For the season of Lent this year I’m spending my time reading through N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope (2008). In this book he talks about heaven, the Resurrection and connects this all the the mission of the church. I choose to read through this book because as we approach the date in which we celebrate the empty tomb and what lies at the heart of all Christian hope, we need to understand the heart and the implications of the crucified and risen Christ that somehow in the way Christ lived and what He taught, resulted in his death. In the crucifix and the crucifixion, we find the shape of our Christian life. In the empty tomb and the Resurrection, we find the power of God’s Kingdom that is flowing through our veins.
In the chapter reading for today, Wright discusses the idea of resurrection in the context of ancient culture, but more specifically, in 1st century Judaism and early Christianity. One of the statements he makes clear in this chapter is to the Jews and the Christianity birthed from the Jews, generally (with the exception of a few Jews) the idea of resurrection was bodily resurrection. He writes, “resurrection was used to denote new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be… resurrection wasn’t, then, a dramatic or vivid way of talking about the state people went into immediately after death. It denoted something that might happen (though almost everyone thought it wouldn’t) sometime after that” (Wright, 36).
The early Christian future hope centered on resurrection. The first Christians did not simply believe in life after death; they virtually never spoke simply of going to heaven when they died. (As I have often said, alluding to the title of a good popular book on this subject, heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world.) When they did speak of heaven as a postmortem destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body. When Jesus tells the brigand that he will join him in paradise that very day, paradise clearly cannot be their ultimate destination, as Luke’s next chapter makes clear. Paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God’s people rest prior to the resurrection. When Jesus declares that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house, the word for dwelling place is monē, which denotes a temporary lodging. WHne Paul says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ, ich is far better,” he is indeed thinking of a blissful life with his Lord immediately after death, but this is only the prelude to the ressurection itself. In terms of the the early Christians, [they] held firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. – N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (p. 41)
Why is this important? Because the whole point of this life is not to wait for heaven or for the Resurrection, but rather to see the Resurrection as a promised hope, and to see ourselves and our mission as an opportunity to participate in God’s Kingdom, now. It is the fulfillment of our prayer to let God’s kingdom come, “here on earth as it is in heaven”, until we are able to see it (and ourselves) in it’s final form, which is the new heaven and the new earth that is spoke of in the final pages of Revelation. In other words, to quote much more brilliant thinkers, “this life is not a waiting room for heaven.” “‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven'” (p. 18).
To believe in the Resurrection and for our faith to center on the Resurrection, is not so much to long for heaven, but it’s the affirmation that what Jesus said would happen through the Holy Spirit, actually happened. The One who is faithful to keep that promise to Jesus, now resides in us. The fullness of authority and power of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by the Resurrection, resides in us to carry out our prayer for the Kingdom and it’s principles here on earth. “Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole word by coming forward from the future into the present” (p. 29). The Kingdom of God and the Resurrection go hand in hand. They are not separate and they are not different. The Kingdom of God is first consummated in the Resurrection and until we see it in it’s final form, we are asked to participate in the Kingdom of God with the courage, that not even death can stop the Kingdom from moving forward because we have the promise and the power of Resurrection. This life, is not a waiting room for that moment.
As I reflect on the life of great Christian men and women in world history, as far as I can tell, they were never motivated to do their work because they were “going to heaven”, but they were motivated by the vision, the principles, and the values of the Kingdom taught by Jesus, and they knew that power that resided and led Christ, would now empower and lead them. John Woolman, a Quaker, staunch opponent to slavery, and pacifist, wrote in his journal and letters that his views were shaped by the Kingdom of God, “here on earth as it is in heaven”:
Being convinced that the gracious design of the Almighty in sending his Son into the world was to repair the breach made by disobedience, to finish sin and transgression, that his kingdom might come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we have found it it be our duty to cease from those national contests which are productive of misery and bloodshed.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a famous letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he encourages his readers that one day injustice will come to an ultimate end, but we know, “that the teachings of Christ take time to come to earth… human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God…” From King’s point of view the Kingdom was something you participated in, or you worked against. His work in the area of injustice and his view of equality is the trajectory of God’s Kingdom arriving here on earth, now, as it is in heaven. I do not believe that Woolman or King gave their lives to their work because it was their way of getting into heaven, but were instead, captivated by the vision of the Kingdom laid out by Jesus and found strength in the power of the Resurrection.
And so now, may, the God who is always faithful and all-powerful, fill you with the courage and faithful reminder that He is at work in you, amen.