Thursday, December 16, 2010

Destiny: Where Are We Going?

Secular vs Sacred Divide

We have come to the final worldview question: Where are we going? Is human history heading somewhere or is it going in an endless, meaningless cycle?

In the passage we read just now, we follow the events after the death of Jesus. On the third day, his tomb was empty! And now Christ appeared right before the disciples’ surprised eyes. Filled with fear and doubt, the best theory His disciples could come up with was that they have seen a ghost! (Luke 24:37) So Jesus shows them His very physical hands and feet, “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones”. Still they remain stunned in joy and amazement. Then Jesus gave them the ultimate evidence.

“Er… You’ve got anything here to eat?”

And the risen Lord of the universe munched down a piece of “ikan bakar” right in front of their eyes (Luke 24:42). His resurrected body is capable of swallowing food neatly unlike those messy ghosts we find in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. This is no phantom. He is back – with muscles, bones and a functioning stomach. All over the world, Christians celebrate the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. But what does the resurrection mean for us today?

When many people think of the resurrection, they are actually thinking of life after death in heaven. Like those popular cartoon sketches of people floating around in fluffy clouds, wearing white gowns with a harp in their hand and a halo on their head. The idea is to escape from this physical world. Life on this earth is just a temporary transit station to a disembodied state of bliss somewhere else. Only the spirit minus the body survives death. But this state of being is only temporary for those who died and awaits the final resurrection. It is not the ultimate or permanent hope for Christians.

And the danger of misunderstanding the meaning of resurrection is we can be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. It creates a mentality where we withdraw from life and passively wait for the afterlife. Some people see the poor oppressed and the environment destroyed and they shrug and say, “Oh well, this world’s gonna burn anyway so I just wait for my time to go to heaven.” Or in some worldviews, after we die, we just get reincarnated as an animal or a less fortunate person if our sins or karmic debt is great. “Why should I help these suffering people if they are only getting what their karma deserved anyway? If I help them, it means they will suffer even longer”. No wonder many people see religion as a drug that makes us insensitive to pain and oppression happening around the world.

But the Christian hope of eternal life is not like that. It is not about running away from reality. Our final hope is a resurrected spiritual body. Our ultimate future is a new heaven and a new earth. This world we live in will be renewed, transformed and restored. It won’t be abandoned or left to rot. So we look forward to a resurrection just like Jesus’ where we will be raised to life in an incorruptible and glorified body. (Not as a ghostly, floating apparition!) And God did not create the physical world only to annihilate or abandon it. Rather, He will completely transform and rescue the present fallen universe. Through fire, the present universe will be refined, restored, renewed and transformed into the new one. Just as the caterpillar passes away and the butterfly emerges; so also would the present world be dissolved by fire to give rise to a purified new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:5-7).

What God has done in Christ on Easter morning, He would do on a cosmic scale for the entire creation, including us. There will be no more sorrow, sickness, decay or violence for God will wipe away every tear and restore all that is good. We can expect to be stewards in His renewed universe and priests who glorify and enjoy God’s presence forever. C.S. Lewis described the future redeemed world to be more substantial, more tangible and more solid than the world as we know it. You see, the Christian worldview values the material world and the human body much more than other worldviews which treat the world and body as an illusion or evil.

Because God himself took on physical flesh and blood and invaded this planet 2000 years ago, we long to see the presence of God's kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We live in the interim period between the coming of God’s kingdom already present in the world and the future, not-yet fullness of that Kingdom. And while we wait for that glorious day, we can start practicing right now! In the meantime, we are to live today as if the future is already present. The way we go about our daily chores, prayers and worship are to be signposts pointing forward to what God’s reign in its future fullness would look like.

So the church community is like a movie preview: We are to display some hints, clues, glimpses or foretastes of the actual movie so people will look at us and go, “Wow! I want to see the complete show!” New Creation: Akan datang. Coming soon to a planet near you… Lesslie Newbigin said, “The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God. It calls men and women to repent of their false loyalty to other powers, to become believers in the one true (king) and so to become corporately a sign, instrument and foretaste of the sovereignty of the one true and living God over all nature, all nations, and all human lives. It is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship”.

Now, how would that look like? Let me trace out the practical implications of the biblical view of human destiny as resurrection and a renewed heaven and earth.

