Selections on New Creation Week 1
Director, Center for Biblical and Theological Education
On the afternoon of June 5, 2014, a young man entered the SPU campus and began a violent shooting episode that ended with one student dead, Paul Lee, several others injured, and our community wounded by fear, grief and shock. Much has been written and considerable media attention has focused on this tragic event. We have lamented, prayed, and come together to worship in distress, numbness, and hope. And by God’s grace, good came in the midst of devastation. As we cried and counseled, the outpouring of love and care from around the world was palpable. As we celebrated our seniors, the Paul Lee Foundation was formed to address the needs of the mentally ill. As the site of the shooting was under renovation, we attempted to “touch bottom” and return to some semblance of normalcy on campus. It has been said that SPU will never be the same; we trust that by God’s providence this may be a good thing as we learn to give and receive forgiveness and love in new ways.
Yet many questions remain. How do we face the harsh, frightening reality of a world so shattered and broken that this mentally ill young man, intent on feeling his hatred, would stop taking his meds and wreak such havoc and fury randomly? How do we acknowledge our anger and yet live out our call to be a Christ-centered “grace-filled community,” especially in a long term, sustainable way? When we say we will never be the same, what does that practically look like? How do we consider not only our own need for healing and wholeness, but lovingly engage a world where many live in war-torn existence and terror on a daily basis?
These and many other questions reverberate for our SPU community as we journey toward healing. Furthermore, these questions create a powerful subtext for engagement with Scripture. As a Christian community marked not only by this tragedy and its penetrating aftermath, but by a signature commitment to “embrace the Christian story,” we approach God’s word with a poignant “So what?” question. Can our world really be changed by an encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ via God’s holy word? Can we? How do we explore God’s New Creation in the midst of our brokenness?
Guided by Seattle Pacific University School of Theology faculty, we have been on a Lectio pilgrimage from Genesis to Revelation through narrative, Torah, prophecy, poetry, wisdom writings, gospels, letters, and apocalyptic literature. We have encountered a wide cast of characters — from the nondescript, nameless man in Shechem who directs Joseph to his brothers (Genesis 37:12–17) to the unnamed woman in Mark’s gospel who anoints Jesus in preparation for his burial (Mark 14:3–9). Visual images have illuminated every account from the Ten Commandments (via the All Souls Deuteronomy) to the resurrection of Christ (via William Blake’s eerie The Three Marys at the Sepulchre). We have listened to the parables of Jesus, the oracles of Isaiah, and the poetry of the Psalms. We’ve studied accounts of the downwardly spiraling Judges and the wisdom of Solomon, ridden the roller coaster of Pentecost, and attended to the epistles of Paul. But so what? What does this mean for how we live our lives as individuals and as a community? What does it tell us about the suffering world we seek to engage and about the God who redeems it and redeems us?
To answer these questions requires a lifelong endeavor. So to suggest a quick, simple wrap-up of the entire biblical revelation is preposterous. However, by God’s grace we can sketch a frame around the sprawling (and at points exasperating), grand collection of writings called the Bible. And as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it is possible to do so in such a way that the “So what?” question can begin to be addressed. Absurd as such an enterprise may seem — to outline the two testaments, the sixty-six books written in three languages over hundreds of years by more than forty authors — it is nevertheless a useful step in making sense of what otherwise may seem nonsensical. With this big picture, we can begin to see the forest of God’s redemption in spite of many confusing biblical “trees.” Even a loose frame provides guidance en route.
