Living Into the Future

Last Sunday morning I did a teaching in Dallas on how the story of Scripture beckons the church to live into the future. To even make sense of that statement I need to first unpack a few things.

Story is basic to all of life. All humans live within some story they believe is ultimate. The Buddhist, the materialist, the Marxist, and the Christian all believe different stories and frame themselves within those narratives. It’s popular today to speak of different “worldviews,” but this is just a fancy way of saying different “stories.” A person’s worldview is shaped by the comprehensive story they believe is true to reality; worldviews are products of stories.

Christians agree that the Bible is authoritative for our lives, but ask how exactly is it authoritative and you’ll soon hear discord. Many speak of the Bible as the roadmap or blueprint for life. Others say it is a document of propositional truths or an almanac of spiritual wisdom. I contend it is none of the above.

The Bible is a story book. It’s filled with a number of stories written by a number of people over a number of years, yet in the end it is one single unifying story – the story of God acting in human history. So how is Scripture authoritative? The Bible is the ultimate authority for our lives when its narrative shapes both how we view the world and live within it.

The six acts of scripture

On Sunday morning I divided the story of Scripture into six acts and briefly taught on each: creation, corruption, calling (of Israel), Christ, church, and consummation. It was the last of these that I focused on – the consummation of God’s kingdom, what Scripture calls the “new heavens and new earth” – and you’ll soon see why.

We’re presently living in the fifth act. What Christ accomplished through the cross and resurrection (“it is finished”), the church is called to implement. So how do we do this? I suggest we do so by carrying the story forward – and that’s why the sixth act is especially important for us to know. Let me explain.

Have you ever seen a movie that begins by showing you the final scene? Every so often a screenwriter or director will place the last scene first and then have the rest of the film build up to that scene. For example, imagine a movie starting with its ending - you see the hero kissing his bride on top of the empire state building while the villain is below on the street being handcuffed and taken to jail. We would ask, “how did they get there and how did all this happen?” These questions get answered and the gaps are filled in as the storyline then starts at the beginning and works up to that ending.

I want to suggest this is some of the deep logic behind God giving us glimpses of the final scene of the story toward which the whole of history is moving. God shows us a vision of the future so we will not only know his loving intentions toward creation and what he has in store for the world, but so we can help bring that future into the present. God wants the church to live with creative imagination and carry the story forward. In other words, the church is called to live into the future. We’re called to pattern our lives in such a way that God’s vision of the future will become more and more a reality now.

The sculpture above was made by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. It’s on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and is probably my favorite piece in the whole building. One common theme running throughout Kiefer’s art is the continual rebirth and renewal in life, and most of his works are pregnant with theological/mystical symbolism. This piece is titled simply “Book with Wings,” and I find it a fitting image for our current discussion.

The final act

So what exactly are these glimpses of this sixth and final act that Scripture gives us? The Bible describes two scenes that will take place in the sixth act. First, Jesus will return to judge the world and bring justice. Christ has already inaugurated his kingdom and new creation, and he will return to complete it. Second, the dead will be raised bodily. A lot of the church’s teachings today on the afterlife align more with Plato than Scripture. Platonism separates soul and body, prizing the former while despising the latter, yet Scripture never separates the two; we’re born a body, die a body, and will be raised a body.

The last two chapters of the biblical narrative, Revelation 21 and 22, tell us that in the end we don’t go off somewhere else to be with God but he comes here to be fully present with us. The image is of heaven and earth being married – or as some of us like to say, heaven comes crashing into earth.

While we don’t know all that the sixth act entails (this is why I keep saying “glimpses”), we do know the goal this story is moving toward is the total renewal of creation. What happened in Eden will be completely reversed in the new heavens and new earth. Humans’ relationship with God will be healed, redeemed, and restored, as will their relationship with each other and the rest of creation. Some of the main passages pointing this way are Matthew 19:28, Acts 3:21, Romans 8:19-21, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1:19-20, and 2 Peter 3:13. The breadth and scope of the picture that the New Testament paints of God’s redemption is stunning and soul stirring. As theologians Bartholomew and Goheen eloquently put it: “Just as nothing in creation remained untouched by sin after Eden, so nothing in creation can remain untouched by God’s redemption after Christ’s victory on the cross.”

witnessing faithfully to god’s future

I ended the teaching on Sunday morning with some thoughts on concrete ways the church can live into God’s future. I asked the question, “In what ways can we pattern our lives in the present that will make the sixth act become more and more a reality?” and then gave the following string of questions/suggestions to indicate ways I think we can witness faithfully to God’s future in the present:

Sharing our possessions? Resisting the idols of our culture? Caring for creation? Helping others discover who God is and develop relationship with him? Practicing an alternative economics? Honoring all of life, including the unborn and the elderly? Loving our enemies rather than shooting at them? Shining light into the darkest places of our society and taking hope into the grimmest places of our world?

One further analogy will help us move into action. Following N.T. Wright’s lead, I compared the six-act story of Scripture to a six-act play (though Wright uses a five-act play). Imagine we find a lost Shakespearian play – we have the first four acts, as well as the last (sixth) act, yet the fifth act is missing. All we have of the fifth act is its opening scene. What would we do?

We would want to bring together the best Shakespearian scholars and actors in the world and ask them to immerse themselves in the play’s script. Once they became familiar with the language and setting of the play, and more importantly its overall trajectory and plot, we would put them on a stage and ask them to act out the rest of act five through improvisation.

As we the church live in the present (fifth act), we do so in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection (fourth act) which began God’s new creation, but in anticipation of the day when all the cosmos will be fully renewed and remade (sixth act).

I hope it’s become apparent how vital it is that we know the thrust of the biblical story well. We need to feel it in our bones. But we’re called not only to know this story but also to participate in it. We need to immerse ourselves in the script (Scripture) not so we can simply recite what has happen in the past, but so we can carry the story forward through improvisation. As we do so, we’ll need consistency (with the rest of the story) and creativity (to see where it is yet to go) as we look for congruence between our daily lives and the further in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Let us continue then to pray, think, and converse about how we as the church can live into future.