Tagged: NT Wright

Dematerialization, Idealism, and the Beauty of Cruciformity

A recent reading of book of James reminded me of the human tendency to compartmentalize ideas, beliefs, experiences, and so on, into their own category, and thus separating their integration. This reminded me of a quote in  Screwtape Letters.  C.S. Lewis has the veteran demon write this to his nephew:  “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (Letter IV). Lewis cleverly reveals the integration of the body, mind and soul  – that they are not their own parts, inconsequential of their action towards the rest of the body. The tendency to believe this is to make a grievous error.

James intended to remind readers that faith does not exist without a life of works. Faith and work are two expressions of the same thing: an encounter with the living Christ. Belief and action are not to be separated – to do so would be to live a dematerialized Christianity, and  we tend to do this much more often than we think. We become idealists in our beliefs, yet we neglect to speak to the One who is centre of that ideal. More passion is spent on disagreeing with someones theology/ideology than on seeking and praying to the God of grace. This is a dematerialized faith, one that has glorified ideals at the expense of being with the person of Christ.

Moreover, NT Wright has written much about the problem among Evangelicals who have made the Christian hope one of future dematerialization. The belief is that one day, if you are Christian, when you die, or when the ‘rapture’ happens, you will go to heaven. What most people mean by this, is that their “soul” or their “spirit” will go to the sky and live on clouds, and play harp music with Jesus who is of course the worship leader. Thankfully, this is completely wrong.

Though many factors contribute, this is due to a Christian conception of the afterlife that has been overly dematerialized – a separation of body/soul/spirit. This ideal  demonizes the material world and glorifies the non material; which Wright argues in Surprised by Hope, leads to a tragic disregard for the present creation.  It is an escapist mindset, viewing the current world as totally corrupt and irredeemable, thus placing hope in a disembodied heaven.

The problem is due in large part to a erroneous view of heaven.  Wright explains:

‘God’s kingdom’  in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.10 The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swathes of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world, and our present bodies, and regard them as shabby or shameful.

Likewise, the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have been much misunderstood. The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last, he will remake both, and join them together for ever. And when we come to the picture of the actual End in Revelation 21–22, we find, not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.

Heaven invades earth when God enters creation. Additionally, Wright argues that Easter — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — is what is under fire in this ideal. The resurrection of Christ has lost its centrality in the Christian hope, it has taken a back seat only to be replaced by an escapist longing for a disembodied heaven.

The consequences are detrimental:

What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and colour to everything else. If we are not careful, we will offer merely a ‘hope’ that is no longer a surprise, no longer able to transform lives and communities in the present, no longer generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself and looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth (36).

Moreover, the wider implication of this dematerialized hope is the “downgrading of bodies and the created order” which we will one day leave behind (37). Wright notes the historic shift during the 18th century, in which “Evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead” (38).

The focus of Wright’s book is centred primarily on the resurrection – which rightly provides hope for the conquering of death and the future plan to redeem all of creation. Additionally, what I think we require in this very moment is the beauty of the Incarnation.

“The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).

Surely, John’s readers would have recognized what John was saying about Jesus: he is God in the flesh.  God always intended that through the story of Israel, God would restore the brokenness of creation. How? By progressively coming nearer to it – bringing ‘heaven,’ the “God dimension” to creation. The restoration of creation would come as God drew closer to it; through the tabernacle, the temple, and ultimately the Temple who is Christ, and now, by the Spirit, by whom  our bodies are made into His temple, and thus through the Church.

The incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection. These are meant to bring restoration to a creation that is under a curse. Not simply a restoration but a fruitfulness and ability to flourish. Like a seed that is planted into the ground, the seed must loose its glory, it must die, for the tree to grow, flourish and provide fruit for the planter. In that way the seed is beautiful and mysterious.

Jesus spoke of himself and his followers when he said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

God enters into his own story by incarnating himself, and beckons us – the church – to enter into his story of the  ross, death, burial, and resurrection.

Thus, in this cruciform life – a life shaped by the cross — and by it we begin to behold the beauty of the incarnation; and paradoxically, by embracing the way of the cross, death turns into the blessing of life.

CS Lewis puts it this way: “we do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves.”

