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Surprised by Hope VIII

“Sex matters enormously, but global justice matters far, far more. The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy Western capitalism. Whatever it takes, we must change this situation or stand condemned by subsequent history alongside those who supported slavery two centuries ago and those who supported the Nazis seventy years ago” (217).

N.T. Wright makes this striking assertion in illustrating the acts of justice to which those who have been incorporated into the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus are called. It is through such actions, along with creation of beauty and evangelistic witness, says Wright in Chapter 13, that we build for the Kingdom of God.

Not build, but build for. Wright makes the importance of this distinction more explicit here than anywhere else in the book…

“God builds God’s kingdom,” he affirms. “The final coming together of heaven and earth is, of course, God’s supreme act of new creation….God alone will sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. He alone will make the ‘new heavens and new earth.’ It would be the height of folly to think that we could assist in that great work” (218). Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit, however, we are equipped for participation in God’s project of setting things right in his good creation gone bad in rebellion and corruption.

In some ways Wright’s concept of building for the kingdom harmonizes fairly smoothly with (and thereby enriches) familiar Adventist themes such as developing character now that will be carried over into eternity, and “finishing the work” of the worldwide proclamation of the gospel that must take place before “the end shall come.” And, whatever we may think of Wright’s weighting of global economic injustice in relation to other moral issues, it is clear that deeds of justice, love and mercy should characterize those preparing for Jesus’ return.

However, Wright stretches our thinking further beyond familiar patterns in the way he links our specific actions in building for the Kingdom now with the new earth to come that God alone can bring. In so doing, he just may be offering us a key to integrating all aspects of our lives as Kingdom people, and thereby fulfilling as never before our mission of making known the good news of that Kingdom as a witness to all nations (Matthew 24:14).

In doing this, Wright’s key text is 1 Corinthians 15:58, in which Paul, after his extended and majestic explication of Jesus’ resurrection and ours at the sounding of “the last trumpet,” writes: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (NRSV).

Thus, Wright proposes, the “practical application” of the good news of resurrection is that our efforts in Jesus’ name toward a more just, peaceful and beautiful world will be taken up and enhanced in the new world that God will create, in ways that we will only then comprehend. The Revised English Bible rendering of 1 Cor. 15:58 – “in the Lord your labour cannot be lost” – lends support to this interpretation.

As Adventists we have emphasized that good deeds are incumbent upon those preparing for eternity. But I wonder if our tendency to look toward complete destruction of the present world and evacuation from it causes us to think of efforts to change it, or at least “make a difference,” as something other than the real work of the gospel, as having less than eternal signficance. By contrast, Wright proposes:

You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strangle though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will became in due course part of God’s new world (208).

Questions, indeed, come to mind, such as, Is there clear scriptural support, beyond 1 Cor. 15:58, for this outlook? What about the fiery destruction of all things envisioned in 2 Peter 3?

Yet I believe we would benefit from, at least, careful consideration of Wright’s proposal. It may help us grasp more firmly that “in the Lord,” our action for peace and justice is charged with eternal significance, beyond the politics of the present age, and beyond its apparent success. And, when integrated with such action, the specific work of evangelistic proclamation gains depth and authenticity in a world that would “rather see a sermon and than hear one any day.”

As Wright points out, the gospel announcement that Jesus is Lord and His Kingdom already begun can seem almost laughable in view of the pervasive evil that dominates our world. Unless….there is a people, a church, “actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally,” a church “cheefully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption in art and music,” a church that in “its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community.” Then, and we might add, only then, “the announcement makes a lot of sense” (227-28).

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