Monday, March 26, 2012

Praying the Lord's Prayer -- Part 2

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I have felt for some time now that these simple words capture the heart of how we should pray. After all, aren't all our cries and prayers for the salvation of friends, family and others, all our agony for the sick, injured and wounded, and all our longings for justice and shalom in the world summed up in the wish that God's kingdom would come on this earth? When God's kingdom is fully realized, when earth and heaven become one, then we will no longer need to pray for these things, because creation will be restored to the perfection that God originally gave it.

N.T. Wright in his short book The Lord and His Prayer, as well as in the other writings of his that I have read, has helped me regain a healthier focus on the interaction between heaven and earth. Prior to reading his writings I would have described heaven as some other place that we go to when we die. I would have emphasized the temporal nature of this earth and this life, regretting its fallen nature and the implications this has for all of creation. I would have encouraged myself and others to strive to live godly lives so that we could enjoy the fruit of it in that future heavenly place. I would have read this phrase from the Lord's Prayer with the emphasis on that future day when we, the redeemed, will enjoy the fulness of God's kingdom in heaven.

I cannot do full justice to Wright's perspective and would encourage readers to pick up his books and read them for yourselves. In addition to the volume we're looking at here, I particularly recommend his book Surprised by Hope, which led to this profound shift in my own understanding of heaven, salvation and a host of related areas. In the work at hand Wright reminds us that this statement, this cry for God's kingdom to come, was fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus.

“Jesus' first followers, to their own great surprise, quickly came to believe that God's kingdom had come, and his will had been done....They believed that in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus the whole cosmos had turned the corner from darkness to light. The Kingdom was indeed here, though it differed radically from what they had imagined.”

I think (and hope!) that most Christians recognize somewhere in their conceptual theology what Jesus' first followers understood. But practically the Church, in particular the evangelical American church, has come to speak and act as if the arrival of God's kingdom was very much a future event, one that will happen at the end of time as we know it. The focus has shifted to the future and we have lost the recognition that God's kingdom has already been initiated in this world. We have, as Wright argues in Surprised by Hope, lost sight of the significance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. A key part of that, he reminds us, is that God in Jesus is redeeming and transforming this world and restoring it to the perfection it originally had. At some future point in time that process will be completed and, Wright says, heaven will come here on earth. Heaven, he tells us in Surprised by Hope, is not someplace out there. It's the fulfillment of the creation he originally began, in which we still live and in which he is still working.

Of course his Kingdom is not yet complete. We all recognize that, no matter how optimistic we are.  This should not surprise nor dismay us, for “The Kingdom did indeed come with Jesus; but it will fully come when the world is healed, when the whole creation joins in the song." We pray these words Jesus gave us not because we long for some future time when we shall be rescued out of this fallen world into the heavenly realms where all will be perfect. No, we pray them because we are joining with Jesus in asking God to complete her work of redeeming and transforming this fallen creation. 

“We look immediately out upon the whole world that he made, and we see it as he sees it....See it with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation; and see it with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself.”

We need not pray for the coming of God's Kingdom and will as an escape from the harsh realities of this fallen world. Rather we pray for them to be fully realized because we understand that God loves this fallen world. We pray it because we desire to join Jesus in being agents of grace and transformation here and now. We pray it because we believe that God desires the healing of his world and that she will accomplish this, because the process began in and receives its power from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way."

Now that's a prayer that I can get excited about.

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