This is the fourth in a series of posts that could be titled, “Helpful Stuff I’ve Learned.” Most of these bits of learning were connected with reading books or sitting under certain teachers, so I’m usually going to share them as little pieces of autobiography: how I came across them, why they mattered to me at a certain time, or how they continue to matter. These posts will deal mostly with ideas, but these ideas have also supplied me with memorable images or phrases that have helped me over the years in trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus.
I was just a few months into my first pastorate and fresh out of seminary when I returned to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in the fall of 2006 to attend Acadia’s annual Hayward Lectures. The lecturer was N.T. Wright, a British New Testament scholar whose voice was becoming more and more widely heard by that time, though it hadn’t reached the mammoth level of influence it later would. I knew his name, and had spent some time with the big books in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God, so I was excited about the talks.
The overwhelming impressions I came away with from those three evenings were that I had to continue to rethink my understanding of the future—what we believe happens at death, for instance, as well as what happens to the world as a whole, and what the future of God’s creation is going to be. These questions are all related to eschatology, the name we give to our beliefs about last things. The sessions with Wright also made it clear that those future things weren’t to be separated from our present-day life. This thought was not unique to Wright. Theologians have sometimes said that eschatology is about both “what lasts” and “what comes last.” But what Wright made clear to me was that this was an exciting thing: God’s future has broken in on the present time—the life of God’s kingdom becoming tangibly present in a world ruled by death—and our lives now are meant to be lived in line with that future.
The big revolution, though, was Wright’s insistence on just how bodily all of this is. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has not just said that there is “life after death.” He has said something even better and much more dramatic: death will not ultimately destroy these bodies of ours.
It’s amazing how much talk, even inside the church, is about “saving souls” and “spirits going to heaven” when they “leave these temporary bodies behind.” But the New Testament itself talks more about resurrection bodies than immortal spirits (1 Corinthians 15 being only the densest and most detailed of many biblical passages on the resurrection). For Christians it shouldn’t be a revolution to grasp these things, but for hundreds of years we have moved farther and farther away from the truth that the earthly creation and our bodies themselves were not made to be temporary. Sin has corrupted creation, but in Jesus God has come to rescue creation from death. As I heard these truths reiterated by N.T. Wright the gospel started to sound like better and better news for a world that feels, in so many ways, the pain of death.
On the third day of the 2006 Hayward Lectures, there was a chapel service in the morning, and Wright was the preacher. Part of me has been disappointed that there is no video recording of the sermon he preached, but part of me is happy to live with the memory of what it did to me. I can’t remember the details of the message, but I recall feeling like something extraordinary was happening. The sermon was light on what many people call “application” but heavy on something else: God. For twenty or so minutes I listened as someone preached to me about God—his intentions for the world, his actions in Jesus, and his power to make all of his plans come to fulfillment. And as I listened, I thought, “Wow—I have just felt what it is like to be excited about God, to be amazed by who he is and what he is able to do, to be overwhelmed by the grace of what he desires to do for the world.”
Now it may be that I had just always been a bad sermon listener before that point, but sitting and listening that day felt like a new experience. This sermon was not just giving me tips for living. This was not self-help. I was being given a vision of the life of the kingdom and an invitation to see the beauty and love of God.
Returning after the lectures to my church in rural New Brunswick, I felt grateful for what I had received while I was away. I was in a small village church where we experienced deaths every month or two. I’m not sure how well I communicated the vision of the kingdom that was continuing to take shape in my mind and heart, but I was coming to see more and more what good news the resurrection of Jesus is for every one of us.
In my next post, I’ll share some further reflections on Wright, along with some pointers to his books.