Sam Wells, in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, sets forth an intriguing metaphor that offers helpful perspective on this dense “scriptural forest.” [Author’s Note 1] Wells amends a concept from N.T. Wright to propose Scripture as a five-act play, a drama that begins and ends with God. [Author’s Note 2]
Wells’ amendments can be summarized as follows:
- Act I – Creation (and humanity’s fall)
- Act II – Israel
- Act III – Jesus
- Act IV – the Church
- Act V – New Creation
This “theo-drama” forms a context in which our day-to-day lives become improvisations based on biblical patterns. The more we saturate ourselves in the various threads of Scripture, the more our improvisations can be in-line with the sweep and purpose of God’s grand salvation story, and the more capable we will be to speak and act with innovation and consistency. [Author’s Note 3] These threads form a beautiful tapestry, a theo-drama in which God is the central character and in which we can participate. Via this metanarrative we gain perspective on our own story and can begin to answer the “So what?” question. [Author’s Note 4] However, such a portrait necessitates a wide-angle lens to frame the snapshots of our lives. When we narrow our existence to a one-act play in which everything revolves around us as the primary actors, the “So what?” question quickly shrivels into a trivial self-centeredness.
The movie As Good As It Gets illustrates this point. Jack Nicholson plays the egocentric Melvin Udall, a man who crouches alone in his apartment, detests everyone, ironically grinds out romantic novels for lonely women, and unhappily exists in fear-based obsession. He despises his work, neighbors, and any who seek what he sees as the absurdity of a higher meaning. Without a larger reference point, he’s given up on the “So what?” question, and as a result his life is defined by the lie that “This is as good as it gets.” Melvin’s wretched, petty existence is the poster child for a one-act play with the miserable headliner: “It’s all about me.”
The first act of God’s epic drama brings much needed perspective to Melvin and to us. Genesis 1 paints a fully orbed, beautifully symmetrical picture of God’s power in creation as God repeatedly calls forth life and calls out the goodness in each scene. It culminates in the creation of humanity in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and in God’s proclamation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:31). Our physical selves and God’s created, material universe are not only good but by God’s definition are very good.
The creation account in Genesis 2, told from another vantage point, is set in the Garden of Eden and focuses on relationships. Yahweh intimately forms man out of the dust of the ground and breathes life into his nostrils (2:7). This intimacy continues as Yahweh gives the man the garden to tend, speaks directly with him, and brings him the beasts of the field and the birds of the air to name (2:19). Here we see a picture of God’s intent for life-giving relationships: Yahweh in relationship with humanity, and humanity in relationship with creation.
But with the repeated verse “and God saw that it was good” ringing in our ears from chapter 1, we are introduced in this second account to something that, strikingly, is not good! “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (2:18). What? How can an ordered, complete, very good universe from chapter 1 now include something “not good” in chapter 2? And even before the fall in chapter 3? Here in the paradise of Eden what is not good is the absence of relationship with another person. This resonates with our human experience – indeed it is not good to be alone. Yahweh acts to fill this critical deficit by causing Adam to fall into a deep sleep, then he takes Adam’s rib and creates woman (2:22). And in response, we hear Adam speak for the first time: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23).
Melvin’s dismal, forlorn existence should be viewed in light of this act of Yahweh: indeed, it is not good for a human (even a hypercritical, narcissistic, grumpy hypochondriac) to be alone. And by God’s grace, aloneness isn’t as good as it gets! Rather, Genesis gives us a terse, compelling phrase to describe Adam and Eve’s relationship: they are naked and unashamed (2:25). These words define the best that God intends, what we deeply long for and were created for: to be fully known and fully loved. By the end of Act I in Genesis 2 we see a complete set of pure, whole, and healthy relationships: 1) humanity in intimacy with Yahweh, 2) humanity receiving from and caring for creation, and 3) humanity in right relationship with each other.
However, this first act of the drama doesn’t conclude with the man and the woman here. Rather, Genesis 3 narrates the fall — humanity’s disobedient response. And its fallout (pun intended) is a disastrous three-fold break. Rather than trust in Yahweh’s best, Adam and Eve rebelliously grab for something good, and as a result, every relationship in their lives is ruptured. The intimacy and trust between them and Yahweh is gone. When Yahweh walks in the garden in the cool of the day they hide in shame (3:8). When Yahweh learns of their disobedience, he tells Eve, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16), and man’s relationship to others, specifically to women, is now characterized by rule rather than trust. To Adam, Yahweh says, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you […] by the sweat of your face” (3:17–19) and the interactions of humanity with creation from this point on are distorted. Thus ends the first act of God’s story: relationships ruptured.
