N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 6

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the last of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5]

A Revolutionary Mission
The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 14-15)

Chapter 14: Passover People

The earliest Christians, led by the Apostles, understood that with the death of Jesus something had happened; the rumblings of revolution had begun. The first sign that the world was now a very different place was the resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus was a decisive victory over the powers of darkness, sin, and death. The kingdom of God had been launched. Since the followers of Jesus believed a revolution had begun, they went forth proclaiming the gospel in the power of suffering love. The question for us modern-day Christians is: If we believe this revolution continues, then how do we join this kingdom mission?

Our mission is not simply to tell people about Jesus so they can go to heaven when they die. As we have seen, this becomes a very shrunken view of what the Bible has to say about the goal of salvation. Our mission comes directly out of the triumph and revolution of the cross itself. According to Wright, “Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross” (358). Jesus died certainly as our substitute, but the substitutionary nature of the cross does not take away from the victorious aspects of the cross. Jesus died in triumph over the powers of evil, and Jesus died as Israel’s representative and our substitute in taking our sins into death so we could go free. Our mission is both to proclaim and embody the dual meanings of the death of Jesus.
Churches and denominations with an evangelical thrust have, over the last couple hundred years, drifted from an emphasis on cultural and social reform to a mission of “saving souls for heaven.” This shift was concurrent with the Enlightenment’s secular experiment where all talk of God and religion was slowly, but deliberately, removed from the public square. Whereas social concerns for public education, care for the poor, and medicine were once a part of the life of the church, in these modern days these social needs grew to become a function of the State. Religion and the work of the church has been, in a secular world, relegated to the work of “spiritual” matters and private moral codes. The way we read Scripture today has been shaped by these cultural influences. In order to see the revolutionary nature of the cross, and thus the revolutionary nature of our mission, we need a fresh reading of the Bible in light of its historical context. Wright has worked hard to do this in the book.

Our mission, in part, is to declare the victory of God over the powers of evil, sin, and death, a victory that has the forgiveness of sins at the heart of it. This victory includes a revolutionary message that challenges how the powers rule the world. The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from the perspective of the Jewish Passover is the proclamation of the end of exile, a liberation from sin that once held us captive. Now freed from sin and the power of evil, we discover a new way of being human in the world.

Our personal sins need to be pardoned so we can reflect God’s image into the world, so that the world can be transformed. To be truly human as God created is to be a “royal priesthood” where we are tending to and caring for the world God loves. We carry out this vocation through our worship, demonstrations of love, and work for justice. We stand, as followers of Jesus, between heaven and earth. For Wright, “The revolution of the cross sets us free to be in-between people, caught up in the rhythm of worship and mission” (363). We also stand at the overlap of ages as people of the age to come, where the victory is already won. But, we are still living in the present evil age where we fight and struggle. We cannot become overly confident in the victory that is won. We cannot live with fear in the face of our present distress. We need rhythm and balance to stay on mission.

Jesus died to save us from the present evil age, so that we are free to be the “justified justice-bringers, the reconciled reconcilers, the Passover People” (365). Sometimes Christians are met with resistance when working for justice or peace, because we have not always been consistent with our message of love. Nevertheless, we should not let the resistance we may face deter us from our mission. If we remain faithful to pray through and live out the Sermon on the Mount, we will continue the revolution of the kingdom of God and make the world a better place. Our response to the love we see on display at the cross is love of our own, love for God and love for neighbor. Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us and therefore we must be willing to love and give of ourselves. The world was changed by suffering and dying and the world will continued to be changed that way.

We are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus if “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Jesus won a great victory by his suffering and we implement Jesus’ victory through suffering. This kind of mission finds its rootedness in prayer. We confess our willingness to suffer, but we must be careful how we talk about suffering. In some situations, calling the weak or oppressed or marginalized among us to be willing to suffer can come across as unloving or at times unjust. For example, throughout church history women have been made to suffer unnecessarily. At times their voice and leadership has been silenced by those in authority in the name of “necessary suffering.” We must do better and tread lightly.

