Monday, April 27, 2015

Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Thirteen

1.  That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.

So what are the possibilities ahead for us?

2.  But if God really does intend to redeem rather than reject his created world of space, time, and matter, we are faced with the question: what might it look like to celebrate that redemption, that healing and transformation, in the present, and thereby appropriately to anticipate God’s final intention?

3.  As far as I can see, the major task that faces us in our generation, corresponding to the issue of slavery two centuries ago, is that of the massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.  We must learn, therefore, to recognize the complex arguments against debt remission as what they are. People tell you it’s a tricky and many-sided subject. Yes, it is; so was slavery. So are all major moral problems. The fact remains that what is now going on amounts to theft by the strong from the weak, by the rich from the poor.

What is our Christian response to this?

4.  This is the point where a genuine biblical theology can come out of the forest and startle both those who thought that the Bible was irrelevant or dangerous for political ethics and those who thought that taking the Bible seriously meant being conservative politically as well as theologically. The truth is very different.  His resurrection, and the promise of God’s new world that comes with it, creates a program for change and offers to empower it. Those who believe the gospel have no choice but to follow.

Why is this so, and how to we follow?

5.  How do you answer someone who says, rightly, that the world will not be completely just and right until the new creation and who deduces, wrongly, that there is no point trying to bring justice to the world (or for that matter ecological health, another topic for which there is no space here) until that time? Answer, from everything I have said so far: insist on inaugurated eschatology, on a radical transformation of the way we behave as a worldwide community, anticipating the eventual time when God will be all in all even though we all agree things won’t be complete until then. There is the challenge. The resurrection of Jesus points us to it and gives us the energy for it. Let us overcome our surprise that such a hope should be set before us and go to the task with prayer and wisdom. 

What is the connection between spiritual energy and prayer/wisdom?

6.  This will take serious imagination, imagination fueled by reflection and prayer at the foot of the cross and before the empty tomb, imagination that will discern the mysteries of God’s judgment on evil and God’s reaffirmation, through resurrection, of his beautiful creation. Art at its best draws attention not only to the way things are but also to the way things will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. That remains a surprising hope, and perhaps it will be the artists who are best at conveying both the hope and the surprise.

Give examples where this has occurred for you.

7.  But how can the church announce that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil, corruption, and death itself have been defeated, and that God’s new world has begun? Doesn’t this seem laughable? Well, it would be if it wasn’t happening. But if a church is working on the issues we’ve already looked at—if it’s actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption in art and music, and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community—then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense.


8.  The mission of the church must therefore reflect, and be shaped by, the future hope as the New Testament presents it. I believe that if we take these three areas—justice,
beauty, and evangelism—in terms of the anticipation of God’s eventual setting to rights of the whole world, we will find that they dovetail together and in fact that they are all part of the same larger whole, which is the message of hope and new life that comes with the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. This is the foundation, I believe, for the work of hope in the day-to-day life of the church.
 This is the good news—of justice, beauty, and above all Jesus—that the church is called upon to live and to speak, to bring into reality, in each place and each generation.

What might the life of the church look like if it was shaped, in turn, by this hope-shaped mission?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Twelve

1.  Wright asks, “How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

How does this crucial connection between the present and the future provide encouragement and hope for the mission of the church in the world?  How does this perspective shape the value God places in you and the value you place in yourself?

2.  “The truly exciting, surprising, and perhaps frightening thing about where we have now got to in this book is that we are now forced to rethink the very meaning of salvation

Prior to reading this book, how did you define salvation…both on a Biblical and on a personal basis?  How do you define both levels of salvation now?

3.  “In other words—to sum up where we’ve got so far—the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.”

Briefly review each of these three points and explore their implications for understanding our greater purpose as Christians.

4.  “This, as we have seen, is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are all about. They are designed not to take us away from this earth but rather to make us agents of the transformation of this earth, anticipating the day when, as we are promised, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” When the risen Jesus appears to his followers at the end of Matthew’s gospel, he declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. And the point of the gospels—of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together with Acts—is that this has already begun. The question of how it has begun—in what sense it is inaugurated, anticipated, or whatever—has been the stuff of debate for a long time. But part of the problem with that debate is that those taking part in it do not usually clarify the question of what precisely it is that is begun, launched, or initiated.”

As God’s “agents of the transformation of this earth,” we are not helplessly un-equipped for this kingdom work.  We have been baptized into this kingdom, nurtured in the holy meal by his body and blood, and buoyed by a grace-filled faith as we hear and receive the living Word.  How do these “Means of Grace” continue to sustain you for such transformation of life around you?

5.  Wright concludes, “Heaven’s rule, God’s rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation that is both for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world. This is the solid basis for the mission of the church.”

Got it?  God’s rule is to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation across the board.  How do we comprehend this rule, equip the saints, and send the church (that’s us) for such mission?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Eleven

1.  Wright notes, “Purgatory is basically a Roman Catholic doctrine…decisively rejected [outside of Catholicism], on biblical and theological grounds and not merely because of antipathy to particular abuses, at the Reformation.”  Even several notable representatives of Catholicism have rejected it. 

He then makes four points: 

  1. The resurrection is still in the future.
  2. There is no reason in the New Testament to suppose that there are any category distinctions between different Christians in heaven as they await the resurrection.
  3. I do not believe in purgatory as a place, a time, or a state.
  4. That all the Christian departed are in
    substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. 
Take time to review and unpack the complexities of each of these four points.  How does Wright help clarify or confuse your understanding of these points?

2.  Even N. T. Wright finds it difficult to discuss the topic of hell!  He does offer a generous and broad range of reactions to it over the centuries, from both theological and practical viewpoints.  He then identifies three common approaches to hell:

1.  The traditional view is that those who spurn God’s      
     salvation, who refuse to turn from idolatry and wickedness,  
     are held forever in conscious torment.
2.  This account is then opposed by the universalists.
     Sometimes they suggest…that God will be merciful even to
     the utterly abhorrent, to mass murderers and child rapists.
3.  A middle way is offered by the so-called conditionalists.
     They propose “conditional immortality”: those who
     persistently refuse God’s love and his way of life in the
     present world will simply cease to exist.

“Over against these three options, I propose a view that combines what seem to me the strong points of the first and third.”

How does Wright reconcile these?  What view does he propose and how does he support it theologically?

3.  Finally, Wright points this delicate discussion in a different direction…that of human goals and new creation.  “But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about. This is one of the central surprises in the Christian hope. The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major,central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos.

“The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context—not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

“The choice before humans would then be framed differently: are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?

What surprises you about Wright’s scope of resurrection here?
How do you understand our common purpose at the resurrection in the renewal of God’s creation?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Ten

1.   I love this chapter.  Here, Wright addresses straightforward questions with straightforward answers…at least as much as we can expect.  Right out of the gate, Wright addresses a host of misconceptions involving being “citizens of heaven,” the possessing of new bodies at the resurrection, the timing of the resurrection, as well as other biblical quotes and phrases that are commonly misinterpreted to refer to heaven as our immediate and final destination.

Wright sums up his introduction this way:  “Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant, whether (like the ancient pagans) people disbelieved it or whether (like many ancient Jews) they affirmed it. It wasn’t a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death.”

“God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, not so that we can go to heaven and put them on there but so that they can be brought to birth in this world or rather in the new heavens and new earth, the renewed world of which I spoke earlier.”

How do these initial discussions provide the foundation of our Easter hope as Christians?  How do they further define God’s plan for the redemption and salvation of all creation…including us?

2.  Wright notes, “All discussions of the future resurrection must sooner or later do business with Paul and particularly with his two letters to Corinth.”  “What Paul is asking us to imagine is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body as our present body does to a ghost. It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit.”

“We sometimes speak of someone who’s been very ill as being a shadow of their former self. If Paul is right, a Christian in the present life is a mere shadow of his or her future self, the self that person will be when the body that God has waiting in his heavenly storeroom is brought out, already made to measure, and put on over the present one—or over the self that will still exist after bodily death.”

Pause and imagine this new life, with remarkable new bodies.  What do you imagine such life to entail?

3.  “There were of course all kinds of debates and further discussions about the bodily resurrection in the second century and beyond. What is remarkable is that apart from the small corpus of Gnostic and semi-Gnostic writings, the early church fathers at least as far as Origen insisted on this doctrine, though the pressures on them to abandon it must have been very great. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian—all of them stress bodily resurrection.”

Why is this ancient collective witnessing to a bodily resurrection crucial to our present dialogue?

4.  Wright concludes by addressing these “nut & bolts” questions:

- Who will be raised from the dead?
- Where will the resurrection take place?
- What precisely will the resurrection body be?
- Why will we be given new bodies?
- When will the resurrection happen?
- How will it happen?

Briefly review and discuss each of Wright’s responses, along with your own reactions.