Tuesday, March 25, 2008

N.T.Wright on Resurection

This is an interesting interview from PreachingToday blog

At the National Pastors Conference in San Diego, PreachingToday.com's Brian Lowery got to interview N. T. Wright about his latest book—Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church—and how it relates to preaching. Since we are all in the midst of the Easter journey, his words are timely, challenging, and above all else, hopeful.

Preaching Today: In your book Surprised by Hope, you talk about a deeper understanding of hope "that provides a coherent and energizing basis for work in today's world." How has that deeper understanding influenced your preaching through the years?

Bishop N. T. Wright: [Studying] the Resurrection for an earlier book, Resurrection of the Son of God … ended up rubbing my nose in the New Testament theology of new creation, and the fact that the new creation has begun with Easter. I discovered that when we do new creation—when we encourage one another in the church to be active in projects of new creation, of healing, of hope for communities—we are standing on the ground that Jesus has won in his resurrection.

New creation is not just "whistling in the dark." It's not a kind of social Pelagianism, where we try to improve things by pulling ourselves up from our own bootstraps. Because Jesus is raised from the dead, God's new world has begun. We are not only the beneficiaries of new creation; we are the agents of it. I just can't stop preaching about that, because that is where we're going with Easter.

For me, therefore, there's no disjunction between preaching about the salvation which is ours in God's new age—the new heavens and new earth—and preaching about what that means for the present. The two go very closely together. If you have an eschatology that is nonmaterial, why bother with this present world? But if God intends to renew the world, then what we do in the present matters. That's 1 Corinthians 15:58! This understanding has made my preaching more challenging to me, and hopefully to my hearers, to actually get off our backsides and do something in the local community—things that are signs of new creation.

What themes emerged in your preaching after having been surprised by hope?

I've found myself addressing current issues—what you might call "God in public life"—and I've been doing so from a wide variety of points of view. If you start taking hope seriously, you begin to ask, "What does this mean for our public life?" You begin to wrestle with how this actually impacts education policy or what we do with those who seek asylum. These themes have crept into my preaching.

At this last year's Christmas Eve service, I talked about the problems the hill farmers in my diocese were facing because of foot-and-mouth disease. I noted how the government's attitude toward that issue was like the government's attitude toward those who seek asylum. It's the church's responsibility to stand up for those who have nobody to stand up for them. Somebody approached me on the way out the door and said, "You should stick to the Scriptures. There's nothing in Christmas about those who seek asylum!" I was so astonished, that the person had gone before I could say, "What about Matthew 2? What was Jesus doing in Egypt? Weren't they seeking asylum?"

I have found that my preaching is touching on some of the key issues of the times, presenting a Christian response and not just a political response for the sake of political response. I keep asking myself, How is one to think Christianly about these big things?

Many people still cling to older or limited versions of hope, resurrection, and heaven. How can today's preacher contend with some of those limited viewpoints in such a way that the listener is pleasantly surprised, but not offended?

Some people are always going to be offended when you actually teach them what's in the Bible as opposed to what they assume is in the Bible. The preacher can try to say it a number of ways, and sometimes people just won't get it. They will continue to hear what they want to hear. But if you soft-pedal matters, they will think, Oh, he's taking us down the old familiar paths. There is a time for walking in and just saying what needs to be said. Sometimes you just need to find a good line. The line I often use—which makes people laugh—is: "Heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world." In other words, resurrection means the new earth continues after people have gone to heaven.

I put it this way for my audiences: "there is life after life after death." People are very puzzled by that, so I begin to explain it to them. There's life after death. That was Jesus between Good Friday and Easter. He was dead, but he was in whatever life after death is—in paradise without his resurrected body. But that wasn't his final destination. Here I introduce the idea of a two-stage postmortem reality. Most Western Christians have only heard about a two-stage postmortem reality in the Catholic idea of purgatory. That's wrong! A person goes to heaven first and then to the new heavens and new earth. People stare at you like you've just invented some odd heresy, but sorry—this is what the New Testament teaches. The New Testament doesn't have much to say about what happens to people immediately after they die. It's much more interested in the anticipation of the ultimate new world within this one. If you concentrate on preaching life after death, you devalue the present world. Life after life after death, however, reaffirms the value of this present world.

Early in the book, you write: "Our task…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and the foretaste of the second." What role does the preacher play in that good work? In other words, what does it look like to live as resurrection preachers?

So many people think preaching the Resurrection means doing a little bit of apologetics in the pulpit to prove it really is true. Others simply say, "Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death." This isn't the point! Those types of sermons may be necessary, but there's more to it than that. To preach the Resurrection is to announce the fact that the world is a different place, and that we have to live in that "different-ness." The Resurrection is not just God doing a wacky miracle at one time. We have to preach it in a way that says this was the turning point in world history.

To take preaching seriously, you need a high theology of the Word of God. When your preaching announces that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord of the world, things happen. The principalities and powers are called into account. Human beings who once thought the message of someone rising from the dead is ridiculous, actually find that the message of resurrection can transform their lives.

Finally, there must be a relationship between what you say and who you are. Preaching is the personality, infused by the Spirit, communicating the Word of God to people. If there's a mismatch—if you're not being a resurrection person—you may say the right words, but something radical is missing.

At the end of Surprised by Hope, you offer a short but potent appendix entitled "Two Easter Sermons." Both sermons, to each their own degree, miss the point of the Resurrection. Thousands of preachers are climbing into studies, libraries, and offices to put together a message for Easter morning. If you were to give them a word of encouragement and a word of exhortation as they prepare, what would you share with them?

I would tell them to take very seriously the connection between what happens on Easter Day in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and what happened before Good Friday. In other words, the Gospel writers seemed to think that the resurrection of Jesus is somehow the fulfillment of his announcement of the Kingdom of God. We have tended to read the Gospels in such a way that the death and resurrection fall off one end, and then there's all that neat stuff about Jesus healing people and telling parables. But what on earth do they have to do with each other? Preachers must think and pray about how that message of the kingdom is the thing which resurrection is really all about—and, conversely, how resurrection is what the message of the kingdom is all about. When we put the Gospels together like that, then we are really in business! But that's tough. We're not trained to often think like that.

N. T. Wright is Bishop of Durham for the Church of England, and author of Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008).

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