The death of Jesus helps us to redefine power from coercion to suffering love. Jesus’ victory over the power of domination came through a kind of power rooted in covenant love. We live as people of that love demonstrating a new way of being human. This life of love is sustained by the sacramental life of the church, whereby through baptism and the celebration of communion we connect with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We die to sin through baptism, dying with Jesus to the old ways of sin and death, and we are raised with Jesus into newness of life. At the table of communion we declare the Lord’s death until he comes and share in his broken body and shed blood. The practice of communion declares Jesus’ victory over sin, breaking the chains of bondage that had once held us captive. These sacramental acts of worship are at the heart of the church’s mission.

Chapter 15: The Powers and the Power of Love

Jesus called his disciples with a simple command, “Follow me.” After his resurrection, Jesus sent them on a worldwide mission saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). This mission included the proclamation of the revolution that had taken place, that is a proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46). The chains of sin that had once enslaved humanity have been broken and something new has broken into our old worn-out world. We need to rethink everything in light of the birth of God’s new creation. Forgiveness certainly has personal implications for individuals who repent and believe the good news, but the mission of the early followers of Jesus was bigger than announcing forgiveness to individuals. Forgiveness and liberation have now become the new reality for those, who through faith and repentance, enter the kingdom of God.

Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection is a way to say yes to this new reality. While the resurrection of Jesus was the first sign that things are now different after the death of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins continues to be the sign that God’s new creation has taken root. In this new reality, God is restoring human beings to their primary vocation, a new way to be human for those who have only known humanity from the vantage point of sin and idolatry. Forgiveness empowers God’s new creation with a revolution that turns hate into love, bitterness into hope, and sorrow into dancing. Forgiveness and resurrection belong together, because forgiveness flows from the defeat of sin, and resurrection flows from the defeat of death. Jesus defeated both at the cross.

Jesus sent his disciples to go make disciples of all the nations, because the revolution that began with Jesus’ death was through Israel but for the world, freeing the world to worship its Creator. The world’s system driven by pride and power, domination and war, has been broken and utterly condemned by Jesus’ death. The world’s system has been judged and the world’s ruler, the satan, has been driven out (John 12:31-32). Within this freedom, the nations of the earth are able to turn away from idolatry and look to King Jesus for the power that gives life.

While the message of the cross was foolishness to many, it was found to carry power by those who believed (1 Corinthians 1:18). The power of the age to come with it’s life and light had broken into the darkness of the present evil age. With the death of Jesus the powers ruling the world were stripped of their power and power itself has to be reimagined. According to Wright, “A revolution has begun, in which power itself is redefined as the power of love” (391). The world has a new ruler and he rules not by conventional means of power; Jesus rules by the power of love. We do not invite people to confess faith in Jesus simply so they can go to heaven when they die, but so they can follow Jesus into this revolution of love which shatters the idols of Western culture, the “familiar trio of money, sex, and power” (393).

The economic inequality between the global rich and global poor gives us ample evidence that the idol of money is still enslaving people. With militant groups around the world willing to kill in the name of the marginalized and oppressed, we see the seriousness of this form of idolatry. As followers of Jesus we need the gift of discernment to see how the revolutionary truth of Jesus can speak to the economic power brokers of the world. How can the forgiveness of sins be preached in such a way that the enslaving power of this idol could be broken? Moreover, those of us who are rich in this present age will need to be honest with what it will cost us to be willing to share with the poor (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

The idol of sex is all around us from global human trafficking to the limitless pursuit of sexual pleasure. As the boundaries of sexual norms continue to flex and expand in a growing post-Christian culture, Christians formed by the sexual ethics of Jesus continue to be ridiculed, ignored, and dismissed. It has become nearly impossible to entertain the idea publically that consenting adults may need to resist acting on certain sexual desires. Aphrodite was the goddess of sexual love in the ancient world. What would it look like for the power of love to confront the power of lust, dethroning Aphrodite? We followers of Jesus first have to model fidelity to Christian marriage and the historic teachings of the church regarding sexual ethics. From this position of authenticity and faithfulness we can both offer forgiveness and a call for repentance.