Paul’s teaching and life is in step with this:

“…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-12

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” – 2 Timothy 2:11

“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” – Galatians 2:20

May the Church grasp the beauty of the story of Christ – the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection, and be intentional about entering into that story not  by idealizing it, nor by escaping the created world, but through lament, prayer, seeking the King, his Kingdom, and his Spirit, to the glory of God. Lord, help our unbelief.

Jesus Baptized: The Holy Spirit and the New Thing

The Holy Spirit is a dominant theme throughout the book of Luke.  The Holy Spirit fills individuals in Luke (John, Elizabeth, Mary, Jesus, Zechariah, Simeon, cf. 1:15, 1:35, 1:41, 1:67, 2:25, 3:22, etc), and the work of the Spirit is spoken of in contrast to the many “evil spirits” that cause damage to the individual (7:21, 8:2). The Spirit is associated in the births of both John and Jesus; John will be “filled with the Holy Spirit before birth” (1:15) and Jesus will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit (1:35).  A common result from the infilling of the Holy Spirit is prophecy and praise (1:42-45, 1:64, 2:13). Joel Green and Scot Mcknight associate Luke’s use of the Spirit with prophetic acts that point to the recognition and assurance of salvation: “Elizabeth and Zechariah experience the Spirit of prophecy in invasive prophetic speech (the invasive quality denoted here by the Lukan favorite idiom “filled with” the Holy Spirit) … and as a result give oracles of recognition and assurance of salvation.”[1]

The Holy Spirit appears in a very special way at Jesus’ water baptism (Lk 3:21-22;  Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17; Jn 1:29-34).

It is interesting to note that in each of the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ baptism narrative introduces the rest of his ministry. What is really going on? What were the writers of the gospels telling their readers?

This moment is intentionally placed (in Luke’s account) in order to draw attention away from John the Baptism and centre in on Jesus. What Luke is saying to his readers, is that something special is going on here, a prophetic act in which the New Covenant is being announced.  It’s like he’s saying “It’s time for the project of the New Creation to begin, and it begins here, with Jesus.”

Scholars don’t agree on the purpose of the dove ascending on Jesus, and what that may intend to mean. I believe that it’s meant to allude to 1) the Noah narrative, where the dove was a messenger of new beginnings (Gen. 8:8-12), and 2) the creation narrative, where God’s Spirit hovers over the waters right as he is about to bring forth creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1:2). The point, I think, is that God is now doing something NEW in Jesus. The project of New Creation is beginning in Jesus who is the Christ.

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is meant to signify this powerful new thing that God is doing in history. It is “unique moment in history: the beginning of a new epoch in salvation-history – the beginning, albeit in a restricted sense, of the End-time, the messianic age, the new covenant.”[2]

With regards to this narrative, NT Wright claims that “John the Baptist is playing Samuel to Jesus’ David,” and thus, Luke’s readers are given notice that “there is a new kingdom, a kingdom of Israel’s god, and that the young man now anointed by his cousin in the Jordan is the king through whom it is to be set up.”[3]
The baptism of Jesus signifies the beginning of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, Jesus the Messiah, empowered by the Spirit, is bringing forth the year of the Lord’s favor: good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, and liberty those who are oppressed (Lk 4:18-19, cf Isa 61:1-2).

It is likely that Luke’s frequent mention of the Holy Spirit (much more than any other Gospel) is put to use in order to remind his readers that God “gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (11:13), and may shed light on Luke’s intention to convey to the readers that now is the time of the new covenant, where God’s spirit is given to all flesh (C.F. Joel 2:28, Ez 33-36, Jer 36, Is 40-55).
The key here, is ALL flesh. This project is going to bring in the plan God had from the beginning, to make himself known to all the nations (cf Ez 36, Gen. 15, Jer 36). The allusion to Creation and the Noachic covenant points to God’s commitment to the whole of creation and serves to intensify the universal nature of God’s plan of salvation. It is likely that Luke intended the readers to recognize Jesus’ identification as the Messiah endowed with the Spirit in order to bring forth God’s eschatological program of salvation to all the nations. 
It makes sense that Luke, throughout his gospel account, focuses on the outcasts of society; women, the poor, tax collectors, samaritans, etc. The point, I think, is that the Holy Spirit is offered to all (11:13), just as forgiveness is offered to all (3:3, 24:47). The gift of the Holy Spirit, it seems; will lead to Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy (yes, three P’s… my homiletics teacher would be proud).  Through the Holy Spirit Jesus Promises Power (that’s got to be an A+)…and will eventually lead up to ….the day of Pentecost… (Okay I don’t know how this is happening right now)…
And finally it is on that day of Pentecost where the Spirit falls on all flesh. The New Covenant is materializing in a new and powerful way.
A little after Jesus’ baptism, he himself announces this New Thing that is happening, in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

