I trust it was a happy Resurrection Day for everyone yesterday. Even if it wasn’t particularly easy, remember: there is a new king in town.
Speaking of kings, back to N.T. Wright’s new book. When last we left our hero, he had taken a detour through the land of confusion, where the gospel stories have meant less to Western readers than they really mean to say. Chapter 9, to which we now turn, revisits the four dimensions discussed earlier in the book (the fulfillment of the story of Israel, the story of Jesus as the story of God, the launching of the renewed people of God, and the clash of kingdoms). Now, though, Wright argues that kingdom and cross – glory and disgrace, if you will – are and must be intimately tied. To put it another way, both Jesus’ life and his death are crucial to all four aspects of the narrative.
As far as the story of Israel is concerned, suffering and death has always been foreseen as fundamental to the nation’s vocation. This, of course, will not be news to most of us – at least, not once we’ve been reminded of the evidence. Psalm 22, which Jesus declares from the cross, depicts a death and vindication process for Israel. So too, famously do the so-called servant songs in Isaiah (see especially chapters 40-55). Israel’s representative “servant” was always supposed to suffer unto death as the means to his ascension to world’s throne.
Just as Jesus was the representative of Israel, he is also the representative of God. For Wright, this all comes together in John 10. There the Father and Jesus are one (v. 30). There is an allusion to a worldwide kingdom being established (the “other sheep” in v. 16), and it comes about through the death of the shepherd (v. 11).
What of the church, the renewed people of God? How do kingdom and cross collide there? A couple of direct quotes from Wright should suffice here. First,
we should not be surprised … that the early Christians understood their vocation as Jesus’s followers to include, as a central and load-bearing element, their own suffering, misunderstanding, and likely death. … The suffering of Jesus’s followers is actually, like Jesus’s own suffering, not just the inevitable accompaniment to the accomplishing of the divine purpose, but actually itself part of the means by which that purpose is to be fulfilled. (198-99, emphasis original)
Every one of us, myself firstly included, ought to pause at such statements with great humility.
Do kingdoms clash at the cross? If a significant strand of the gospel stories is the conflict between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s, what has the cross to do with it? Here Wright makes a comment that, to my mind, is crucial in understanding the clash of kingdoms in the gospels. (And in my opinion, this is one place I wish Wright would say more.) There is an understanding throughout the gospels that there are dark spiritual powers that lie behind the human rulers opposing Jesus. Anyway, the shock of the gospels is that it is precisely at the cross that evil powers are defeated. It is as if the Father allowed evil to hone in on the Son and do its worst on him, who represents the Father. Thereby the evil of the worldly kingdoms is ultimately and utterly spent. And how did that turn out a few days later?