A summary of Tom Wright’s ‘Building for the kingdom’

Here’s a summary of Tom Wright’s chaper on ‘Building for the kingdom’ in Surprised By Hope. It talks about our role – our mission – as disciples in enacting signs of the kingdom here and now.

1. Introduction

God builds God’s kingdom, not us. But he’s ordered his creation in such a way that his own work in the world takes place through humans who reflect his image. Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit he equips humans to help in the work of getting the project back on track.

We are not building the kingdom itself, but we are building for it. ‘Our labours in Christ are not in vain’ (1 Cor 15:58) – everything done for God will become a part of God’s new creation, his recreation when he brings together heaven and earth. We don’t know how he’s going to do this; only that he will. We haven’t seen the architect’s drawing of the whole building with our bit in its proper place. But we can get on with doing our bit, and one day God will enhance and ennoble it.

Our calling, then, is to enact signs and symbols of the new creation here today in the midst of the old creation.

This makes the task of the church very different than if we were just saving souls for a disembodied heaven. With that in mind, Wright wants to sketch three important aspects of our work of building for the kingdom; there are many other aspects of our work he could have written about.

2. Justice

Justice is the setting right of the world, evident in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It’s one of the main aspects of our task of building for the kingdom. Fundamentalists claim it’s hopeless trying to make things more just because it’s only going to get worse till Jesus returns; liberals attempt to make it better without the power and promise of the resurrection.

The resurrection was a revolutionary doctrine – that’s why the Sadducees hated it. It promises a new exodus, a liberation from slavery, a defeat of evil in the world.

For Wright, the main justice issue in the world today is third world debt. Like slavery in its time, there are lots of ‘common sense’ arguments against doing something to overturn it. But it is our duty as Christians to call for a radical transformation of how we live as a worldwide community, anticipating the recreation of all things.

3. Beauty

Wright believes that taking creation and new creation seriously is a way to recover the importance of beauty for the church today.

He writes, ‘To make sense of and celebrate a beautiful world through the production of artefacts which are themselves beautiful is part of the call to be stewards of creation, as was Adam’s naming of the animals.’ (234)

The challenge is the balance between the temptation to ignore ugliness and sin and pretend all is beautiful (leading to sentimental art) and the temptation to wallow in ugliness and pretend all is darkness (leading to brutal art). Wright believes there is an impasse between these tendencies and that Christian artists should be breaking the impasse and leading the way out. (I’m unconvinced of his account here; I don’t know any writers who make the mistake of ignoring ugliness – there is no such impasse from my observation, more just a balancing act that particularly confronts Christian artists.)

As Christian artists we should be describing the world not just as it is or should be, but also as it one day will be. He writes, ‘And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the paradigm, first example and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nails were not only visible on his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection, and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.’ (235-6)

4. Evangelism

If beauty and justice are two key signs or tastes of the kingdom, then evangelism is the call of Jesus for every person to join the kingdom.

Wright starts by clearing away some objections. Even though most evangelism has been done with a very deficient gospel, God can still use it to draw people to him and despite the weakness of the message, people’s faith and relationship with God are still real. But it would still be better to have the full biblical gospel.

The proclamation of good news is much more credible where the signs of the kingdom are shown in the life and work of the church. The announcement of good news makes sense when a church is working for justice and demonstrating the beauty of the (re)creation.

Next, Wright asks what conversion is in his account of the gospel. It’s a regeneration, a turning around, a sign of new life in a person so that they can be said to be a little part of this new creation.

Seeing conversion in these terms has three consequences over against individualistic accounts offered by popular evangelicalism:

1. It’s an incarnational faith, not a rejection of God’s good creation.
2. It’s a kingdom faith, not an individualistic one where the primary reality is a private relationship with God.
3. It’s a faith of discipleship, where what we do matters because Christian ethics are an expression of Christian hope.

5. Conclusion

In his conclusion, Wright brings his three themes together and shows how they interact in the context of his ministry in a post-industrial wasteland, where factories have closed, leaving many unemployed, and a sense of despair pervades the ugly landscape and passive lives of television.

In this situation, the church needs to take up the cause of justice, speaking out against the injustice of a system that has led to this state of affairs. At the same time, it can embody hope by being place where the beauty of ‘new creativity bursts forth for the whole community’. Which will lead to chances to give an account for the hope which the church is embodying – that is, the task of evangelism.

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