1) It means that Christians, of all people, have the strongest motivation to be involved in transforming the world with justice, healing and mercy. If we do not have a God-centered worldview, we can get so easily discouraged and despaired: What’s the point? The ecological and social problems in the world are so huge. What I do won't make any difference.” But if we have a worldview of human destiny that is meaningful, we know that God will put things to right. If the present creation and our bodies will not be forsaken but ultimately transformed, then we are to work here-and-now in anticipation of that final vision. We can do what is right not primarily because of the perceived usefulness, but as an act of worship, trusting in the sovereignty of God for the results even when the circumstances look bleak.

Perhaps, at each individual level, it could mean simple things like signing up for a new project that gets our hands dirty caring for the creation or planting a tree. Or maybe, getting involved in caring for the poor and the sick around us? Ever thought of spending some time and energy on a worthy social cause that promotes fairness and peace in our country? Surely the surprising reality of Easter Sunday ought to empower us to be witnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection the way it did for the early disciples. Resurrection power is lived out in down-to-earth realities, grounded in the real world where we do business, as we cook in the kitchen, when we play with our children, study in schools, draw a painting, love and be loved, infusing everyday life with fresh spirituality and power.

For example, a Christian conservation movement called “A Rocha”, took a piece of abandoned land in West London and turned it into an oasis for wildlife called Minet Country Park. It raised questions among the neighboring people, “Why are they doing this?” (By doing this, we become a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of God’s kingdom) It gives opportunities for others to find out that our ecology is based on the gospel and our gospel is centered on the Lord Jesus Christ.


2) The suffering and evil we see in the world is not without meaning. If there is no God, there will be no final justice. If there is no God and everything is just ‘survival of the fittest’, then this world is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s natural for the strong to eat up the weak. Why should we be concerned when the weak gets oppressed by the strong? “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless” (Bertrand Russell). There are times when evil seems to be winning.

But because the rightful king of the world had entered human history and conquered death itself by rising from the grave, it means that death and sin will not have the final laugh. All unjust structures and rulers will be held accountable and judged. Wrongs will be put to right at the end of history. Dictators like King Herod, Roman Caesar, Satan, Sin, Death, Injustice, Pain and Diseases - their days are numbered. The worst they can do is put people to death but even death (the final enemy) is conquered by the resurrection. Let me share a story how Christians can challenge a corrupt system in society. You can watch it in action in a movie called “Amazing Grace”, based on the life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Christian Member of Parliament in Great Britain who worked all his life to abolish slavery of African people. (By the way, human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not a thing of the past, it’s something happening at our own doorsteps. Even in Malaysia!)

Wilberforce first launched his campaign for abolition of slavery in 1787 and lived to see it finally succeed in 1833 (just three days before his death). That’s 46 years in total! His life reminds us that social justice is a long, painful marathon. It’s not a 100 meter sprint. For the first twenty years, he suffered nothing but defeats, rejection from friends, insults from enemies, physical illness and even threats to his life. And it’s so easy to burnout. But social justice is a community project, not a solo effort.

Fortunately for him, William Wilberforce has a group of friends who work and walk together with him. This famous small group was nicknamed “The Clapham Sect” or “The Saints”. They shared a deep conviction in the evangelical Christian faith, a long-term commitment to a social cause and a lifelong spiritual friendship. Won’t you like to be part of a cell group like that?

What’s more amazing is that in their lifetime, this little platoon of committed believers managed to start a Missionary Society, a Bible Society, they promote agricultural reform to supply affordable food to the poor, prevent cruelty to animals (RSPCA), promote Sunday school education, prison reform, improve harsh child labor conditions and championed the freedom to preach the gospel in India! It’s simply amazing… It’s both word and deed. And the impact of their work can still be felt today. So don’t underestimate the power of small, committed groups to start social change. We don’t need to wait until there’s a huge Christian population to make a positive influence in society. Small groups of committed people empowered by the gospel can make a significant difference where we are! We may not do exactly what Wilberforce did but just imagine what we can do if each small group in church creatively commits ourselves long term to at least one social cause that we are passionate about?

The King had come. The kingdom of God had broken into history, bringing healing and hope, peace and life. Easter marks the decisive victory of Christ to recapture the world has been won. The fullness of this victory will be experienced when He returns. Human history is heading towards a meaningful destiny and resolution. Tears will be wiped away. The lion and the lamb will lie down together.

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