Monday 22 February 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (45/50) – Living Between the Times

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-fifth of the fifty emails.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us… The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Romans 8:18, 21-24

This passage is one of many where Paul expresses the tension between how things are now and how they will be one day. That tension – part and parcel of everyday discipleship – is bound up with the biblical storyline: that which is promised under the old covenant receives a measure of fulfilment in Jesus and the church, but still awaits future consummation.

So it is that Jesus announces the arrival and presence of God’s reign in his ministry, and demonstrates its power in mighty works which bring restoration and renewal. And yet, he also calls on disciples to pray, ‘Your kingdom come’, and to watch and wait for the complete exercise of God’s rule in the future. Rightly it has been said that we live in the period between the decisive battle and the definitive victory.

For Paul too, there is an ‘already’ and a ‘not yet’ aspect to Christian experience. The new age has broken into the present age, such that we enjoy ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ while awaiting the full harvest. Indeed, the current experience of birth pains will give way to eventual relief. Perhaps reminiscent of the portrayal in Exodus 2:23-24 of the Israelites ‘groaning’ in their Egyptian slavery, Paul depicts salvation as a setting free from bondage, applying the imagery not just to men and women, but to the entire created order – yet one more reminder of the comprehensive scope of God’s work in Christ, where such liberation is not simply ‘internal’ or ‘spiritual’, but the ‘redemption of our bodies’, and of creation itself.

And so, in this time between the times, we are called to witness to the ends of the earth. But that mission – in keeping with what will be – is all-embracing, as we make known God’s rule over the whole of life, announcing it with our lips as well as embodying it in our lives. Seeking to avoid both defeatism (claiming too little) and triumphalism (claiming too much), we can testify to the wide-ranging sweep of God’s renewing power in politics and parenting, in economics and education, in art and athletics – being realistic about current ‘bondage’, but all the while looking forward to the complete restoration of what was originally declared ‘good’.

Such is our confidence and expectation – our hope. May that hope of the full disclosure of God’s reign shape each of us in the here and now.

For further reflection and action:

1. In line with the reference to ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ in Romans 8:23, reflect further on Ephesians 1:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul calls the Spirit a ‘deposit’, that which guarantees our future inheritance. In what ways is our present experience of the Spirit a foretaste of the future?

2. During today, if you’re able to do so, pause every so often to think about how the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ works itself out in your daily life.

3. To the Corinthians who think they have everything now, Paul emphasises that complete salvation lies in the future, at the resurrection – because he wants to downplay their triumphalism. In Colossians and Ephesians, on the other hand, he emphasises the present salvation we enjoy – already seated, as we are, with Christ in heavenly places. What are the dangers in thinking we have received everything now? What are the dangers of downplaying what we have already received? Which end of the tension do you gravitate towards, and why?

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