Amen.
 


[1] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot Mcknight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 342.

 


[2] James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A re-examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today (London: SCM Press, 1970), 24.

 


[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 379.

The Blessings of the Kingdom

There are countless interpretations of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

One wonders, was Matthew being a legalist with regards to these teachings? Commonly, it is suggested that Matthew is warding off legalism with respects to the dominant Pharisaic presence, while at the same time, warning against an antinomianism common to those who “live by faith” (but not by works).

This seems to be a common struggle for many Christians, particularly Evangelicals. That is, the struggle of “faith” vs “religion/works,” as it is commonly referred to. Most often, Christians agree that it begins with faith and the works will follow. This is good, but not enough.

The beatitudes, (i.e “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” etc etc) don’t seem to fit in very cleanly with the above mentioned perspective. There is something missing. What is important to note about these sayings of Jesus, is that they are not describing the “way things are now” but rather

“they are annoucing a new state of affairs, a new reality which is in the process of bursting into the world. They are declaring that something that wasnt’ previously the case is now going to be; that the life of heaven, which had seemed so distant and unreal, is in the process of coming true on earth” (NT Wright, After You Believe, 105).

Now that Jesus is here, God’s kingdom of blessing is coming, a kingdom of renewal of creation, mercy, justice, peace, and love. And as the Kingdom arrives, the qualities of humility, meekness, purity and so on will shine through most powerfully.

So, his teaching is not a “rewards based” retribution theology, (ie behave this way and you will be rewarded), nor is it a “now that you believe in me, this is how you must behave.” Rather, Jesus is saying that God’s new world, God’s plan to bring restoration to the world – a plan beautifully exposed in Isaiah 11 – is coming to birth in Jesus.

These qualities become a reality as we anticipate the coming Kingdom – the New Creation.

Anticipation is a funny thing. When playing soccer, if I anticipate the ball coming towards me, the power of that anticipation will result in bodily movement; I will run towards the ball. Similarly, anticipation of the New Creation will result in new behaviour; transformation of Character. That happens as we follow Jesus.

There’s this interesting Greek word, telos. It connotes a sense of completion, goal, and fulfilment. A full word study may not be appurtenant here, but often, the word is mentioned in the context of the biblical vision for the New Creation, and to top that off, it is in view and anticipation of the telos that a Christ-like character is being formed. 1 Corinthians 15 is a great example of this, as well as the entire book of Revelation. Also, 1 Peter 4:7, which says:

7The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.

There are many more directives throughout the New Testament that we can look at.

One author summarizes the big idea beautifully:

“When [the New Testament writers] present us with a vision for the future, they refuse to move from the present to the future. They move from the future to the present. They are captivated above all by a conviction about what God will finally do – the panorama unveiled in Revelation 21 and 22 – a future when God will dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem, a future promised by and guaranteed in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And in the light of this ultimate hope, they dare to claim that this future can start now. They tell us that their lives are being breathed into by the breath of God, being reenergized by God’s Spirit, that they are already enjoying the life of the future.” (David Taylor, editor of “For the Beauty of the Church”).

Jesus tells his hearers, “Be perfect (teleios) because your heavenly father is perfect (teleios)” (Mt. 5:48). Teleios, is usually translated as “whole, complete, perfect.” Essentially, he’s saying, that you are people of the goal – people of genuine humanness.

The Blessing of the Kingdom is in light of the New Creation – And that is happening here and now because of Jesus. We are living in the “already and not yet” – we live in view of the “not yet” and we live it out “already.”