God’s Future in Person

Romans 6.3–11; Luke 24.1–12

a sermon for the Easter Vigil, with Baptism and Confirmation, April 8 2007
at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and Cuthbert, Durham

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

Nearly thirty years ago, my family and I lived in Cambridge. One day I went, with my then four-year-old daughter, to visit a man who had been with my brother in India not long before. This involved going into one of the Colleges, across a strange little footbridge, round an ancient courtyard, through some twisty passageways, and up two or three flights of old wooden stairs. It was winter, and though it was only about tea-time it was quite dark, with twinkling lights here and there to guide us. I had explained to my daughter that we were going to see this man who had known Uncle Stephen in India. So off we went, across the bridge, round the courtyard, through the passageways, under the twinkling lights, and up the staircase. As we got to the top of the stairs, my daughter, whose eyes had been getting wider and wider, looked up at me, breathless and excited, and asked, ‘Are we in India now?’

And the answer was, of course, No, we’re not in India, but someone who has come from India is here, and he will tell us all about it. And it’s only just dawned on me, all these years later, that it’s not a bad illustration for what Easter is all about, and for what we’re doing up at this – well, I was going to say ungodly, but part of the point is that it’s a thoroughly godly hour. The question of Easter, and of baptism and confirmation, is: are we in God’s promised future now? And the answer is, No, but someone has come back to us from God’s future, and if we stick with him we’ll belong to that future as well and will learn how to be part of it. At Easter, Jesus came to us from God’s future, from the new world which God has begun to make. In baptism we become part of that same future, and in confirmation we stand up and say Yes, I’m part of God’s future world, and I pray for God’s Spirit to help me make it a reality in my life and in the world around me.

Or let’s put it another way. You know that when it’s ten o’clock in the evening here it’s already ten o’clock in the morning in Australia? Perhaps you have friends or relatives in Australia or New Zealand, and sometimes they may phone you, forgetting what time it is here, and they wake you up in the middle of the night. Well, what happens with the resurrection is like this. This whole world is still in the old time – ten o’clock at night, if you like. Evil and death are still at work. We’re all still asleep and we think nothing is ever going to be different. But suddenly we get – not a phone call, but a visit, from someone who is living in New Time. He is already in the new day. He, Jesus, has gone through death and out into God’s new world, God’s new creation, and to our astonishment he’s come forwards into our world, which is still in Old Time, to tell us that the day has in fact dawned and that even though we feel sleepy and it still seems dark out there the new world has begun and we’d better wake up and get busy.

That, of course, is part of what the gospel writers were trying to tell us with their stories about very early morning, and people running to and fro, and discovering that something had happened which they weren’t expecting, for which they weren’t ready, and which both fulfilled their wildest dreams and turned those same dreams inside out and upside down in the process. And unless you’re prepared to have something like that happen to you, you’d be better off staying in bed instead of coming here at crack of dawn to have the water of Jesus’ victory over death splashed over you, to watch God’s new fire and to pray for that fire to be lit by the Spirit inside you.

But what is God’s new world? What is this great future we’re talking about? What does it mean to say that Jesus is coming to us from that future? How does it work to say that we can be part of it already, in advance, and live in New Time while the Old Time is still going on all around us?

God’s future is, quite simply, his new heavens and new earth. The Bible doesn’t speak, as so many Christians imagine, of a disembodied heaven, but rather of new heavens and new earth. And the point about God’s future world is that it will be more real, more solid, more tangible and visible and tasteable than the present world. And that for a good reason: the present world is full of corruption and decay, of violence and sorrow and sin and death. But the whole point is that what God has decided to do about all this, precisely because he’s the creator who loves the world he made, is to do away with all that corruption and sorrow and death and so leave the way clear for the world to be renewed from top to bottom, so that everything that’s pure and lovely and beautiful and noble and wise will shine out all the more brightly. That is the future world which we are promised – which the ancient Jewish people were already promised in their scriptures; all because God is the good creator who has promised to set his world right in the end.