But by God’s grace, this isn’t the end of the story! In Act II God calls forth Israel to be a light to the nations, a source of healing and hope. Wells calls this act “a love story, in which Israel strives with God, unable to live with him and unable to live without him…” [Author’s Note 5] God loves Israel as his bride, and intends for Israel to bring about God’s purposes among all people. And though there is much grace in this love story, its fruit does not bring about the world’s much-needed complete restoration. At the end of the Old Testament Israel waits in longing for the fulfillment of a promised Messiah.
Drama is heightened in Act III, the defining action of the play, when God as author further reveals God’s character and enters the stage. The prologue of John announces, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). In Jesus, this Word-become-flesh, what was broken at the end of Act I can now begin to be made right. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:19–20). In the three scenes of Act III, God acts to provide complete reconciliation: God sends God’s son Jesus to dwell with us and show us how to live (Scene 1 — Immanuel), Jesus bears our sin and shame through His sacrifice (Scene 2 – Crucifixion), and God in Christ overcomes death and its power (Scene 3 – Resurrection). Thanks be to God!
Today through the work of the Holy Spirit this drama shifts gears into a living and breathing autobiography. Christ’s “blood applied” means God’s great story becomes our story as we are transformed by God’s saving grace and we can embrace freedom, healing and redemption. At the opening of Act IV, God pours out his Spirit and births the Church. The drama continues as the Holy Spirit empowers us to improvise on what we know from Acts I, II, and III in light of what we trust is yet to come. Thus our day-to-day existence is not an end in itself, but is part of God’s larger scheme. Ours is an “already/not yet” era. Though we live as part of a fragmented and sinful world, by the Holy Spirit we as the Church cooperate with God to bring about His purposes: the full reconciliation and healing of all relationships. By grace transformed, we operate not on the basis of what is now seen (“This is as good as it gets”), but we operate by faith and in the light of what is not yet known.
Our best improvisations, our lives of holiness today anticipate the glory of New Creation in Act V when God’s shining “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1) replace the fragmentation of our present age. Melvin and all of us desperately need this picture of hope. By the end of the book of Revelation, all relationships are restored as God’s shalom comes on earth and God’s good and perfect kingdom reigns. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (21:3). The rupture between humanity and Yahweh is to be thoroughly repaired in Act V.
Likewise, the damaged relationship between humankind and others is to be completely reconciled. In this new Jerusalem, the glory of God becomes the city’s lamp, and the nations that have been warring for generations now walk in God’s light and in the healing he provides (21:24). Finally, in this eternal home no antagonism lingers between humanity and creation, as the text simply declares, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore” (22:2–3). As Isaac Watts declares in “Joy to the World”: “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” In new creation, all that has been broken is restored, all that was damaged is healed, all that was ruptured is reconciled.
Today, in the midst of countless unnamed tragedies, we as God’s people long for this restoration. And I believe our tired and troubled world longs as well for this complete reconciliation where God’s kingdom is come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. As we are shaped by the arc of God’s great salvation story, our little lives take on significance. As we live in anticipation of the final act, even the most Melvin-esque among us can know God’s goodness as we trustingly wait for that which is truly “as good as it gets.” As we see ourselves within the scope of God’s comprehensive redemption consummated in Act V, we become spirit-filled participants and live into a new creation that is already but not yet.
By the power of the Holy Spirit and via an exploration of God’s new creation, this Lectio series purposes to empower us to daily improvise our lives as reconciling agents within Act IV of God’s drama. We will hear from a group of Seattle Pacific University theologians, scholars, and practitioners who will guide us through a three-part look at this reconciliation: 1) humanity’s reconciliation with God, 2) humanity’s reconciliation with others, and 3) humanity’s reconciliation with creation.
May God’s spirit guide us into all truth as we consider and claim God’s all-sufficient grace. And may we be led more deeply into God’s new creation — into what C.S. Lewis calls our “real country,” where we live in the fullness of God’s goodness.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now […] Come further up, come further in!” [Author’s Note 6]
Thanks be to God!
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