How Attending an N.T. Wright Lecture on the Topic “Paul for Tomorrow’s World” Became A Damascus Road Experience for ME!

Video #1 N.T. Wright’s Lecture at William Jessup University

Video #2 N.T. Wright Q&A

 

As you begin to read the title of this blog post I can understand how one can whisper to themselves that this title is a little dramatic. I assure you that my experience hearing N.T Wright develop his theological perspective concerning the purpose of the “ Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ” both moved me deeply as well as convicted me for the shallow way that I have attempted to unpack the meaning of the most influential events in human history. The purpose of my blog post will not be to rehearse every point of N.T. Wrights lecture at William Jessup University because I have embedded the videos in this article for you to take the time to view for yourself. I simply want to unpack my personal engagement with N.T. Wright’s call for us to understand the full tapestry of the historical context that these two events occurred and to look at the Apostle Paul’s theological meaning and why it is essential for us to theologically reflect concerning the meaning of these events. N.T. Wrights assessment of the our struggle to understand the true meaning of these events is a direct result of Western Pastors being immersed in a cultural context that has accommodated to the narrative that our Western culture is communicating. Thus, we are not offering a different narrative that finds it’s grounding in the “Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ” but instead is grounded with these miraculous events being filtered through our culture ethos.

William Jessup University is a Premiere Christian University

Before I continue, I must thank, Dr. John Jackson, who is the President of William Jessup University and the administration, staff, and faculty for facilitating and hosting this event in our region. They are doing exactly what a Christian University should do which is to be grounded in solid Biblical orthodoxy and at the same time challenge students and local church leaders to begin to critically think through our theology concerning how we as participants in the “Mission of God” are embodying the message of the “Good News” penetrating the culture around us. It is my perspective that we should consider it a privileged blessing to have William Jessup University in our neighborhood. When Dr. Jackson declares, “That William Jessup University is a child of the local church” in other words it exists to serve the Church. It is modeled in the various ways that they are accomplishing this task with local church leaders. It is important that it should also be noted that it was courageous on their part to offer this lecture …. WHY YOU MAY ASK?

The Ignorant ways we play “PIN THE TAIL”

In a culture that embraces leadership models without a leader asking if one’s theology, personality or gift-mix are congruent with that model. In a church culture that enjoys to play “Pin the Tail on the Dysfunction” in which we will communicate everything that we are against rather than communicate what we are for which sets up the world at large to think that after one is water baptized he or she is given a stack of preprinted petitions to sign and pass out in protest of the most recent issue we are convinced deserves our focus. In a church culture that at times is not concerned with the facts enabling us to act out on our stereo-types toward one another whether it is the church we attend or labeling someone as being a heretic when we do not have all the facts. Furthermore, here is a news update …. I am guilty of these behaviors and I am not wanting to become a repeat offender because when I do it seems to negatively impact more than just me. “Why?” Because I am part of the Church which is a little bit bigger than my superimposed preferences of what the Church should be and it is broader than what my cultural context would have me filter as being the “Real Deal.”

Which leads me to address why William Jessup University was courageous for having N.T. Wright come and lecture ….

Label someone as being Part of the “Emergent Church”

Just prior to me attending the lecture I had a conversation with another Christian leader who is not from this area and after communicating to him that I was going to attend a N.T. Wright Lecture he was silent for a few minutes and then he said, “Al, why would you want to go and hear a man who believes the church is the kingdom of God and who is quoted by members of the Emergent Church?” I do not want to take the time place all of my focus on the Emergent Church other than to say that the conversation of N.T. Wright is not about the doctrine of inclusiveness that states that everyone on planet earth is already regenerated and there is no need for a conversion experience. This actually is contrary to his passionate desire to elevate the magnificence of the “Death and Resurrection” of Jesus Christ as the center-pieces in human history that seals mans need for redemption. Here is the challenge that most Evangelical Christians struggle with and that is the relationship of the Church being the primary agency of the Kingdom of God on earth and how it is held in an eschatological tension. The Kingdom is both a now reality but the not-yet. The current notion of many Western Evangelicals is to treat the Kingdom as purely an eschatological event which treats the importance of the “Death and Resurrection” of Jesus Christ as simply as an “I –Don’t-Go- To- Hell-Pass.” Please understand that I understand this thinking and it is wonderful to affirm that the work of regeneration transitions us into the Kingdom of His marvelous Light.

Therefore, it is important for us to understand that a “Kingdom Now” theology simply focuses on the Church through cultural and social engagement with meeting the needs of people and through acts of social justice will over time help to give rise to the Kingdom of God to exist in its fullness on earth. A “Kingdom Now” theology embraces no need of God breaking into human history in a future event in order to consummate the fullness of the Kingdom of God for all time. This theological perspective found its early roots in Albert Schweitzer’s “Social Gospel” bypassing the need for personal conversion. Second, the notion of the church evolving to a more perfect state, thus, transforming the world the world into God’s ultimate purpose (a form of emergent evolutionary process), finds its roots with the Theology of Hope that was espoused by, Rudolf Bultmann,[1] that hit it its own wall when the reality of two World Wars placed the world into a spasm of bloodshed. In recent history, Wolfhart Pannenberg,[2] Jurgen Moltmann,[3] have been the theologians who have further developed and systematized this theology that has had a huge impact on European theological thinking. It is in the midst of this theological milieu that N.T. Wright is attempting to show how scandalous the Resurrection of Christ is in the historical context of the Apostle Paul who is proclaiming the veracity of the “Resurrected Christ” who is the one true King in the face of Imperial Rome. N.T. Wright is not a “Kingdom Now” theologian nor is he intentionally attempting to be the theological voice of the emergent church. What he is desiring for us to do is to reengage the message of the Apostle Paul of how the Church in the “Now” needs to live it out as part of the work of Christ in the Resurrection of “New Creation” which is a much more important message than an escape clause from Hell or this present world.

My Damascus Road Encounter

N.T. Wright states that the Western Church believes a dangerous lie that we have embraced since the 18th century. The lie is we are the enlightened ones which gives us the permission to choose our own standards and inflict them on others. We believe that the enlightenment was the biggest event to change the course of history. In his words: “The most significant event occurred much earlier than the 18th century was “Jesus walked out of the tomb.” Paul’s scandalous message was in light of Augustus who was the Imperial ruler and who was declared God Jesus Christ rose from the dead declaring that these earthly kings and kingdoms were a parody of the real thing.

In Pauline theology the Resurrection was the renewal of creation that inaugurated by the power of the resurrection. The supernatural nature of this is what transforms people in the “Now” to live out the beatitudes and to model a new story of the Church being the “New Community.” The Power of the Resurrection in the “Now” affords men and women to be healed physically, and to be made whole in their emotions. It empowers the Church to model what the Apostle Paul describes is the work of the “Death and Resurrection of Christ”:[4] “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) —  remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,  and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

The Church as a community lives as a reconciled community in light of the Cross of Christ which means that we are the reconciling agency of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Church does not exist to do works of social justice in order to usher in the presence of the Kingdom. No we do social justice because the very nature of reconciliation of age, ethnic identification, gender as well as National Citizenship is transcended and barriers broken because of the work of Christ in both the Cross and the Resurrection. The gospel than is the Good News of the Kingdom of God that every person can belong to God and participate in the reconciling work of the Kingdom of God that has been both inaugurated and demonstrated by Jesus Christ and is to be lived out by the Church.

N.T Wright

Therefore, my Damascus Road experience listening to this lecture is: “My journey in the present is not some “warm up” to the big event. It is part of the big event. The Resurrection made it so!”

How would Paul answer the five key world-view questions that comprise our present reality?[5]

  1. Who are we?  We are the people of God in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit.  We are the renewed Israel, the people of the new covenant.  We are those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.  And this defines us over against those who worship other gods, and other lords.
  2. Where are we?We are in God’s good creation — citizens now not of a particular country so much as of the world that God is going to make, where we shall share the rule of the Lord Jesus.  We are living, as it were, in a house that is being rebuilt around us, though there is yet to come a final moment of rebuilding on a scale hitherto unimaginable.  We are part of the Jewish movement designed by God to spread to the ends of the earth.  Our location is defined not by Caesars empire but by God’s creation and covenant.
  3. What’s wrong?Though Jesus’ resurrection has ushered in the new creation, we live between that event and the redemption still awaited by ourselves and the rest of the world; and, since most of the world still does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we are persecuted.  We ourselves, too, are not yet perfect, but live in the tension between what we are already, in Christ and by the Spirit, and what we shall be when Jesus appears again and when his work in us is complete.  Caesar still rules the world, despite Jesus’ enthronement as its rightful Lord.
  4. What’s the solution?The work of the Spirit, in the present and the future, will put into practice, for us and for the whole cosmos, what has been accomplished in Christ.  God will put the world to rights, achieving at last what Caesar claimed to have done.
  5. What time is it?We live in the overlap of the ages: the age to come has already broken in in Jesus, but the present age still continues.  A great crisis is looming shortly, involving fierce suffering and worldwide convulsion, from which the church will emerge stronger; and one day, though nobody knows when, Jesus will reappear, when God finally remakes the cosmos.  The Roman world is tottering; only God’s kingdom will last.

