Friday, September 25, 2015

A Review of Simply Jesus

NT Wright’s book Simply Jesus is a retelling of the life of Christ through the eyes of a first century Jew, longing for the Messiah that the Scriptures promised, and how Jesus’ Incarnation changed the entire world. Concerned that Christians will all-too-often get caught up in denominational squabbles, Wright wrote his book simply to examine the events of Jesus’ life in light of the promises in Scripture; he then shows how these events have changed the way in which God relates with mankind. In this manner, Wright avoids a lot of the inter-denominational arguing that a more partisan book might have caused; the fact that an Anglican bishop’s book was being read in a Catholic student’s class speaks to the strength of Wright’s unbiased approach.

The message conveyed in Simply Jesus is that with the coming of Christ, “God is now in charge, and he is in charge in and through Jesus” (pg. 55). This bold statement matters because, “He [Christ] commands his hearers to give up their other dreams and to trust his instead. This, at its simplest, is what Jesus was all about” (pg. 56). Wright’s entire book hinges on these two sentences as he explains them in simple, but exact detail. In doing so, Wright believes he is “freeing” the story of Jesus from the little corners into which various theologians, historians, and clergy have painted him.

Wright shows us Christ through the eyes of the Old Testament, something which many modern Christians refuse to do. Seeing Jesus through the eyes of a first century Jewish resident of Roman-occupied Palestine is an eye-opener, especially in the light of the other times Israel was ruled by other kingdoms. The first century Jew would be expecting a political Messiah, like King David - someone who would expel the Romans, cleanse the Temple, and free Israel from slavery. Wright mentions these “aspects of Exodus” quite frequently, as the true Messiah indeed follows that same pattern, but in an unexpected way.

Wright sees the Garden and Creation as an earthly temple, the original plan of God, that he would dwell with mankind forever. Due to our sinfulness, we turned our backs on God and have inherited what Wright calls “anti-Creation”, which is sin and death; these are the enemies which Christ came to vanquish (enemies which are used by Satan to deceive mankind). In Jesus’ coming, he comes to make things “on earth as it is in heaven.” Wright heavily emphasizes this in his book, that Christ is not merely an earthly Messiah, but a spiritual, heavenly one, and he came in order to establish God as king whose reign will be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel reject God and demand that Samuel give them a king to rule them. God tells him, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). After warning the people that an earthly king would abuse his power and oppress the people, they still made demands: “No! But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations” (8:19-20). For the rest of the Old Testament, the People of God continued to go down the wrong path, with the prophets coming to warn them of the consequences of their actions; they also came with messages of great hope, that God would return as their king, the “son of Man” would come and set up a kingdom for God and he will be their king. Wright goes on to show how much of what Jesus did was to show the people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Wright makes a good attempt at trying to change the view of Christians who believe that heaven is some location far away from earth. In quoting Scripture and breaking down the events of the Gospels, he paints the picture that heaven is actually very near to earth, that they are almost like parallel universes, touching at the Temple, where God and mankind meet. In the New Covenant, we see this meeting between heaven and earth in the celebration of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy. Whereas the old Passover would link believers to a past event, the new Passover – while still linking us to the Last Supper and the sacrifice on the cross – also points us to the future, that marriage feast between the Church and her Groom, Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:9). Being changed by this encounter with Christ, we become a holy priesthood, asked to offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5), and to “glorify God in our body” (1 Cor 6:20) by presenting our body “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).

Wright links all of the activities of Christ and our repentance from sin as a way that God is showing his renewal upon the earth, that his kingdom is already here. We see glimpses of the future healing between heaven and earth in events like the Transfiguration, where Jesus shone like a bright light and Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the prophets) appeared with him. While we are born of woman, we are reborn through baptism. “[I]f any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Whereas Israel experienced the Exodus from Egypt, completed at the River Jordan, Jesus’ baptism in the same river showed that we are embarking on a new Exodus with a new Moses; instead of being freed from Egypt, we are being freed from sin and death, freed from the Evil One. While Jews and Christians have observed the Sabbath rest, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, where in his kingdom we will enjoy Eternal Rest with him in Paradise.

Wright emphasizes that Christians have been looking at things the wrong way, always thinking that Heaven is some far-off place and that the earth is something we leave behind for good. Wright shows through Scripture that we are not so much preparing to go to Heaven; instead, we are preparing for Heaven on earth! In this epic battle between the prince of this world and the King of the Universe, the “first-born male”, by defeating death, becomes the first of the New Covenant to rise and enter bodily into the reality that will be the New Creation, which Wright says has already started with the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. The twelve tribes of Israel are now judged by the twelve Apostles, who ventured out to spread the message of Christ. The Jewish Temple has been replaced by the New Temple, Jesus Christ, who is also the new High Priest. In his teaching, Jesus rights the wrongs of man, fulfilling what God intended for us before we chose to sin. In this manner, he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law, which he said all hung on the two greatest commandments: Loving God and loving thy neighbor (Mat. 22:37-40).

“Heaven and earth were being joined up – but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on, where forgiveness was happening” (pg. 133).

Christ’s miracles showed that God was with us; he has allowed us to share with him in that power, as we see miracles through the intercession of the saints, and works of mercy from our fellow man:

“[R]ight at the start of his public career, he called associates to share his work and then to carry it on after he had laid the foundations, particularly of his saving death…God works through Jesus; Jesus works through his followers” (pg. 212-3)

Wright says that through this sharing of Jesus’ work, we help “thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and to welcome the stranger. In our love of God and love of neighbor, Wright insists that we are cooperating with Jesus’ plan to establish God’s kingdom on earth. We cannot do anything apart from God, which is why we need his grace and the guidance of his Holy Spirit. In order to “Go, and sin no more,” we must be humble and seek Jesus through his Sacraments, where we continue to share in his renewal of the earth as we are renewed by his grace, preparing the world for the ultimate renewal of Creation.

In light of this renewal of Creation, which is the kingdom of God established on earth – the merging of heaven and earth into one, which rights the wrongs caused by Original Sin - Wright warns that the idea of a “rapture” is unfounded in Scripture and contradicts the idea of a Second Coming, which completes the renewal of the earth and the coming of the Kingdom. The believers meeting Christ in the air is no different than the believers meeting Christ as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday; it is the ancient custom of greeting your triumphant king as he returns to his kingdom to claim his throne. The saints and angels, along with these believers, return to earth with the triumphant Christ, completing the earth’s renewal. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create in Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy” (Is 65:17-18).

Citing Isaiah, Wright reminds us of the peace and eternal rest that Christ brings to us through the renewal – the correcting - of Creation:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is 11:6-9)...For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is 2:3-4)

Overall, I believe that NT Wright did a great job disconnecting the Jesus narratives from the narrow windows in which we view them to show them through a much larger lens. Using Scripture, he makes a convincing effort to show that Heaven will not be some far-off place filled with puffy clouds, but will be right here on a renewed Earth. Wright convinced me that our sense of renewal, of being a new creation in Christ through baptism, is part of that renewal that Jesus started with the Incarnation. In partaking in Christ’s mystery, there is life within us as Jesus allows the deification of man, which moves us to prepare now on earth for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, completed at the end of time. Thanks to this book Simply Jesus, I will not pray the line ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ of the Lord’s Prayer the same way again!