Our Christian confession captures a remarkable link between grace and the city: the sacrifice offered outside the city gates occasions the New Jerusalem. Both are necessary, yet neither, alone, is sufficient. This is why.
We are not materialists or consumerists. Our great hope lies beyond the city: in the God of life who gave life outside the city gates. “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate . . . outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:12, 13). The answer to our deepest needs and perennial aches will not be found in an election, a development, a program, or a culture shift, important though they may be. Our eternal hopes do not rest on the finite. Charles Matthewes says:
“We must cultivate the right sorts of dissatisfactions—attending to the moments of dissatisfaction and, instead of dismissing them or downplaying their significance, we should acknowledge them as telling us something of the truth about our world, and our hopes for full and permanent happiness within it. We should feel an appropriate measure of “restlessness,” a longing for something we know we will not fully find here, and a refusal to accept the false idols that we throw up for ourselves as distractions.”
Shortcuts to satisfaction must be set aside. Restlessness need not prove overwhelming if the promise of grace takes hold of us from the outside and we place our trust in Him. While the city does not bring us light from within, the sun really does shine down from above it.
SEEKING A BETTER CITY
We are not spiritualists or Gnostics who dismiss or denigrate earthly culture, but we await our great hope in the city: in the God who has life in himself and gave life for the city yet to come, the New Jerusalem. “We seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). As Shirley Guthrie observes:
“Any spirituality, including supposedly Christian spirituality that retreats from the world into the self-serving piety of a private religious life is a false spirituality that !ees rather than seeks God. True Christian spirituality cheerfully and confidently plunges into the life of our dirty, sinful, confused world, for there is where we meet the Spirit of the triune God who is present and at work not to save people from but in and for the sake of that world—the world that was and is and will be God’s world.”
God made this material world and called it good. God gave us a body and named it very good. God took fleshly form and highly exalted it in the person of Jesus. In him we have the pledge of resurrected life and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. C. S. Lewis famously mentioned that God seems not to be embarrassed by using water, bread, and wine to grant grace, and we should not be snootier than the Almighty. It is profoundly important to remember the earthly shape of our spiritual destiny: transfiguration, not annihilation.
FOLLOWING IN CHRIST’S FOOTSTEPS
How shall we live in light of these two truths? By faith and in love. We entrust ourselves to God, and we love others with whom our lives are entangled as neighbors within the city.
We must turn to Christ rather than culture or community for our life: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb. 13:13). As we do so we can be content, for he has promised: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). This unshakeable hope enables us to go straight to others in love and self-sacrifice: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16). Such love is shown to other Christians: “Let brotherly love continue” (Heb. 13:1). But it is also poured out upon the needy and the alien: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2). Martin Luther, influenced by these verses from Hebrews, insisted that the “Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly free servant of all, subject to all.”
Knowing that our hope comes from heaven and blesses the earth frees us for beautifully entangled service in the nooks and crannies of everyday civic existence through grace, which comes from outside the city for the city. †
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*This article was in the winter 2013 issue of Knox Now. See the full magazine here: