15 May 2012

how god became king 7

N. T. Wright, How God Became King (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

The cross is at the center of the gospel narrative, and Wright contends that it is the cross that redefines the notion of God's kingdom.  Chapter Ten is to that end specifically, and the Bishop initiates his discussion with, "But we should be in no doubt that, for the gospel writers themselves, there was never a kingdom message without a cross, and Jesus's crucifixion never carried a meaning divorced from the launching of God's kingdom" (211).  Indeed, at the outset of the book was the assertion that we have misunderstood the proper balance of kingdom and cross which the gospel writers were trying to communicate.  Now, having travelled through the discussion, it is time to bring such themes back together.

There is a good deal of material in this chapter, and much of it will be familiar to those who are familiar with the Bishop's overall writing (especially those who read Simply Jesus).  Because of this, I will focus my post on a few of the main points rather than try to retrace Wright's steps.

One of the points vital to the Bishop's thesis here is found in the statement, "The fact that the kingdom is redefined by the cross doesn't mean that it isn't still the kingdom.  The fact that the cross is the kingdom-bringing event doesn't mean that it isn't still an act of horrible and brutal injustice, on the one hand, and powerful, rescuing divind love, on the other" (220, emphasis mine).  The gospel narratives are compelled by the assertion that Jesus is God's Messiah.  However, the story of God's covenant-kingdom through the story of Israel is now retold in the story of Jesus, which includes his suffering, death and resurrection - which means the story must be retold and reassessed.

Wright makes this point well: "What the four gospels are eager to tell us, then, is that the messianic kingdom that Jesus is bringing will come through his suffering and indeed through the suffering of his followers" (223).  Of course, the notion of suffering is just as unpopular today as it was in the first century of the church.  Generations of the church have tried to soften the force of this message, or change it entirely from the demands of discipleship which Jesus has given.  But the Gospels are clear in saying that the story of Jesus - specifically his death and resurrection - is the story of God becoming king of the world.  What the Bishop outlines in this chapter is that the paradoxical nature of this story contains, somehow, the messianic enthronement of Jesus in a story retold (cf. 224f.).  Indeed, "What we call 'atonement' and what we call 'kingdom redefinition' seem in fact to be part and parcel of the same thing" (228).

Thus, the kingdom of God, which has come paradoxically through the passion and resurrection of Jesus, now continues to work its way into the world through the people of Jesus - the church.  Where the church has misread the Gospels we see a diversion from this ongoing story toward other ends.  For example, the quest for achieving the kingdom without identifying with the cross has pushed believers throughout church history (but especially in our own day and age) to become worldly champions for their causes rather than humble servants who will wash feet in the kingdom of God.  This is why so many believers still have such a difficult time understanding and believing the demands of Jesus' ethic (as in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance), much less living it out.  But the submission to the will of the Father, the identification with the story of Jesus, and the presence of the Spirit will lead us in a much different and fruitful direction.  We will be living out the kingdom of God.

Wright includes also, "The cross serves the goal of the kingdom, just as the kingdom is accomplished by Jesus's victory on the cross" (232).  Further on in the chapter he has a section which discusses the connection of kingdom and temple, a powerful image from the first century.  But what happens when we allow all three images (kingdom, temple, cross) to come together?  God's kingdom and temple are naturally connected symbols of the covenant fulfillment, for the presence of God is in the temple through which would come the kingdom.  Then, God Incarnate comes to earth (cf. John 1) and uses the cross to achieve the kingdom and leaves a new temple in the Spirit-filled group of followers carrying forward his work.  This is the powerful message of the gospel.

The Bishop therefore brings kingdom and cross into mutual interpretation (240-245).  Covering this section would indeed merit its own post (perhaps later I will return to this).

Ultimately, Wright moves to incorporate the ascension into that which has already been developed in this chapter.  This is a necessity, for the ascension is probably one of the most misunderstood and (therefore) ignored pieces of modern evangelical Christology.  The emphasis given here is focused on the person of Jesus at his place on God's throne, "Heaven and earth are now joined in the person - in the risen body! - of Jesus himself" (247).  With the ascension bringing this reality forward, then it is Pentecost which sends the breath of heaven into earth for the transformation and renewal of the whole world.  It is now given to the church to become witnesses to this new reality as the kingdom of God is unleashed.

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