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Thinking about the New Creation can be a challenge for many Christians. But let’s take a brief look at this reality.
Summing All Things Up
For a start, we could note the way in which Ephesians follows through on the statement in the first chapter that God’s plan is to sum up, to unite, all things in heaven and earth in the Messiah. For Paul, this has all kinds of spin-offs for the church’s life and work in the present as well as the future: the church is to model the new creation in the power of the Spirit.
This means, for a start, Jew and Gentile coming together into the single ‘new temple’, the church in which God lives by the Spirit (chapter 2). This startling and unprecedented new reality will shock the rulers of the world (chapter 3). They had tried for centuries to unite people under their rule, but the only person who’s been able to do it is Jesus. As the church lives like that – still a major challenge for us today – it is a sign to the world that Jesus is already its true Lord.
Marriage as a Symbol of New Creation
Then in the second half of the letter Paul expounds the twin themes of unity and holiness. These are still massively challenging for churches and fellowships of all kinds. (I suspect it’s partly because we have given up trying.) We then find ‘resurrection’ shrinking to an odd word for ‘life after death’ or to the mere ‘happy ending’ after the cross.
In particular, in Ephesians 5, Paul sketches one of the points where unity and holiness are most striking: in the Christian vision of marriage, seen as a sign and potent symbol of the original creation now renewed in Jesus the Messiah. John hints at this, too, in his second chapter.
Those are some pointers to the Pauline vision of restored creation – the way in which the resurrection of Jesus is worked out, through the Spirit, in the present renewal of creation, genuinely anticipating the final renewal still to come.The Pauline vision of restored creation – the way in which the resurrection of Jesus is worked out, through the Spirit, in the present renewal of creation, genuinely anticipating the final renewal still to come. Click To Tweet
Church as Hidden Blueprint
Hidden in Ephesians 3 we find the blueprint for the present renewal through social and political life: the church, in its unity and holiness, is called to be the sign to the watching world that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. Caesar, of course, comes in many forms – in the gods that are worshipped today and always, the gods of money and power and sex, of a self-centered self-fulfillment and self-realization.
The body of Christ as a whole, with every Christian called to play his or her part (and to face their own personal battles and struggles as they do so), is to show the world and its rulers that there is a different way to be human, the way of the Sermon on the Mount, the way of following Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Thank God that the church has been doing this throughout its history and still is. But I worry, again, that in many western churches, both Catholic and Protestant, the emphasis is still on ‘how I get to heaven’, with witness to the world a kind of incidental afterthought, rather than on the new creation which has been launched in Jesus’ resurrection and is now to be put to work by the Spirit.
Political Implications of New Creation
This has obvious implications in the political sphere which will vary from place to place. In countries like mine the churches are still in theory free to live their lives and bear witness, and they are doing that with mixed success. The chief opposition tends to come from the media who want to be the ones to tell people how the world should be and don’t like the churches trying to do it instead. This will vary in different countries and regions.
The point is that the church is to demonstrate the signs of new life which are the genuine anticipations of the new age breaking in already. Those of us in ministry see these from time to time, thank God, sometimes to our surprise and sometimes despite what we have been doing rather than because of it.
Creation Care and New Creation
In particular, the fact that God has renewed creation in Jesus and intends to renew it from top to bottom in the end should have immediate implications for our care of the planet. If someone gave you a wonderful painting to decorate your home, it wouldn’t be very respectful if you used it as a dart-board, or as a chalkboard for the kids to draw on. And if someone said that didn’t matter because the original artist would come one day and mend it and clean it up, you might think that wasn’t the point. But that’s how we have often treated God’s good creation.
The more we know about how our planet works, the more we see just how badly we, its present caretakers, have been looking after it. There are of course faddish and silly solutions on offer here, just as there are in every walk of life, but that doesn’t mean that the church can go slow on its responsibilities to understand our human vocation as stewards of creation and to lead the way both in responsible living ourselves and in encouraging and lobbying for larger policies which will bring a measure of God’s order to his wonderful but wounded world.The more we know about how our planet works, the more we see just how badly we, its present caretakers, have been looking after it. Click To Tweet
Beginning with the Resurrection
The mysterious heart of all this is the church’s life of prayer and sacrament. If we start with a view in which God and the world are a long way off from one another, then prayer and sacrament don’t make much sense. Prayer becomes calling up into thin air; sacrament becomes a strange ritual with possible benefit as a visual aid for faith but not much more.
But we don’t start with that view of God – at least, not if we begin with the resurrection of Jesus understood in the way the first Christians understood it. We should start with the cosmology which says that heaven and earth overlap and interlock and that we humans are called to stand at the dangerous place where that happens. We should start with the eschatology which says that the present age has already been broken into by the long-promised ‘age to come’, and that we humans once more are called to live and work at the very place where those tectonic plates grind together.
This takes us back, as I promised, to Romans 8: when we stand at those two points of overlap. We find ourselves groaning in prayer, often without knowing exactly what we ought to be praying for, but then realising – with Paul to remind us – that exactly there and then the Spirit is groaning within us, and the Father is listening, and that in the process we are being shaped according to the likeness of the beloved Son.
The Christian life of prayer and sacrament thus draws together all other obligations and vocations and gives them new depth and focus. At the same time, that rhythm of life, of standing where heaven and earth meet, where present and future bump into one another, flows out into the world of service, particularly service to the poor and desolate for whom the whole scripture, from the Torah to the Psalms to Jesus to Revelation, has special concern.
Learning to meet Jesus himself in the faces of the poor, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats, is one lesson among many which belong exactly here, at the place where the resurrection of Jesus as an event of past history opens up new visions for the renewal of creation as a recurring event in present history until the time of the ultimate renewal yet to come.
Justice and Beauty
In closing, let me re-emphasize two things I have said in some of my books but which bear repetition.
If we believe that in the end God will put all things right, will ‘do justice’ in that positive, creative, healing, restorative sense; and if we believe that when God raised Jesus from the dead he did exactly that, close up and personal, in the one human being who represented and stood in for everyone else – then we cannot hold back from the imperative to ‘do justice’, in this full sense, at every opportunity in our world. In the power of the Spirit, we must name and shame the injustices that are still rampant, and work for their abolition. And we must take care that in our personal lives, and particularly in the lives of our churches themselves, injustice is rooted out as far and wide as can be done. Only if we are doing this will it make any sense to preach and teach about God’s new creation, about the way in which Jesus’ resurrection resonates out into the renewal, the putting-right, of creation.
The same is true of beauty. If we believe that God made a beautiful world which has been spoiled in so many ways but which still resonates with his love and power; and if we believe that in Jesus God has done the most beautiful thing imaginable – why else would so many artists and musicians devote their best efforts to setting it forth for our awe and contemplation! – then we must make sure that as far as we are able, in our churches and our personal lives, and in the wider communities where we have influence, we are working to foster and celebrate art, music, dance, drama, poetry sculpture, and whatever else we can.
If the church is colluding with ugliness; if the church is not recognising, celebrating and giving opportunities for the many artistic gifts of many of its members, then we should not be surprised if people find it hard to believe us when we speak of the way Jesus’ resurrection has launched a new world in which creation itself is renewed, and will be renewed, until the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
That is the goal. Justice and beauty point the way. By the power of the Spirit, our calling is to be Resurrection people, looking back to Jesus himself and, under his guidance and commission, bringing true signs of renewal into his creation today and every day.