The Gospel for July 30th, 2017: “Treasures New and Old”
Reflection: Surprised by Hope
This week’s gospel continues in the vein of last Sunday with Jesus telling his disciples more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. Another similarity is the inclusion of a disconcerting line about the end of the age. Jesus tells them, “The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (49-50). I would like to reflect on this line in light of a book I’m currently reading by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
Wright’s book attempts to set straight what he considers are common misunderstandings among most Christians about the resurrection and its role in our hope for salvation. Wright argues we need to return to an understanding that is closer to the first century Christians. The misunderstanding he describes is recognizable. He claims when Christians talk about hope for resurrection, generally they equate that with going to Heaven as a disembodied spirit after they die. While this does offer some hope and comfort in times of bereavement, it also devalues God’s creation in this world both in our physical bodies and in the rich biosphere that surrounds us. However, Wright claims it is not what Jesus meant or how the first disciples understood what He meant about resurrection.
If I may summarize Surprised by Hope with broad strokes, Wright explains that the Jewish understanding of resurrection would be a new life in physical form after death, just as Jesus gave Lazarus and to which His own resurrection refers. This is what the Pharisees believed in that the Sadducees did not. It is not a purely spiritual state far away in a realm called Heaven. Jesus came to join Heaven and Earth—to unite the perfect with that which was marred by sin. Therefore, salvation is a restoration of God’s perfect creation, removing sin, death, and decay. So the “end of the age” Jesus refers to is not a rapture, as some argue, where Jesus will collect the worthy, transporting them to Heaven, and leave behind the sinners on Earth to languish in an eternal Hell. Instead, Wright argues the resurrection has two parts. The inaugural resurrection is Easter Sunday, Jesus’s resurrection, which proved He is God-made-man, the joiner of Heaven and Earth who came to save His lost sheep. With Easter, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, meaning the building of Christ’s Kingdom begins. The second resurrection will arrive with the second coming of Jesus to Earth, when all of God’s people who have died are resurrected, their bodies restored to the perfection of the intention of their creator, free from sin, death, and decay forever. So our hope is for being resurrected to walk in the Kingdom, not as spirits who have shed off defective earthly bodies, but as holy creatures born again into a physical perfection we cannot imagine in this life.
This raises some questions. What happens between death and this completion of the salvation story? I do not have the space to try summarize all of Wright’s claims on this. He acknowledges the view of purgatory, but his Protestant leanings show he is dubious of a spiritual purgatory. He posits the view that it is possible our suffering on Earth is what purges and that with death we truly rest in peace spiritually until the resurrection mission is complete. Frankly, I don’t think this question needs to be answered in detail as a condition for accepting his understanding of the resurrection.
The other question is why the resurrection occurs with this process starting on Easter and lasting into an unknown future? Again, let me caution I am trying to put together Wright’s argument with my own understanding, in my own words. However, I think it a reasonable approximation of Wright’s answer to state he believes the salvation plan involves all of humanity, God’s created stewards, participating in the victory over sin through the unselfish love of our Creator. We strive to live the gospel message of love of God and neighbor in every moment, as the first parable suggests by selling all we have to buy the treasure of Christ’s kingdom. Since we share this love of others through our relationships, Christ’s salvation, the purging of sin through selfless love, spreads through all creation. It may well be that the final resurrection occurs when all have been saved (or at least all who assent to be saved) which only seems possible through faith in Christ.
Despite all the theological ends I may have just loosed, let me return to the gospel with this basic understanding of Wright’s book in mind. The notion of a “fiery furnace,” a Hell for sinners, sometimes does more harm than good in the sense that fear of eternal damnation is not an impetus to love freely through the Holy Spirit. So the result from scare tactics is too many Christians of all denominations act on that fear by trying to save themselves, instead of moving toward the people and parts of God’s creation most marred by sin and decay in the spirit of mission. So instead of bringing God’s love to poor, sick, and dying, they isolate themselves in comfortable “Christian” enclaves, waiting for life’s suffering to end, and for that prized trip to Heaven. They are not concerned about restoring Heaven on Earth through love in the forms of faith, hope, and charity, which Wright claims is Christ’s salvation plan. I can honestly say that like those waiting it out, I spend far more time worrying about my own salvation than about all of humanity, the scattered tribes of Israel if you will.
So why then does Christ bring up the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and grinding of teeth” if not to scare us away from sin? I think He is describing the purging of sin that will take place after His Easter resurrection, not as a damnation of sinners, since all of us are marred by sin, but as the holy perfecting of those very sinners. In the case of this parable, Jesus is not talking about the fish in the net as individual saints and sinners; rather he is comparing the net to the Kingdom of Heaven. Could it be that the bad, throw-away fish are not individual people, but sin itself? Could Jesus be giving a glimpse of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth being burned away in a fiery furnace of God’s love so that what remains is a kingdom where all of God’s creation has been restored to its full glory? In such a scenario the wailing is not the cries of the eternally tormented, but instead the resistance we experience in letting go of our attachments to the world. It is not easy to give up our sins because we still must choose God’s love over them. But in the end, it is a tremendously hopeful idea that God’s love is irresistible and that all of humanity will surrender to the joy of the kingdom and let go of sin to allow the final resurrection and Jesus’s return.
In the end, I guess I believe in a universal salvation for all. I think our hopes our tied up together as God’s creatures. Just as sin is corporate, so too is salvation. We are given Christ’s mission of love so that in saving others we will participate—choosing freely—to save ourselves. Perhaps the second coming of Jesus to complete the restoration of the kingdom is a function of our willingness to take the mission to the ends of the earth. It will happen eventually, but it takes longer when we selfishly resist the call to love others as Christ loves us.
Why is this so hopeful to me? Because I know my sins. Every time I am confronted with the idea of sinners being cast away to Hell, I think I deserve such a fate. So my hope has to be in a mercy that is so divine that we can all be saved. If I can treat others with unselfish love—of which the challenge often does make me wail and grind my teeth inside–maybe that merciful love spreads to further the ultimate resurrection. I choose to believe Jesus is a savior who cannot lose a single one of us. I believe that all the good and beauty in the world is not here on loan from Heaven, but rather to change hearts and stomp out sin. All the manifestations of God’s love are active agents in preparing the way for the final resurrection that will complete the joining of Heaven and Earth.