And what Jesus did was to bring the plan forward so that instead of it happening at the end of history, it happened, decisively, in and through him, in the middle of history. He took all the corruption and decay, all the violence and evil and betrayal and sorrow and agony and death itself, on to himself. He went to the place where it would do its worst, and it did. That’s what Good Friday is all about. But precisely because he did that, he has made a way through, and has left the way clear for the world to be renewed from top to bottom – which is precisely what began to happen on the first Easter morning, starting with Jesus’ own physical body itself. The resurrection is the sign, among many other things, that God’s new creation has begun, that the future has come bursting into the present like someone phoning from Australia when it’s two in the morning, or like someone who we thought was in India suddenly showing up on the doorstep.

But if God’s future has arrived in Jesus, how do we get in on the act? From the very beginning, the church has answered: baptism and faith. (Confirmation, as I expect most of you know, is how people who were baptised as infants make the baptismal promises good for themselves.) Sometimes people worry about baptism because it involves a very physical act, of splashing someone under water, and they wonder, How can something spiritual, something about our hearts and our true selves, be brought about by an outward physical act like that? The answer, or part at least of the answer, is that God’s new world is going to be robustly physical, and, just as the bread and wine at the Eucharist come to us as gifts from God’s future world, as bits of creation already transformed and filled to the brim with the glory of God, so the water of baptism, and the act and fact of someone going under it and coming up again, is also part of the future reality – of God’s future overcoming of death and establishing of new creation – coming rushing forward into the present for this person, now, and all because of Jesus himself. Baptism is therefore a coming true for them, body as well as spirit, of the new creation in which evil and death are conquered by the death of Jesus and in which the new life of Jesus’ resurrection becomes real for them through the Spirit. That’s what St Paul was talking about in our Epistle. And Christian faith, which together with baptism is the badge of membership in God’s people, is what happens when someone looks at Jesus and recognises who he is and what he’s done. The two go closely together. Baptism re-enacts Jesus’ death and resurrection and therefore pre-enacts our own sharing in God’s future world. Faith looks with gratitude on Jesus’ death and resurrection and rests all its weight on him, and on those events, for its own present and future rescue and glory.

That is why Easter on the one hand, and baptism on the other, are the launching-pads for the church’s mission. Let’s be quite clear. The church’s mission isn’t about telling more and more people that if they accept Jesus they will go to heaven. That is true, as far as it goes (though we ought to be telling them about the new heavens and new earth rather than just ‘heaven’), but it’s not the point of our mission. The point is that if God’s new creation has already begun, those of us who have been wakened up in the middle of the night are put to work to make more bits of new creation happen within the world as it still is. And that is why we need to leave behind on the cross all the bits and pieces of the old creation that have made us sad, that have drawn us, too, down into evil, into lying and cheating and greed and selfishness, that have blighted our lives and the lives of others around us. Paul is quite crisp about this: all that stuff must be left behind in the deep water of baptism, in other words, on the cross of Jesus Christ. Instead, we are given a new life, with a new purpose: to be part of God’s new creation, already here and now; to be people of the light, even though the world still seems dark; to be people who live by New Time even though Old Time is still rumbling on. And that means not only becoming new people ourselves, as we keep in step with the Spirit and learn how to be the people God made us to be and longs for us to be. That’s important, and it will take a lot of prayer and work and thought and determination. But it also means becoming part of God’s greater, much greater, purposes for his world. Part of the challenge of Easter, and part of the particular challenge of Baptism, is to pray for wisdom and vision to see where God can and will make new creation happen in our lives, in our hearts, in our homes and not least in our communities. That, quite simply, is what the mission of the church is all about, and every baptized Christian is called to be a part of it.

So this morning we celebrate God’s future arriving in the present, and our call to be part of it. Just one final thing: remember that the women were scared stiff when they found the tomb empty, and that the disciples reckoned their story was just stupid, idle talk. You are going to hear voices whispering, either in your head or from people not far away, telling you much the same thing: don’t be silly, it can’t be true, and if it was it would be so scary it would hurt. Well, yes, it is scary, but it isn’t an idle tale. It’s the sober, daytime truth. Don’t look for the living among the dead. Jesus is risen; he’s on the move; and he’s calling you to join him in making God’s new creation happen, right here and right now.