Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The "so what?" of the resurrection.

Yesterday I did what people do in Seattle in April. I got my hands down into the dirt and dug around a bit. I placed some shoots of fresh Geraniums into that dark, wet, rich, soil. I placed the pots on the steps where, strategically situated, they'll get the maximum amount of sunshine. And now we wait. But of course, we don't JUST wait. There's watering, soil care, fortifying the whole operation with nutrients, and more. All of this is helpful. Someday, blossoms will come. Someday, when we're celebrating graduations, when wearing shoes is the exception rather than the rule, when we're riding our bikes everywhere and eating on the patio every night, there will be bursts of color welcoming each guest who ascends the flower clad stairs to our front door. Someday... but not now.

And yet, though there aren't blossoms yet in any substantive way, there's a 'down payment' towards coming beauty. There's green in the pot. There's the visibility of hope. By this weekend it will once again be in the low 40's and raining. I may even break out the skis and do a little backcountry wandering on Friday or Saturday morning. But in the midst of winter's lasts gasp, these two little pots of Geraniums stand as perpetual reminders that a new season is coming. Hope wins!

This is the backdrop of my studies today as I prepare to teach about the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. NT Wright, in his marvelous book about the resurrection, points out two deficient views of the resurrection in preparing to share a more accurate (and more life giving) third view.

First, he introduces the problematic view that says, "Even if Jesus did rise from the dead, so what? Very nice for him, but what's it got to do with anything else? Why should he be so specially favored? If God can pull off a stunt like that, why can't he intervene and do a lot more useful things like stopping genocide or earthquakes?" The response is that the resurrection was the beginning of an unfolding hope, not the final offering. It was the planting of the shoot. The full flowering comes later, in the return of Christ.

Second, he reminds us of the view which states the main point of Easter is to show that since Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven, we'll get to do the same thing someday. This shifts the focus of our energies and hopes towards life after death, and in the process we lose our sense of what we're supposed to be doing right here, in the present. "Isn't it nice that we'll go to heaven when we die, escape this yucky, ugly world, and be with Jesus forever?" Implied in this is that the best thing we can do right now is get other people to believe in the resurrection so that they'll also be able to be with Jesus forever. This is a way of saying that between the planting of the shoot and coming flowers, there's nothing to do but wait. Any garderner knows this is patently untrue.

While it's true that we'll be with Jesus forever, and that life beyond this era, this time, will be matchless in beauty, complete in healing, and filled with joy beyond our wildest imagining because of the justice, beauty, and intimacy we'll find, it's also true that a fixation on the future misses the point.

Paul unpacks this for us in his incredible treatise on the resurrection of the body, found in I Corinthians 15. At the end of this chapter, which is all about our future hope, and the resurrection of our own bodies, just as Jesus body was raised, Paul says something remarkable. Rather than declaring that, since our hope is in the future, we'd best be leaving the present world behind as soon as possible and fixating, in our imaginations and in our real investments of time and energy, on the future world beyond death. Instead he says, "Therefore (in light of the reality of the resurrection)... be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord." (15:58)

Wow! Instead of just singing "when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be...", maybe we'd better add a few songs about embracing our calling to do NOW, in 2009, what Jesus did then, when He walked here. This after all, is the 'work of the Lord' - feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and oppressed. Bringing justice to the downtrodden, pouring Christ's life into situations that are thirsty for hope and in so doing declaring the Jesus lives, that a new way of doing business is at hand.

If Christ is alive, He's still at work, expressing the hope of God through His body. His body is, remarkably, the church, people who are gathered together, reconciled to God because they've chosen to say yes to God's offer of a new way of living - gladder, bolder, more joy-filled, more generous, more peaceful, more counter-cultural, than anything we could fabricate, even on our best days. We who take up the mantle of being His body can do nothing less than take up the mantle of living by His power, following His marching orders, and as a result, spilling hope into the world in profound and creative ways.

My sorrow is that this profound calling would be stolen from the church by putting all the eggs of hope in the future. Instead, the reality is that there's work to be done now - soil to be worked, both literally and in human hearts; beauty to impart, in gardens, art, healing, intimacy, hospitality, well digging, shelter offering, economic development, counseling, praying, teaching, loving, forgiving, sewing, mending, cooking, and so much more: imparting hope is our calling....because He lives.


At 7/4/09 11:24, Blogger Patrick said...

I was under the impression that one of the reasons Wright was against the resurrection as a proof of heaven is that this view props up a common misconception that heaven is the final destination. Wright, on the other hand embraces language that speaks of the Kingdom of God coming to earth.

I agree with what you are saying in this post, except that I think Wright is not ONLY speaking against a fixation on the future. I think he is saying that the future we believe in is what shapes our actions in the present. Wright is asserting that the idea of heaven as the ultimate future is wrong, and causes us to focus on escapism in the present. He then describes a biblical and holistic Kingdom of God that includes spiritual AND physical wholeness, and uses this as the archetype for our work in the present.

I think one of the exciting things about Wright is his precision of language, and his willingness to be specific in the way he describes eschatology.

What do you think?

At 7/4/09 12:06, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Aha! I think when I wrote about singing "when we all get to heaven..." etc, that you assume I'm talking about a change of location.

You're correct in stating Wright doesn't think in those terms. You're incorrect in presuming that I do. However, while I'm as certain as Wright in believing that the resurrection is about spiritual and physical wholeness, I'm not certain that I know exactly what that means. This earth, we're told, will be destroyed with fire, so we're in store for a new heaven and new earth (II Peter 3:13). We frankly don't know much about the state of 'matter' in this, as of yet, undisclosed and unrealized eternality. We know that there's no marriage... and many have wrongly presumed this to mean no bodies, for if Jesus is any indication by His resurrection, we do have real bodies in the eternal state.

But even Wright speaks of heaven and earth coming together, so it's not inappropriate to sing 'when we all get to heaven', because when heaven and earth are brought together, that is, in fact, where we'll be.

At 7/4/09 12:35, Blogger Patrick said...

Oh no, I wasn't presuming that you do, I was just trying to express my opinion: that Wright is very careful to avoid the use of the word heaven as a synonym for ultimate destination, not because it is technically incorrect (as you point out, heaven and earth will be joined), but because it has confusing connotations for many Christians, especially American Christians.

One wouldn't sing about the eschaton as "when we all stay on earth," so why should one sing "when we get to heaven"? Why not use language that points to the joining of the two, as Wright does?

I would bet that many of the Christians in the communities we are a part of haven't given much thought to the final coming of the Kingdom of God, and the difference b/w it and going to heaven after death (not mutual exclusivity, but difference). I think that the language we use should be open enough to include differing viewpoints (some, not all), but precise enough that it transforms the way we think, rather than just being reinterpreted to say what we already thought. In my experience, this precision of language is especially important when talking about eschatology, because of the profound effect eschatology has on our lives and priorities in the present.

Does that make sense? I'm not trying to be confrontational, because I agree with all you've said in your post and your reply to my comment. I'm just struggling to clarify MY language.


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