Thursday, May 23, 2013

Holey Hope

Yesterday I reflected on the oft-expressed character of hope in the evangelical tradition which leaves a huge hole in the middle. Is it really there?

My understanding of the opening gambit in Matthew’s gospel to be something of a call to judgment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” is the first call of both John the Baptist and Jesus as they shape their work and ministry. It’s that word repent that does the trick. For the most part it conjures up ideas of turning back, or turning away. Returning to some notion of an idealised past. How many sermons have I heard with that call to repentance, coupled with the probing question, “Where will you spend eternity?” I can hear the preacher now, pumping up the sense of urgency about making a decision: “If you were to leave this building tonight and be hit by a car crossing the road, where would you spend eternity?” I’m not sure whether it made people think more carefully before crossing the road that night…

The word “repent” is a Greek word which means “to change the mind” or “to think afresh.” Of course this can be a rethink about the way our lives have been lived, or where we might spend the post-twilight years. But it is more than that. John and Jesus step into an atmosphere of despair. Israel was enduring a long occupation by a foreign power. There had been no prophets in the land for centuries. Attempts at liberation had only cost lives. The land was filled with a deep resignation about their lot, with some radical fringes fanning the flames of rebellion.  The notion that the kingdom of heaven was near was about as likely as Melbourne winning the premiership this year (or the Chicago Cubs taking out the pennant!) In this context, one could rephrase this first call of Jesus and John into “Think again! The kingdom of heaven is near!” Now. In the present moment.

The hope of the gospel breaks into the present moment. It is life-changing in the here and now, and into the immediate future. How often do we hear Jesus saying to someone, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more”? A loose translation could be: don’t let the past dictate the present and future! Think afresh about your life and all that God is doing!

Christian theology in this regard has been too much shaped by Augustine and by Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7. Both exhibit a strong negativity towards human identity and character. Paul sums up after articulating his struggles to do what is right: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) He seemingly underlines our incapacity to do what is right, even through our best intentions. What then are we to make of the opening to the very next chapter, just one sentence away: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2)? Think afresh about life! Repent!

Surely the central message of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is near – it’s here in the present moment. Not to be gained by returning to an idealised path, or waiting until this earthly life is over before we can share in it! Hope is alive in the present! In the here and now. Not to be gained by reaching back to an idealised past, but emerging right now! This is one truth which both Jesus and John the Baptist wanted to be sure we embraced.

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