In my last post I talked about the Christian hope of resurrection – of heaven coming to earth at the second coming of Christ so that the whole creation is healed and purged of evil and suffering forever.
That hope raises some questions. If it’s true, then what are we meant to do now? How are we supposed to live? What should we do about suffering and evil? To take the issue which is high on most people’s agenda at the moment: what should we do about the planet? If God is going to put the whole thing right one day, should we just wash our hands of any responsibility for its welfare and continue to exploit and pollute it?
That (or something like it) has been the attitude of some Christians at various times. Not usually in the light of the hope of resurrection but in response to the true but incomplete version of the Christian hope which tells us that Christians who die go to be with Jesus in heaven: full stop, end of story. As I have tried to say (probably too often for some people’s taste), the hope of heaven is true but it is far from the whole story; and it is not what the New Testament puts centre stage. Centre stage is always the return of Christ, the resurrection and the renewal of all things.
If that (larger) version of the Christian hope is true, then we need an answer to the question I posed earlier: how should we live? What about care for the planet?
At various points in the New Testament we are told that what we do today has eternal significance. Whatever we do in this world that is founded on Jesus Christ and springs from faith in, and obedience to, him will last; it will find its place in the renewed creation which God plans for the future. The classic text for this is 1 Corinthians 3.12-15:
If anyone builds on this foundation [that is, Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.
How this works – how our efforts today will be preserved in eternity – is largely beyond our comprehension. But the New Testament is full of examples and exhortations around doing “good work[s]”. Paul’s letter to Titus repeats that theme multiple times as the duty and calling of all Christian people. Jesus himself is of course the supreme example. He went about “doing good” (Acts 10.38).
Professor Tom Wright has an image which I think helps us to get a handle on what Paul is talking about:
The image I have often used, in trying to explain this strange but important idea, is that of the stonemason working on part of a great cathedral. The architect has already got the whole plan in mind, and has passed on instructions to the team of masons as to which stones need carving in what way. The foreman distributes these tasks among the team. One will shape stones for a particular tower or turret; another will carve the delicate pattern that breaks up the otherwise forbidding straight lines; another will work on gargoyles or coats of arms; another will be making statues of saints, martyrs, kings or queens. They will be vaguely aware that the others are getting on with their tasks; and they will know, of course, that many other entire departments are busy about quite different tasks as well. When they’ve finished with their stones and their statues they will hand them over, without necessarily knowing very much about where, in the eventual building, their work will find its home. They may not have seen the complete architect’s drawing of the whole building with ‘their bit’ identified in its proper place. Nor may they live to see the completed building, with their work at last where it belongs. But they will trust the architect that the work they have done in following instructions will not be wasted. They are not, themselves, building the cathedral; but they are building for the cathedral, and when the cathedral is complete their work will be enhanced, ennobled, will mean much more than it could have meant as they were chiselling it and shaping it down in the stonemasons’ yard.Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007) pp220f
We’re not building the Kingdom; only God can do that. Only he has the overview, the wisdom and the knowledge for that supremely great work. But we can and should build for the Kingdom.
So what difference does that make? It means that whatever your calling, whatever your position in life, whatever the limits there may be to your opportunities, what you do matters: caring for an elderly relative, helping to relieve poverty, shopping with ethical issues in mind, preaching the gospel, planting churches, reaching out to a colleague at work in distress… If done in dependence on God and his Spirit, these things will not be forgotten, they will not disappear into the abyss of time but will have a place in God’s future.
Take the issue of climate change. What difference can my very small effort to care for the planet actually make? If (for example) China is going to continue building coal-fired power stations for decades to come, what possible value can there be in my decision to buy green energy? It would be easy to give up in despair. This is where Paul’s teaching comes to the rescue. My/your contribution, small as it may appear to be, has value. It is noticed by God himself; he will find it a place for it when the Kingdom finally comes in fulness.
To repeat: we are not building the Kingdom, but we can build for it.