NT Wright Write-Up for class assignment
Last night, NT Wright, with his dignified British humor and his accelerating delivery style, challenged the church’s categorical differentiation between “Kingdom” and “Cross” – with the unitary claim that “to be kingdom people, we bear the cross.”
He began by debunking common misconceptions and alternate interpretations of Jesus in the gospels. In contrast to the kingdom of God being some future destination to aspire towards; Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer makes clear that we ought to pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is not just about teaching us how to live, he isn’t just the greatest teacher of ethics as some reductionists would say, and if he were an exemplar for life, he’d be somewhat depressing. Jesus also doesn’t clearly say that he was God.
Instead, Wright proposed that as we read the gospels, we imagine ourselves in a room with four loudspeakers that need to be rebalanced. The first loudspeaker needs to be turned up, which proclaims that Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel. The absolute fulfillment of all God’s promises throughout Old Testament and intertestamental history has come about in the person of Jesus Christ.
The second loudspeaker, too shrill, insists that we know Jesus is divine. This one must be turned down, because though the prophetic expectation in Ezekiel, Malachi, and Zechariah was that God himself would come back – and Mark confirms that he has in Chapter 1 – God’s return in Jesus has become “a Christological heresy” in our mouths. We have made him a superhuman miracle-worker of mythic proportions– whereas the truly amazing thing is that God “pitched his tent” and “tabernacled” among us in an ordinary man. Now, we know Jesus wasn’t entirely ordinary, but Wright’s point is that Jesus wasn’t so special except that God did indeed return…through him.
The third loudspeaker, which also needs to be turned down, bellows that the gospel is the launch of the church, telling us how to behave and get to heaven. It’s more subtle, Wright explains: Jesus is creating a new community, but one where his people live by forgiveness and new starts. The twelve disciples are “a reconstitution of the people of God” –through whom God is becoming King. It’s not about what God is doing for us but rather through us. God is changing the world through the meek, merciful and justice-hungry – not the tanks.
Related to that point, the fourth loudspeaker, usually forgotten, must be turned up: the kingdoms of this world are called to account. King Herod trembles when Jesus is born in royal Bethlehem and issues infanticide; Paul defends his case and proclaims Christ before Caesar in Rome. We’ve depoliticized the gospel, but halfway between Herod and Caesar – is Jesus confronting Pilate. They argue about kingdom, truth, and power, with the kingdom of this world sending Jesus to his death, but the Kingdom of God winning through his resurrection. This is a global kingdom with political implications, according to Wright – but its power comes the way Jesus came: “not to be served, but to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There is no kingdom without a cross, Wright reiterates. To be kingdom people, we bear the cross. God’s way of doing power is to put kingdom and cross together.
Much of the brilliance of NT Wright was in his ability to show us that we must recalibrate those different loudspeakers. To play with his metaphor a bit, we have all the right instruments – percussion, brass, strings, and voices –but with the balance off, no wonder no one is listening.
After taking NS500 and being further along now in my understanding of the fullness of the gospel, Wright’s message is no longer new, fresh, and paradigm-altering. Rather, it clarifies the goals of the Kingdom in its precise analysis. So the remaining question (also asked during the afternoon session) is how to teach and preach this better understanding of the gospel, and how to change the minds of the church.
If the message of the gospel is no longer defined as personal salvation with the goal of attaining eternal life, and redefined as a call to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth now with holistic love, service, and engagement– the church needs to rethink evangelism. I have longed for this for some time, bothered by the way the church calls people to love and serve God primarily through verbally sharing one’s faith with non-Christians, generally motivating people through guilt, obligation, and fear. If we are proclaiming instead the kingdom that’s already broken into our reality – it’s no longer about convincing and persuading others. The King has come, the kingdom is here. If the message is fundamentally not about eternal life and getting into heaven, there is no more “bait-and-switch” –luring people in with the promise of eternal bliss –then saddling them with the heavy cross. The truth is that there is no kingdom here without the cross now. But there is no cross – or future hope – offered without resurrection.
If evangelism needs to be dramatically reconsidered, so does heaven and the hereafter. We honestly haven’t seen the fullness of the kingdom of God coming on earth – but if we were to really focus on that and ask God to help us bring that about here – we might not have time to speculate about what the future will hold. We would be too fruitfully occupied with what God’s given us here to do on earth. The resurrection of Jesus is “firstfruit” enough to satisfy our curiosity and to trust God for our future resurrection someday. This Kingdom work we are to do now is God’s plan–the real work of re-newing creation with God as his co-sovereigns.
The question I am personally left with, as I am rethinking evangelism and mission, is the question of how to consider other religions. It struck me that Wright’s gospel message had political implications, but I was unsure what his thought would be about the truth claims of other religions. In scripture, other religious systems are presented as 1) constructed around worthless and powerless idols, 2) linked to Satan’s rule and the kingdom of this world (and seek to frustrate and corrupt the kingdom of God), or 3) conduits for introduction to Jesus. Would Wright’s main counsel be to serve and give our lives as a ransom for many?
Perhaps power, from God’s perspective, is something he accords to earthly potentates, for specific purpose, until his Kingdom people disarm them. However this makes sense on paper and in light of themes in Hebrew scripture, why would God allow such large-scale misrule to persist not in one large empire today but in the governance of hundreds of countries? This task seems larger and harder than the prior missionary task to evangelize every people group in every nation. Wright said that we emphasize Christ’s divinity as a “screen to hide behind our fear of theocracy,” unable to believe that Christ is now king of the whole world. I don’t know what it would look like to present this new challenge to the church, but I know we haven’t seriously tried since Constantine. Since power today and in the past is centered in governments without substantial checks from the church, it seems God has given us some real work to do.