Hope - Week 3
This week leads us into Easter and my conversation is with NT Wright's book Surprised by Hope. For me, this is one of the best books out there for the season of Lent & Easter! Enjoy!
For the past couple weeks I have been having imaginary conversations in my head with some of my favourite theologians who have published excellent work on the topic of Christian Hope. I am getting sort of used to these conversations, and I am wondering if this is a good thing?
No matter, I’m continuing this week, because on the topic of Hope, one author has written on this topic extensively: his name is N.T. Wright. He titled one of his well known books, Surprised by Hope, and on this Sunday before Easter, N.T. Wright will be my conversation partner.
Me: So, Mr. N.T. Wright, why did you name your book, “Surprised by Hope?”
N.T. Wright: You can call me Tom. Regarding my book, I dare say, if Hope is not surprising us, it is a feeble hope indeed. In our church calendar, we are currently in the season of Lent, the season that leads us into Easter. This is a good time to be considering Hope, for Hope is generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself. Hope is looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth. And this Hope transforms lives and communities in the present.
Me: That is so good, because in this time, when we have not only a virus pandemic, but also a pandemic of fear and anxiety, I pray we can have our lives transformed by Hope.
During my conversations the last couple of weeks, I have found that to understand Hope – and I’m referring to Hope with a capital “H” – as ultimate Hope - we must first encounter some of our cultural and Christian conceptions, or misconceptions, and the impact these have upon the way we understand Hope.
N.T. Wright: Agreed. In fact, it could be said one purpose of my book is to name and address common misconceptions of our Christian Hope and the impact these views have upon our present reality. Our Western world is now chock full with quite a range of views on death and resurrection, and I would describe many of our churches as misguided. And this is important, for what we believe and say about death and resurrection gives shape and colour to everything else.
Take for example the majestic hymn “How Great Thou Art,” with the final stanza declaring:
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
This line, which incidentally was not in the original Swedish version, became adapted to suggest Jesus will return to take His people away from earth and “home” to heaven. Such a belief is common among Christians, and yet this is not what Jesus nor the writers of New Testament had in mind. “God’s Kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus refers not to a destined place after we have died, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Heaven in the Bible, is 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 last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21-22, we find not the souls of the departed 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.
Me: Thank you for your clarity. I know this way of understanding is central to the rest of your book. As you say, these beliefs give shape and colour to everything else. Can you flesh that out a bit more for me? Why does this thinking matter?
N.T. Wright: It matters quite a bit. What we must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. Our work upon this earth does not go towards some great tally – some heavenly scale that measures individual deeds – our work goes towards a much greater good, which Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.
Me: If I am hearing you correctly, then you are saying our frontline workers, doing the best job that they can, are right now building the new creation, and…even if we are isolated at home we can still be involved in building the church and the Kingdom of God?
N.T. Wright: In this digital world that most of us are currently inhabiting, I am in awe how much humanity is supporting their neighbours, whether next door, or global. From home we can watch Rachmaninoff’s 2ndPiano concerto or create our own music. The parodies are certainly demonstrating the cleverness of our generation – did you see the rewrite by that British family for One Day More? We can be inspired and amazed by the acrobatics of Cirque Du Soleil. Teachers are working this week at new and innovative means for learning. And in care for one another, yes; healthcare is the frontline, as are all those working to support their efforts, especially in medicinal research and development of personal protective equipment. Governments are working on large-scale solutions, neighbours are delivering goods and meals for those isolated, and in an act that also takes grace, the offers of help are being received and appreciated. I believe that none of these acts are wasted. Instead they both prepare and build towards the new creation.
Me: Well that makes these days far from pointless. To both offer what we can and to receive the beautiful gifts offered to us, to take time to pray for ourselves and others…as much as we may wish there is more we could do, how beautiful to know that even now, even today we are able to glimpse heaven on this earth.