and Goal (Omega) credible to the world around.

Saint Paul: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17)

Mark 6 and N.T. Wright

I read commentaries and theology devotionally alongside Scripture, and one of the commentaries I enjoy are the popular “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright.  Wright is regarded as one of (many of us would say the) world’s leading New Testament theologians; he has been at the front of both Historical Jesus research and Pauline theology for decades now, two fields he has contributed immensely, and sometimes controversially, to. Here are some of his thoughts on Mark 6, Jesus walking on the water and the disciples not getting the lesson of the loaves and fishes. In this spot he reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in That Hideous Strength; it is not that the world is natural and sometimes unnaturally invaded by the supernatural, rather that the world’s appointed master (humanity) has fallen, and been unable to wake the world and interact with it in certain ways we formerly had been. Recall Merlin’s words to Ransom “Let’s awaken the water and the wind and the earth and drive them out.” “No,” Ransom replies, “they have been asleep for far too long for us to do that…”

Here is the quote from Mark for Everyone:

“…we are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam. From his time with the beasts in the wilderness (1.13), he is now striding the garden, putting things to rights.

Mark… is simply warning that to grasp all this will need more than suspension of disbelief, as though one were in the theatre for the evening. It will take a complete change of heart.   ….that is what (among other things) Jesus has come to bring… in our thinking, our imagining, our praying as well as in our bodily health  …we are invited to come, like the frantic crowds, and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, looking for salvation.”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 84). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

This is Classic NT Wright !

If you have any doubt that some major theological themes need reworking in our time, read NT Wright’s Justification. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, and well done. Here’s a classic bit of his writing:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation…. That the central question is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

Now do not misunderstand me. Hold the angry or fearful reaction. Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is!  Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living. Discovering that God is gracious, rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes u. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way…. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church… But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.

God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.  And the closing scenes of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth. The intimate relationship with God which is indeed promised and celebrated in that great scene of the New Jerusalem issues at once in an outflowing, a further healing activity, the river of the water of life flowing out from the city and the tree of life springing up, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

….we are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

– Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009; InterVarsity Press) p. 23-24

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.

 

Earth Is Not Detention Hall, Part One

“Left Behind” theology and other questionable bible exegesis (confusing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with a place away from earth where we spend eternity, etc) have  created a view of this world as detention hall. Having a long and thorough personal knowledge of detention hall, I can tell you that all you want to do in detention hall is successfully get out of there. The modern evangelical Christian attitude toward earth has been boiled down to “get me out of this run down trailer park of a planet before God’s tornado touches down.” (I think I owe Rob Bell for this turn of phrase). Or, in the words of Mark Driscoll, “fortunately, the pastor told us about the rapture, and how, if we don’t watch television and do vote Republican, we can fly to heaven just before Jesus opens a can of whoop in the end. This man was on a mission, but it wasn’t very missional. His mission seemed to be simply to get off the planet as soon as possible, which didn’t sound very incarnational to me.” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., 50). Believe it or not, I have actually had a missionary say to me the best thing he could have done for some ‘natives’ in his area, was mow them down with a machine gun after they received Christ. Is there any more glaring example of a heaven-focused, earth-denying salvation?

Drawn back to Scripture’s story  by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, more and more mainstream Christians (led initially by the emergent movement down this road), have left off these “tired old theologies of abandonment and escape” (thanks again Rob Bell for this phrase), to embrace the biblical doctrine of ‘the renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), the call to doing the works of the Kingdom now (Matthew 25: 34ff), and the encouraging promise that none of that will have been in vain (I Corinthians 15:58). We are not oiling the wheels of a car about to go over a cliff. In fact, the Bible’s story ends with us here on earth, not far away in heaven. Heaven, it turns out, is vacation in between death and resurrection. Not our final home.

This is a dramatic theological shift: Postmodern Christians don’t see earth as a temporary and unfortunate part of God’s plan. With the early Christians, they don’t understand the Scriptures to say God is planning on tossing the earth in a scrap heap while we all jet off to some spiritual / non-physical heaven. They read in the Scriptures of God redeeming and restoring His good creation on the Day of the Lord and a resurrected life here on earth in the Age to Come.

N.T. Wright re: Jesus and “end times” Scriptures

Anglican N.T. Wright, the leading New Testament scholar alive today, asks What if… “you are sliding down a steep slope – say, on a toboggan, or on skis  – and suddenly realize you are heading for a sheer drop. You seem to be accelerating towards it, and the slope is too steep for you to check your speed, let alone to stop, turn round, and go back up again out of danger. What are you going to do? The answer may well be that there’s nothing you can do. You need to be rescued. You need, in fact, someone to stand in the way: someone who has managed to get a fixed foothold on the slope, and who will catch you, stop you, and help you to safety. And if you were lucky enough to see someone offering to do that, you’d have to steer towards them and be ready for the shock of a sudden stop. Better that than plunging over a cliff.

The key thing to realize, in reading the early chapters of Acts, is that Jesus himself had warned his fellow Jews that they were precisely in danger of accelerating towards a cliff. If you read Luke’s gospel straight through, you will notice how the warnings which Jesus gave seem to increase in quantity and volume all the way to chapters 19, 20 and 21, where he solemnly declares that if the nation as a whole, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, don’t stop their headlong flight into ruin, their enemies will come and destroy them. The warnings are very specific. Israel (so Jesus declares) has bought into a way of life which is directly opposite to what God wants: a way which ignores the plight of the poor, which embraces violence, which denies God’s call to his people to become the light of the world. Again and again Jesus warns, ‘If you don’t turn back, you’re heading for disaster’ (Luke 13.5). When he arrives in Jerusalem he bursts into tears as he describes, in a prophetic vision, a great military force laying siege to the city and leaving no stone on top of another. This will happen, he says, ‘because you didn’t know the way of peace’, and ‘because you didn’t realize that God was visiting you’ (Luke 19.41–44).”   (Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Acts for Everyone, Part One: Chapters 1-12 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 40-41). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)

Notice a few things here, classic N.T. Wright, which have a serious effect on how we think of Scriptures often associated with “the end times.” First, according to Wright, these Scriptures AREN’T about the end-times. They are about a very concrete, specific situation facing Israel and Jerusalem, just like 400 years before as the prophets warned them of impending doom via the Babylonians. This time the doom is via the Romans. So a lot of the Gospel sayings of Jesus that TV prophecy preachers weave all around the Book of Revelation for their scary sermons of doom and Armageddon, are actually about something that happened over 1,900 years ago. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 70-72 AD, Christian commentators for the next several centuries commented on these verses  Wright refers to by saying  ”Yep,  precisely as Jesus said would happen.” Viewing these Scriptures as about the 1st century (rather than the end of the world) is not a new idea with N.T. Wright – it has a long, long history in Christian interpretation – right back to the generations closest to the sayings themselves.

So does this have anything to do with us? Absolutely! Wright comments further on:

“to leave behind slavery and sin and to find the way to freedom and life. You need to allow Jesus himself to grasp hold of you, to save you from the consequences of the way you were going (‘forgiveness of sins’) and to give you new energy to go in the right way instead (‘the gift of the holy spirit’). To do all that is to ‘turn back’ from the way you were going, and to go in the other direction instead. That is what is meant by the word ‘repent’….. sharing in the new life of the baptized community, the life which has the stamp of Jesus upon it, the life which is defined in terms of turning away from the course you were on and embracing Jesus’ way instead. And, though circumstances change, we can see how the same message translates without difficulty to everyone in every society and at every moment in time. ‘The promise is for you, and for your children, and for everyone who is far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ That means all the rest of us.”

Thanks be to God.