Monday, June 9, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 15)

N.T. Wright concludes Surprised by Hope in style, discussing the relevance of the Christian hope to the mission of the church. He covers three areas--the redemption of time, space, and matter; the resurrection and mission; and the resurrection and personal devotion.

N.T. Wright reminds us of the importance of the traditional forms of Christianity as they relate to resurrection. With regard to the redemption of space, he says that too many people have discounted the value of "holy places," i.e. churches. While he sees the wisdom in avoiding undue worship directed at "holy places," he says that there is something valuable in feeling that church is a place where one is on holy ground. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 260.) But redemption extends beyond just space to encompass time as well. To this, Wright warns us not to discriminate against those who have gone before us. Honoring tradition respects God's redemption of time--that we are all part of God's story. (261) Finally, redemption affects matter itself. To this, Wright speaks of the importance of the sacraments of eucharist and baptism. In these sacraments, heaven and earth intersect in the realm of matter. (262) Wright says that the sacraments describe heaven in ways that language can't. He writes, "Remember the ballerina who, asked to say what a particular dance meant, replied, 'If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it.'" (263)

In addition to it's effect on time, space, and matter, the resurrection also affects the mission of the church. Wright says that the mission of the church should be to be the "already but not yet" to the world. He writes:

"The world of space, time, and matter is a place where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are taken, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the 'now, already' of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the 'not yet.' The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic or social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where therefore the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator's design." (265)

Finally, Wright says that the resurrection gives new meaning to personal holiness. In order for the church to bring heaven to earth, heaven has to break into the lives of the individuals of the church. Thus holy living is motivated by our future hope. He writes:

"The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God's new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life, and the resurrected Jesus calls us to begin living it with him and for him right now. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope: people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope." (288)

In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright makes scholarship practical. This is the thing I love about him--he has one of the sharpest minds in New Testament scholarship, but his heart is in the church.

The church in America seems split into two camps, represented by "Pastor Gospelman" and "Reverend Smoothtongue" in the appendix to Surprised by Hope. Many, like Gospelman, focus on the "truth" of the resurrection and all of the theology that this entails. "Because Jesus is raised," they say, "we are going to heaven when we die." Others, like Smoothtongue, belittle to Scriptures as antiquated and irrelevant, and focus instead on the moral clean-up of society. "What really matters," they say, "is that Jesus is resurrected in our hearts and in society." I've been looking for some middle ground for a long time. I'm conservative like the fundamentalists, but I think the church needs to get out there into the culture to "bring heaven to earth," as Wright says. Hopefully there will be movement in America--one that takes the historic doctrines of the faith seriously, but one that isn't afraid to put legs on their faith to make a difference.

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