In addition to confronting Mammon, the god of money, and Aphrodite, we are also faced with Mars, the god of war. Power in our modern world continues to be expressed through violence. The power of love at the heart of the revolutionary cross challenges the uncritical, unquestioning devotion to military solutions to global evil. The victory of Jesus on the cross has broken the forces of evil, dethroning the worship of war, offering the world a radically new way of addressing conflict. Jesus declares a blessing upon peacemakers, as they are in the family business, proclaiming a message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rejecting the works contract view of rule-keeping does not mean we jettison all practices of morality and Jesus-centered ethics. Certainly not! However, the “keeping of the rules” in the way of revolution is seen as part of the bigger mission to be God’s image-bearers on the earth. We willingly share with the poor. We remain faithful to the covenant of marriage. We work for peace. We do so from hearts that have been liberated and formed into the image of Jesus, the perfect image of the Father. In this way, character-based ethics will increasingly look revolutionary in a world where people define themselves by every longing, inclination, and desire of the heart. For Wright, “The gospel Jesus announced was not about getting in touch with your deepest feelings or accepting yourself as you really are. It was about taking up your cross and following him” (398).

The power of the cross reveals the emptiness of earthly power, but power itself is not to be discarded in the Jesus revolution. The story told in Scripture does not encourage anarchy or a world without civil law. Modern democracies have done away with tyrants of the past, but power has shifted to lobby organizations, media outlets, and the wealthy aristocracy. As followers of Jesus in this new creation revolution we do not merely shrug off political corruption or lobby for a certain candidate who has one or two “Christian” policies as a part of their platform. Our role is to “speak truth to power” (400). We are like Jesus before Pilate where we bear witness to another kingdom, a different way to express power.

The revolutionary nature of the cross does not lead us into a non-political pietism. A victory has been won. The powers have been defeated. We are led, with the cross before us, into a way of loving that embodies the politics of Jesus. One way we embody Jesus’ politics is by our holiness, not according to the works contract, but according to our covenant of vocation. Our holiness is how Jesus is changing the world. Sin keeps the powers in power. We need to each work towards personal holiness, but we must go further. We have a vocation intrinsic to our creation as human beings that goes beyond moral behavior and the assurance of heaven. We have a mission to work with God in God’s new creation project, working in the areas of justice and beauty. In this way “holiness and mission are two sides of the same coin” (406). They work together in the kingdom of God and the kingdom’s work of redeeming the world.

Our mission is not to build the kingdom on earth, but to build for the kingdom. Our mission is not about “saving souls for heaven,” but about participating with the life of the Spirit in worship and justice as the cruciform people of God on earth. We can say with the Apostle Paul “Christ loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20), but as we have seen, “Christ dying for our sins” is much more than that. We have been forgiven to be co-heirs and co-laborers with Jesus reflecting God’s love into God’s world.

In our devotional lives of loving God with all our minds, we continue to wrestle with how early Christians understood the death of Jesus. It is in this theological work that we worship God with all of our minds, rejecting a Platonized eschatology, moralized anthropology, and a paganized soteriology. These unfortunate theological positions have been replaced with a renewed vision of new creation, our covenant of vocation, and a salvation of love. We embrace them by denying ourselves and taking up the cross, rejecting the temptation to turn our pursuit of the kingdom of God into the pursuit of comfort and “self-realization.” We do seek success in following Jesus, but success has been redefined by the revolutionary cross. Indeed, the revolution itself is being carried out by us. As Jesus continually demonstrated his love for his disciples, he now commissions us as disciples to be a people of love, loving God, loving neighbors, even loving our enemies.

Our new creation work of love has been made possible through the death of Jesus in that it has broken the power of the satan and empire. Love is how we tell the story of Jesus and love is how we embody the story of Jesus, a love that triumphs over sin and idolatry. We reenact this story in our acts of worship, particularly in sharing the bread and wine of communion. The cross stands at the center of our faith, the definitive point where the story of God and creation, humanity and Israel, come together into a single tragic point. Through the resurrection we see the revolution that began that day, the day Jesus died. Wright invites us to join Jesus in his new creation, kingdom of God revolution: “Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now” (416). I am in. How about you?

Discussion Questions

  1. If our mission is not to build the kingdom or save souls for heaven, then how would you define the mission of the church?
  2. What does it look like for you to be on mission for God?
  3. What does it means to work for peace and justice?
  4. Why do so many Christians reject the idea of suffering as a follower of Jesus?
  5. Why is the message of forgiveness central to our mission?
  6. Which idol is the hardest to critique – money, sex, or power?
  7. How does the cross dethrone the god of money (comfort), the god of sex (pleasure), and the god of war (violence)?
  8. What steps do you need to take to grow in the “power of love”?