Eschatology

restoring hope

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It’s Refugee Week in Australia. The overall aim of which, according to the Refugee Council Of Australia website, is to “raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society”.

Timely, given recent events off the coast.

The theme of Refugee Week for 2012-14 is ‘restoring hope’. And I’ve been wondering whether there’s any distinctively Christian contribution to be made along any of the three axes specified by the Refugee Council:

  1. A recognition that refugees’ journeys begin not simply with danger, fear and trauma but also with hope.
  2. An invitation to communities offering hospitality to refugees to view their work in a positive sense — they’re restoring hope to people.
  3. And a challenge to face up to the hope-threatening ‘permanently temporary’ situation many refugees are forced to inhabit.

My mind’s been travelling more and more along the third axis — particularly as I’ve mulled over 1 Peter in the lead up to preaching on it.

I’m totally convinced that 1 Peter is the most important New Testament letter for Western Christians to come to grips with — especially as the tide of Christendom continues to retreat.

What I especially appreciate about 1 Peter is its refusal to allow Christians to lose sight of the theological (as opposed to sociological) reality of our status as ‘displaced persons’ — profoundly out of joint with our context, no matter what society we find ourselves in.

So if we take 1 Peter seriously then Christians should have some intrinsic sympathy for the vulnerability, marginalisation, insecurity and embattled experience of actual refugees.

We should expect to be familiar with not belonging. And we should know what it’s like to be looked at askance or subjected to hostile questioning — even legal sanctions.

More than this, 1 Peter teaches Christians that we should have something to share and contribute on the basis of the ‘living hope’ the resurrection of Jesus ushers us into.

The gift of lasting stability — not only a secure inheritance beyond the reach of rust and corrosion, but also a rock-solid confidence that God himself travels with and protects us on the journey.

The ultimate belonging — to an eternal family bound to one another in genuine from-the-heart love.

The astonish privilege and purpose — graciously qualified to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through the Messiah, Jesus, as we declare the glories of our Rescuer.

All of these 1 Peter holds before us — a dazzling kaleidoscope of hope. With massive restorative potential!

the struggles of the artist

I’m absolutely loving the stuff Mark Sayers is coming out with at the moment. Like his recent post that contained this nugget:

One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

I was at a Christian conference recently where the speaker urged us (in light of the resurrection) to paint in the colours of hope, bringing the light and joy of the promised new creation into our dark and brutal world.

Now I’m all for hope. And never run out of stuff to say about the resurrection — so massive are its implications not just for art but also for how we engage with the material and ‘secular’ in general!

But what Sayers says is worth pondering. Because Christian hope, grounded in the Crucified who’s now risen, must not to hide from the nastiness and brokenness in our experience of life.

In fact, Christian hope should enable us to look reality square in the eye. Shouldn’t it?

how should we feel about the Lord’s coming?

In case you don’t keep track of these things, the Christian liturgical calendar recently ticked over into the season of Advent. Leading up to Christmas, Advent’s a season with a dual focus: the first coming of the Lord (ie. the incarnation) and his second coming, parousia or ‘royal appearing’.

People have been posting their Advent reflections, prayers, and protests (with the Occupy movement in full flower, seems ’tis the season).

I want to ask an Advent question:

How should we feel about the Lord’s coming? In particular, what emotions should be stirred in us at the prospect of his return — his second Advent?

The second coming of Jesus is usually associated with the fearful thought of judgement. But in my experience of Advent the primary affections are positive: hope, joy, peace, etc.

So should belief in the final judgement of the world by Jesus make us more serious and weighed down or should it instil in us a sort of joyful lightness?

Lurking behind this question is another:

How does Christ’s first Advent relate to his second?

Is it primarily a matter of contrast — forgiveness and exemption from judgement now, wrath and universally enforced judgement to come? Like what’s maybe envisaged in Hebrews 9.28 when it says that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”?

Or is it more a matter of continuity? The identity and significance of Jesus was shrouded in the dubious circumstances of his doubtful origin, only fleetingly glimpsed in his earthly life and ministry, and declared with power by his resurrection from the dead. And yet it still awaits a universal unveiling — a day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess him as Lord.

So which is it? How should we feel about the Lord’s coming?

Gut (or more considered) reactions welcome!

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but a private faith

I can’t say I know many Christians who treat their faith as a private thing (although I’m told it used to be a pretty common thing to do). But I know a few Secularists who’d be quite happy if it was!

And I can understand why. My Secularist friends are alert to the danger of anything more than a private faith tripping over into imposing its narrow, partisan vision upon others.

Yet I’ve been battered again and again by the impossibility of viewing the Jesus who meets us in the Sermon on the Mount as simply an enlightened teacher dispensing a recipe for a personal, private piety that makes next to no visible splash in the world.

Jesus’ programmatic statement about being salt and light gets the ball rolling on this. But for me it’s in the Lord’s Prayer that this leaps off the page (Matthew 6.9-13):

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Now, Jesus provides this framework for prayer in the midst of emphasising the secretness or hiddenness of true piety — although his point is to counteract our tendency to put on a show, trying to impress God and each other by how religious we look. Such ‘religion’ orbits around me.

In contrast, religion that orbits around the Father — putting his goodness, glory, kingdom and will at its heart — knows it doesn’t have to impress God. It trusts that magnifying him won’t mean that we miss out on what we need. For the God whose presence we thirst for, is the one who can be relied upon to sustain, forgive, protect, and rescue us.