 

It is Time to Embrace Living in the Tension

The Kingdom is now but the not yet. As one living in the land of the in between my identification must be first as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. The miracle of the Resurrection allows me to live out its story and how it has changed my life. It compels me to break free from the fierce independence that is nurtured by Western Culture in order to more fully understand that the “Death and Resurrection” which empowers me to live out His story of New Creation in community. It is not more information that changes me it is a supernatural work of the Spirit that gives witness to the Resurrected Christ. The Christian life in order to be lived out is a supernatural life which is counter intuitive to the nature of man.

  • In A Culture that Promotes Disrespect: It is praying for political leaders that we may not agree with their politics but because all authority is established by God and we pray for God to give them wisdom. Before you go off onto a political tangent or label some leader as the Antichrist remember that when the Apostle Paul exhorted us to do this (Romans 13: 1-7), Christians were being placed in the coliseum and were being fed to lions. The Resurrection gives us the ability to respond in an opposite spirit which is a different story from the story being shouted out in our present culture.
  • In a Culture that Promotes Retaliation: “Bless those who persecute you!” The only way that we can live this out is through the power of Christ.
  • In a Culture that Demands its own Rights: The Apostle Paul declares that in the Life of our “New Community” we can love another by choosing not exercise our rights so that someone weaker would not stumble (I Corinthians 8-9). Nor are we to superimpose our cultural praxis on others thus judging them on whether they do or do not know Christ.

 

The Day will come when Jesus Christ will break into our reality which will be the exclamation point to the declaration that he made on the Cross “IT IS FINISHED!” In the in-between time I am fully empowered by the Spirit to live out as a new creation a new story that will be read by all people as I live this out as part of the Church. This is the exclamation point to when he said, “Greater things will you ever do that I did!”


Footnotes & Notes:

[1] Note: For Bultmann, it was not important for Jesus Christ to be a historical figure because he was a “Cosmic Archetype” of what all creation was to become. Thus, the historical veracity of the Resurrection of Christ is not founded in it being a historical reality, but instead, it is embedded in the cosmic consciousness of humanity who engage it on the basis of faith. Some scholars debate that it may have been this theological bent of revelation not having to be grounded in history that was used by the Nazi party to redact it and give it a new application which grounded itself in German Nationalism. Thus, was resisted by such leaders as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who viewed Jesus Christ and His Death and Resurrection as being truth because they were grounded in history.

[2] Note: Pannenberg was a professor on the faculties of several universities consistently, after 1958. Between the years of 1958 and 1961 he was the Professor of Systematic Theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal. Between 1961 and 1968 he was a professor in Mainz.

[3] Note: Professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen, West Germany, since 1967, Jurgen Moltmann, b. Apr. 8, 1926, is one of the leading proponents of the “theology of hope.” He believes that God’s promise to act in the future is more important than the fact that he has acted in the past. What is implied by this focus on the future, however, is not withdrawal from the world in the hope that a better world will somehow evolve, but active participation in the world in order to aid in the coming of that better world. Moltmann’s works include Theology of Hope (1964), Hope and Planning (1971), Man (1971), The Experiment of Hope (1975), Experience of God (1979), On Human Dignity (1984), and God in Creation (1986). Eschatology is not to be seen as the last chapter in a theology textbook but the perspective from which all else is to be understood and given its proper meaning. For Moltmann eschatology is the key or central concept from which everything else in Christian thought is set. Moltmann sees the entire story of Israel as a unique historic pilgrimage as Israel is confronted by the God of promise. Israle’s entire identity is in light of the promises of God. In Jesus Christ the future kingdom is present, but as future kingdom. His resurrection is the firstfruits of the resurrection and can have meaning only within that universal horizon of meaning. Christian life and salvation are firstfruits, living in the promise of the future of God in Christ. The church is to be seen as the people of hope, experiencing hope in the God who is present in his promises. The coming kingdom gives the church a much broader vision of reality than a “merely” private vision of personal salvation. The church is to contest all the barriers that have been constructed by man for security; it challenges all structures that absolutize themselves, and all barriers erected between peoples in the name of the reality that is to come in Jesus Christ. The coming kingdom creates confronting and transforming vision for the mission of the people of God.

 

[4] Ephesians 2:11-18, New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

[5] N.T. Wright, Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans.

(Originally published in A Royal Priesthood: The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically, ed. C. Bartholemew, 2002, Carlisle: Paternoster, 173–193. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

 

About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
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