You are— strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. 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. 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 surprised by hope not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.
I have no idea what precisely this will mean in practice. I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing. I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that there will be in God’s recreated world, though I do remember Martin Luther’s words about the proper reaction to knowing the kingdom was
coming the next day being to go out and plant a tree. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know how our work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that
new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age. Not to bring works and signs of renewal to birth within God’s creation is ultimately to collude, as Gnosticism always does, with the forces of sin and death themselves. But don’t focus on the negative. Think of the positive: of the calling, in the present, to share in the surprising hope of God’s whole new creation.
The image I often use in trying to explain this strange but important idea is that of the stonemason working on part of a great cathedral. The architect already drew up the plans and passed on instructions to the team of masons as to which stones need carving in what way. The foreman distributes these tasks among the team. One shapes stones for a particular tower or turret; another carves the delicate pattern that breaks up the otherwise forbidding straight lines; another works on gargoyles or coats of arms; another is making statues of saints, martyrs, kings, or queens. They are vaguely aware that the others are getting on with their tasks, and they know, of course, that many other entire departments are busy about quite different tasks as well. When they’re finished with their stones and
their statues, they hand them over without necessarily knowing very much about where in the eventual building their work will find its home. They may not have seen the complete architect’s drawing of the whole building with their bit identified in its proper place. They
may not live, either, to see the completed building with their work at last where it belongs. But they trust the architect that the work they have done in following instructions will not be wasted. They are not, themselves, building the cathedral, but they are building for the cathedral, and when the cathedral is complete their work will be enhanced, ennobled, will mean much more than it could have meant as they were chiselling it and shaping it down in the stonemasons’ yard.
That image, of course, is itself incomplete since actually the cathedral is eventually built by the combination of all the artisans and crafts people working together, whereas God’s eventual kingdom will, as I have said, be a fresh gift of transformation and renewal from the Architect himself. But it is enough to indicate the way in which there is continuity as well as discontinuity between the present life, and the work we do in it, and the ultimate future life in which God has gathered all things together and transformed them, “making all things new” in Christ. What we do in the Lord is “not in vain,” and that is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every program of ecology, every effort to reflect God’s wise
stewardly image into his creation. In the new creation the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed, as John hints in his resurrection story, where Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the
goodness of creation, and the gift of the Spirit is there to make us the fully human beings we were supposed to be, precisely so that we can fulfil that mandate at last.
The work we do in the present, then, gains its full significance from the eventual design in which it is meant to belong. Applied to the mission of the church, this means that we must work in the present for the advance signs of that eventual state of affairs when God is “all in all,” when his kingdom has come and his will is done “on earth as in heaven.” This will of course be radically different from the kind of work we would engage in if our sole task was to save souls for a disembodied heaven or simply to help people enjoy a fulfilling relationship with God as though that were the end of the matter. It will also be significantly different from the kind of work we might undertake if our sole task was to forget any God dimension at all and to try simply to make life better within the continuation of the world as it is.
This throws us headlong into some contentious, but important and necessary, areas. Today’s church (including “emerging church,” “liquid church,” “fresh expressions of church,” “mission-shaped church,” and many others) is grappling with the question of what its mission and life might look like in the days to come. But the present mood of frustration with existing patterns of church life coupled with postmodern free-for-all experimentation, on the one hand, and residual Protestant fears about the created order, on the other, have conspired together to produce cheerful and sometimes not-so-cheerful chaos. This is the context within which a proper vision of biblical eschatology can and should generate a fresh, and no doubt controversial, vision of the church’s mission.
To put it bluntly, creation is to be redeemed; that is, space is to be redeemed, time is to be redeemed, and matter is to be redeemed. God said “very good” over his space-time-and-matter creation, and though the redeeming of this world from its present corruption and
decay will mean transformations we cannot imagine, the one thing we can be sure of is that this redeeming of creation will not mean that God will say, of space, time and matter, “Oh, well, nice try, good while it lasted but obviously gone bad, so let’s drop it and go for a nonspatiotemporal, nonmaterial world instead.” 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?
A note before we launch in, to anticipate the obvious objection. As long as the present world lasts, there will be an ever-present danger of idolatry, of worshipping the creature instead of the creator. Since space, time, and matter are the raw materials out of which
idols have been formed, some devout folks have supposed that they must reject space, time, and matter themselves so that any object used in worship, any action performed, any holy place, becomes instantly suspect.
Fair enough: there is such a thing as idolatry, and we must guard against it. Indeed, we must put it to death without pity. But idolatry is always the perversion of something good. Greed—worshipping the appetites and what they feed on—is the perversion of the Godgiven instinct for the proper enjoyment of the good creation. The proper response to idolatry is therefore not dualism, the rejection of space, time, or matter as themselves evil or dangerous, but the renewed worship of the Creator God, which sets the context for the proper enjoyment and use of the created order without the danger of worshipping it. Our living within and enjoyment and use of space, time, and matter must constantly be measured against the story of Jesus, in his sharing of space, time, and matter as the Incarnate Son; in his death, which passes judgment on all idolatry and sin; and in his resurrection, in which space, time, and matter are renewed in his body, anticipating the final renewal of all things. The danger of idolatry and the proper response to it stand as a rubric over what is now to come. The church is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’s resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation. What might that look like?
From Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright.