Report by Elizabeth Dyer
In the gospel of Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus teaches his disciples “This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one” (NAB).
In the gospel of Luke 11:1-4, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus says to them in reply “When you pray say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test”. (NAB)
These words make up the Lord’s Prayer, a familiar prayer that is offered in Christian circles throughout the world. At the heart of this prayer, our Lord teaches us to pray for “the kingdom to come”. What do these words mean? Author NT Wright addresses this question in his book Surprised by Hope. He states that this whole book is an attempt to reflect the part of the Lord’s Prayer where it says “thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Wright says of this prayer “this remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we can ever say.” Yet, he argues, most Christians do not fully understand what they are asking God to bring about when they pray this prayer.
Wright begins his book by examining the ancient pagan and Jewish beliefs regarding life after death. The pagan belief in life after death either denied any future afterlife, or the afterlife was envisioned as an eternal existence as a disembodied soul. Some Jews developed similar beliefs as the pagans, but other Jews believed in a future resurrection. They envisioned the resurrection not as life after death, but a new bodily life after a bodily death.
The resurrection was an event in the future when all the righteous would be raised bodily from the dead. Evidence of the Jewish belief about resurrection can be found in the Old Testament scriptures such as the Book of Daniel 12:2-3 and the Second Book of Maccabees 7:9-11 . By the time of Christ, many Jews had a belief in a future resurrection. One example of this belief is in John 11:24, when Martha indicates her belief in the future resurrection of her dead brother, Lazarus, on the last day.
Wright states that the Jewish people did not believe that one person would rise from the dead before all the others. They envisioned a resurrection as an event that would happen to all the righteous at the same time. That is why, when Jesus told the disciples after the transfiguration not to tell anyone “until the son of man is raised from the dead”, the disciples were confused. They understood about resurrection, but they did not expect one person, let alone one that they thought might be the Messiah, to rise from the dead before all the righteous were raised in a complete event.
The Jewish people envisioned the kingdom of God as an earthly kingdom. They were expecting the Messiah to bring about God’s kingdom by force, with Israel as the beneficiary. The temple would be restored, and God’s justice would reign on earth. Throughout his life, Jesus redefined the concept of the kingdom of God. Jesus was not bringing about an earthly kingdom; he was bringing about a kingdom where God would dwell among his people. God’s new kingdom will be a new creation. In Wright’s view, understanding resurrection is the key to understanding the kingdom of God.
Wright argues that the scriptures are clear on the matter of resurrection, even if Christian believers are not. In Romans 8:23, the apostle Paul speaks of the “redemption of our bodies.”(RSV) In Romans 8:11, Paul clearly states belief in the future resurrection of the body. “If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his spirit who dwells in you.” (RSV) Salvation does not mean simply going to heaven when we die. It means, “Being raised to life in God’s new heaven and earth.” At the resurrection, heaven comes down to earth.
Wright points out that not just human beings are renewed in God’s kingdom, but all of God’s creation will be renewed. He cites Romans 8:19:
“For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (NAB)
Paul considers that the created world shares its destiny with the followers of Christ. All of creation shares in the suffering brought about by sin, and it shares in the redemption and future glory in the kingdom of God.
Wright addresses briefly in Surprised by Hope the question of what happens to the dead immediately after death. Wright argues that life after death is a two-stage process. There is an intermediate state of existence or life after death before life after life after death. He envisions life immediately after death as a state of restful happiness in which all the dead are
“held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day.”
Evidence of this intermediate state of life after death is found in scripture. Christ says to the thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.” It should be noted that Wright, an Anglican, argues in his book against a belief in Purgatory.
Christians believe Christ was raised from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Wright believes that it is important to have a clear understanding of the connection between Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascension to heaven in his embodied risen state. Christ is not present with the Father as a disembodied soul, he is present with the Father embodied and resurrected. How is this possible?
Wright acknowledges that the ascension is a mystery that we do not fully understand. However he indicates that when the Bible talks about heaven and earth,
“it is not talking about a non physical and a physical world, but two kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly…two different kinds of what we call time.”
Wright recommends C S Lewis’ world of Narnia in the Chronicles of Narnia as useful in explaining how these two worlds of heaven and earth can interconnect with one another. When Christ returns, according to scripture, these two worlds will be visible to one another, and will fully integrate with one another.
Wright teaches that heaven and earth are two different dimensions of Gods creation, and that the ascended Christ is:
“available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him”
and Christ is already ruling the world as Lord and interceding for his followers at the Father’s right hand. It is through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Church and the Sacraments that Jesus is present with his followers.
Wright states that Christ is present with us, even though we are often times not aware of His presence:
“The lordship of Jesus: the fact that there is already a human being at the helm of the world: his present intercession for us-all this is over and above his presence with us. It is even over and above our sense of that presence, which of course comes and goes with our own moods and circumstances.”
God’s kingdom means the sovereign rule of God, which Jesus taught was breaking into the present world. This is what Jesus intended when he taught us the Lord’s Prayer. We are praying for God’s sovereign rule to triumph in our world.
In the third and final section of Surprised by Hope, Wright addresses the question of the practical consequences of belief in a bodily resurrection. Understanding resurrection helps us to understand our mission as disciples of Christ. He states;
“Resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’ lordship over the world.” Wright concludes that, “What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.” We as Christians are “agents of transformation” on earth. He continues: “What you do in the present-by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself-will last into God’s future.”
These are all actions that Wright calls “building for God’s Kingdom.”
As Christians, the scriptures tell us that, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, we are to build for the kingdom in the present. Wright uses the analogy of a stonemason building a cathedral as an example of disciples of Christ building for God’s kingdom. The stonemason who makes the bricks for a cathedral may not know in particular where the bricks that he made are to be used. He probably does not even know the plans that the architect has created. In fact, the stonemason may never live to see the entire cathedral built. However, he trusts that the architect knows what he is doing, and his work will not be in vain. The mason is not building the cathedral; he is building for the cathedral. The bricks that he creates are simple and small in the beginning. However, the architect can use them and enhance them to create a masterpiece. As scripture states in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (NAB).
Practically, Wright argues that as Church we are to embrace the good things occurring in the world around us, yet always being careful that we are not asked to do something against the gospel. As Church, we are also called to engage the evil that we see around us and not to withdraw from the world as if the world is itself corrupt. Wright acknowledges that this is not an easy walk, but a path that the gospels call the followers of Christ to walk.
In Surprised by Hope, Wright leaves the reader an urgent message to the Church and to all Christian believers. He quotes Ephesians 5:14, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Much of the world around us is living the sleep of death. Because of sin, the world is dead to the light of Christ. Sin is death to both the person that commits the sin and others touched by the sin. Christians, he argues, have been asleep too long. Through our baptism, we are called to live in the new world created by Christ resurrected. We are called to awaken the world through our own personal holiness. Wright states,
“The whole world is now God’s holy land…and …we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced.”
God’s kingdom has already broken into the present with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We are not waiting for the end of the world for God to put things right. When we pray “thy kingdom come”, we are praying that God’s sovereign rule be implemented more and more in the present. Wright states:
“Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in 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 non-human 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 that corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world-all of this will find it’s way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will make one day”.
copyright 2012, Elizabeth Dyer