Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hopeful Elect: Eschatology and the Reformed (Missional) Church

Part 3 of Reformed Theology and the Missional Church:

        There is great confusion within the contemporary Christian faith in regards to how to illustrate and confess appropriately the hope of the faith and the related community of believers. If you ask people in the Church what they hope for and what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplished, you will probably get as many responses as the people you question. Even more so, when asked about what is the ultimate goal of the Church and individual believers, especially as it pertains to life after death, you will also receive a diversity of answers. So what do we hope for as followers of Jesus and those who profess faith in the gospel? This question and the quest for an appropriate response is referred to as eschatology. Contemporary German and Reformed Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, defined the term:

Eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hoped inspired by it. From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present (Theology of Hope 16).
That is to say, the beginning of Christian Reformed and Missional Theology is eschatology. Christian faith, proclamation, and practice begins with formative reflection about the end, or better said, what is yet to come, and properly postures God’s people in their movement within the present world.
          Most of our understandings that pertain to the Christian hope revolve around the idea of some sort of heaven as a place one goes to when he or she dies and leaves this place called earth. As kids, many of us have had visions and illustrations both taught to us and conjured up by our own imaginations that incorporate a surreal place somewhere beyond the atmosphere, maybe able to be reached by a spaceship that travels past the great beyond (at least that’s what I thought as a kid). A popular children’s’ book offers a familiar illustration in regards to the afterlife:
“‘Heaven…is a beautiful place up in the sky, where no one is sick, where no one is mean or unhappy. It’s a place beyond the moon, the stars, and the clouds. Heaven is where you go when you die…It’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there…If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven…When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him.’” [1]
Most of the concepts and notions that we have of heaven and the Christian hope, i.e. eschatology, are void of an honest reflection of what the Bible illustrates as the goal of the gospel and the anticipations of the Church. Even more so, if we read the Scriptures carefully, we will notice that many of the depictions of the Christian hope are quite different and far more brilliant and beautiful than our cultural illustrations of a sweet by and by in the sky.
          The Christian hope rests upon the belief that the day is coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new and right. In other words, the Christian hope is for new creation. Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of God’s work of new creation in that Jesus was raised from the dead as a reminder that death and decay, evil and injustice, suffering and pain, war and violence do not have the last word, rather life and rescue are God’s constant and eternal words to and for the whole world.
          Yet, we live in a world that does not appear to have been fully delivered or rescued. We do not have to look very far, maybe simply look into our own lives, and see that everything is not the way that it is supposed to be. Even more, it can often feel as though God is not only unconcerned, but also very much absent from real human sufferings and experiences. All of us, at some point in time, and maybe currently, have felt the effects of a world that is out of rhythm with its intended purposes. We can even turn on the news or read the papers and encounter poverty, murder, genocide, homelessness, racism, and greed- all signs that the world is not right. As Christians, we live in tension with God’s real promises for resurrection and new creation, as well as on-going reminders that the new creation is not yet fully here.
          What is beautiful about the Christian hope is that it does not incorporate God’s abandonment of the creation or humanity. Instead, the Kingdom of God, made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, enters into the mess of creation and restores it, renews it, and resurrects it. This is the good news, i.e. gospel, that through Jesus the whole of creation, including our individual lives, can anticipate the day when all will be well and right. This is what the early Christians and the Jewish tradition referred to as shalom [2], or peace and welfare. God’s dreams for the world, dreams of new creation and shalom, then form God’s people, by the Holy Spirit, for mission in, to, and for the world. In the Reformed language it could be said that we are elected for and called to practice the resurrection [3] and inaugurate new creation in how we care for one another, serve one another, love one another, and remind one another that in Jesus death has lost its sting and new life is both already here and yet-to-come (1 Cor. 15:55-56). We are to be new creation people that hope for, not an escape to some world in the sky above the clouds, rather, a new heavenly city that comes down to this world and makes all things as they were intended from the beginning- good and filled with life (Rev. 21). And in the middle of this new creation, this new city, God makes a home with God’s people that wipes away all sorrow, pain, and injustice. As Christians we are called to be the hopeful elect who live in anticipation of this day, confident and expectant that Jesus’ resurrection was only the beginning of the resurrection of all things!

[1] This long citation is taken from the children’s book, What’s Heaven?, written by Maria Shriver (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) and cited in N.T. Wright’s, Surprised by Hope (2008).
[2] See Seek the Peace of the City, by Eldin Villafañe (Eerdmans, 1995).
[3] The Westminster Catechism (Shorter Catechism) states that “we are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ by the effectual application of it to us by the Holy Spirit” (Book of Confessions 7.029, italics mine).  "Practicing the resurrection" is another way of stating this very confessional and vocational article of the faith.
[4] For more study on Christian eschatology and hope (although not necessarily uniquely "Reformed") read, Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright (Harper One, 2008).