So here at the heart of the prayer that’s come to characterise Christian faith, we see three things:

  1. Christianity is an inescapably public faith — it enthrones a longing to see the beauty and order that characterises heaven become a reality here on earth.
  2. Christianity is about human flourishing and the good of all, not a narrow vision for the power and dominance of one particular group.
  3. Christianity isn’t about imposing this on others, but prayerfully trusting and bearing witness to the God it calls upon to act decisively in this way.

And that is anything but a private faith!

heaven has teeth

Say what you want about Rob Bell and his controversial new book Love Wins (and I hope to say quite a lot before long — I’m collaborating on a review due out soon), there are at least two things you’ve got to admit.

The first thing you’ve got to admit is that Bell has a remarkable way of putting things.

There’s a compelling poetry and earthiness to his manner. And he has this fabulous ability to put into words the half-formed questions that niggle and gnaw away at the back of your mind.

The other thing to you’ve got to admit is that Bell is far from squeemish about God’s judgement.

For all the buzz on the internet — and for all that Bell may tilt ultimately in the direction of universalism — it’s not a discomfort with a God of judgement that seems to motivate him here.

In fact, at one point in his chapter on heaven — a classic Bell blend of contemporary New Testament scholarship, provocative questioning, and apparent lack of ability to distinguish the baby from the bathwater — Bell rhetorically ‘takes on’ those who say they can’t believe in a judging God (pages 37-38):

Yes they can.
Often we can think of little else.
Every oil spill,
every report of another woman sexually assaulted,
every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution,
every time we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people,
every time we stumble on one more instance of the human heart gone wrong,
we shake our fist and cry out,
“Will somebody please do something about this?”

And so in Bell’s account of the New Testament vision of the new creation and renewal of all things, ‘heaven … has teeth, flames, edges and sharp points’ (page 49).

Don’t you wish you could preach like that? I know I do!

Christ is risen!

The reality which is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death. But that’s the point. The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is that as well; it is the defining, central event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus.

— N. T. Wright, ‘Can We Believe In The Resurrection?’

Chris is risen!

He is risen indeed.

living as if the dead are not raised

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32b)

I find it ridiculously easy for my horizons to shrink. The present — its successes or its challenges — tends to fill my vision and occupies me thoroughly. (I guess it’s the dark side of my very minor super power: my freakish ability to focus.)

It takes a lot to shock me, make me lift up my head and look around — looking out in particular to the eschatological horizon: our hope in Christ that death isn’t the end, that the dead will be raised.

But, as far as Paul is concerned, this kind of thing guts Christianity.

As Tim Chester puts it, “Without eschatology we are left with a limp Christian existentialism in which immediate experience is everything” (‘The Kingdom of God is at Hand: Eschatology and Mission’, page 7).

And lest we be tempted to shrug and say, “Yeah, yeah — that’s the prosperity gospel (which, of course, none of us buy into)”, Chester lays out three common varieties of this ‘limp Christian existentialism’:

  1. Charismatic existentialism — emphasising emotional highs, healing, etc.
  2. Conservative existentialism — emphasising freedom from guilt, a reassuring orthodoxy (in which I’m sure I’m right).
  3. Pietistic existentialism — emphasising God’s leading and peace in the heart.

Ouch! No-one gets out of that one unscathed.

The problem isn’t with any of the things we might emphasise. It’s with our horizons shrinking to the point where these things fill them instead of ultimate realities — like the dead being raised…

drawing out of our Christian hope

I don’t think I could tell you much about the houses or gardens on my street. I tend to use it almost exclusively to get from my home to the tram (for which I always seem to be running late). And so I rarely ever notice things about it — let alone enjoy them.

I’m sure that the Nineteenth Century English intellectual John Ruskin would rebuke me for this. Ruskin was keen that everyone learn to draw — not so much to flood the world with bad art as to restore to us the habits of curiosity and attention:

Now, remember … that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.

The issue isn’t how such curiosity and attention gets expressed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drawing, painting, poetry, music … even science.

The issue is that it’s incredibly difficult to stoke the fires of curiosity and attention when you’re at home, surrounded by the familiar (as I am when I hurry down my street).

Yet I’m sure you’ve noticed how, in an unfamiliar environment (such as when you’re travelling), even the most mundane things can invite the kind of attention Ruskin wants us to display.

Which brings me to our Christian hope. Because, as 1 Peter puts it, the ‘living hope’ secured for us by the risen Jesus makes us ‘aliens and strangers’ — wherever we are. It puts us out of joint with our culture and society, rendering them oddly unfamiliar.

As a result, curiosity and attention should be second nature for us. Shouldn’t it?

Surely we should be those who draw — or paint or compose or study — out of our Christian hope…

what do you think I should read this year?

I’m developing a shortlist of books to try to read this year. And I need your help.

It’s worth you knowing something up-front though. Typically, the list of books I’ve read at the end of the year looks quite different from the reading list I set myself at the start.

That’s largely down to the pressure I’ve felt in pastoral ministry to pick up a big chunk of my reading reactively (in response to the questions people are asking) as well as on a project basis.

In fact, I’ve already got a bit of an agenda along these lines, travelling mainly in the orbit of the New Atheism, leadership, and missional engagement/faithful presence.

But I’m keen work towards developing a more balanced diet of (modest) proactive reading — my own personal R & D programme if you like.

So I’m setting myself to read two or three books in each of the following categories (culled from N. T. Wright, New Testament And The People of God, p 123):

  1. Identity
  2. Environment
  3. Evil
  4. Eschatology

Can you help me compile a shortlist?

I’d love for you to tell me what you think I should read — please share your pick for the top book (or two) on each topic. Let the comments begin!