Let me begin with a question this morning. When you think about the future, what do you imagine? When you think about the future, what do you feel or think or imagine? We could answer this question in terms of our own immediate future – in terms of what’s going to happen in my and your life in the next 5 to 10 years – what do I feel or think or imagine in terms of my own future. But this morning I’m inviting us to think more widely about the future – to think in terms of the future of our society.
Let’s think about Canada 100 years from now, in the year 2114. If you were to think about what Canadian society might look like in a hundred years, what do you imagine. On Canada day, July 1st, 2114, what will Canadian society look like?
Maybe we can help ourselves think about this by doing so in terms of a question you might be asked for a poll, for a sondage. You might get a phone call at home, and be asked a series of questions – and one of the questions might be something like this. Are things in Canada getting: Much worse, worse, better, or much better? What would you say? When you think about the future, what do you imagine?
In a way of course, it’s a hard question. What do we mean by “worse”, and what do we mean by “better”? Are we measuring the economy; are we measuring human health; are we measuring our ability exercise basic human freedoms; are we measuring the state of the environment around us. To complicate things, maybe we think that some things will better worse, and maybe some things will get better. So perhaps it’s a complicated question whether things are getting better or worse in Canada. But if you were asked this question in the most general terms, and if you gave a quick reply, what would be your sense of the future. Are things getting worse, or are they getting better.
I’ve been thinking about this a little bit over the past two weeks as I read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This trilogy has been all the rage with young readers and also with adult readers – and of course there are now movies to go along with the books. Part of the reason I read the series was because Tabea was reading it and I wanted to be able to talk with her about the themes and content of the books.
The Hunger Games series is at some level futuristic – it’s a kind of science fiction. The story is set within North America some time after the collapse of civilization as it was known. The twelve remaining districts, as they are called, are controlled and manipulated and oppressed by a central power known as The Capitol. Of course there have been plenty of books written along this line – stories that tell of some future day when an apocalyptic event has struck society – when there is centralized social and economic control – where there is an overpowering surveillance state – where hunger and oppression and a lack of freedom are the new normal. In these kinds of books, the possibility of a deeply threatening future is imagined.
We’ll come back to these kinds of futuristic ideas in a moment, but before we do I want us to stop and ask what our faith has to say about our future. Or to make it a more personal question: When you think about the future; when you imagine the future; whether it is your own future or the wider future of society; what difference does your faith make? Or does it make any difference at all? In fact the New Testament has much to say about faith and the future. And if we take seriously what the New Testament says about faith and the future, it will make a very real difference not only in terms of how we think about the future, but in terms of how we live now.
In our passage for today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the apostle writes these words: “In Christ you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you had believed in Christ, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”
Paul is saying, first of all, that there is some inheritance we will receive – some future gift that will be given to us – some future reality that will define our lives. And he is also saying that this future inheritance or gift or reality touches our lives even now through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people. The Holy Spirit is the promise that future Paul speaks of is already and really ours
But what is that future inheritance? What is that future gift? What is that future reality that defines us? Well we can say this much – it’s not merely the promise of heaven. The writings of Paul and of Jesus aren’t simply about some future day when we’ll get to heaven – perhaps when we die, or some time later. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives isn’t just a source of joy or happiness or peace because we know we will be with God in heaven one day.
No, that future inheritance is life in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. As the new testament scholar Tom Wright puts it: “One day all of creation will be rescued from slavery, from the corruption, decay and death which deface its beauty, destroy its relationships, remove the sense of God’s presence from it, and make it a place of injustice, violence, and brutality.” Within the New Testament, and within the gospels, the kingdom of God has arrived in and through Jesus Christ – his death is the end of violence and alienation and hatred and sin – his resurrection is the new life of our world and of our lives – a new way of living together in beauty and goodness and righteousness. That is the future. That is our inheritance.
Is that what we think about when you think about the future. When we think about the future – whether our own personal future, or the future of our society and our world – is that the reality that we anticipate – is that the reality we look forward to. Or is our imagination more constricted – more narrow – less hopeful – or is our imagination shaped by other possibilities?
I want to go back for a moment to The Hunger Games and to its basic theme. When we think about the future of human society, there are two extreme possibilities that we will find in literature and in the arts. The Hunger Games, and literature of this kind, represents one extreme on the spectrum – and that one extreme is labeled a dystopia. Literature of this kind imagines a future and a world where everything falls apart; a society where social order crumbles; a society where basic freedoms are lost; a society where the basic functioning of society fails, and where the environment is severely degraded. In such a dystopian vision of the future, we are usually perceived as victims – victims of come apocalyptic event or of a central tyrannical government.
If on the one extreme there is dystopia, on the other extreme there is the possibility of a future utopia. A utopian vision imagines confident human progress – upward and onward, things getting better and better – leaving behind the darkness and confusion of the past – moving ever forward in human wisdom toward a beautiful future of harmony and peace and love. This vision of inevitable progress has always tugged at the human imagination – it became particularly powerful at the end of the 19th century – but then it crashed very hard against the rocks of World War I and World War II. There remains a streak of optimism in western culture – a streak that says we can build a utopia – a world without war or violence or sickness. If the dystopian vision is one in which we are inevitably victims – victims of some calamity, or victims of some evil force – then the utopian vision is thought of as a future that we must create, build, imagine.
Jules de Balincourt is a French artist who lives much of the year in the U.S., and he recently had an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Montreal. He is an artist whose work plays around in some sense with questions of the future – he explores these two extreme possibilities. Here is one of his paintings that represents the theme of dystopia – it is entitled simply “empty billboard”. Something has happened, society has fallen apart, and it’s represented by an old decrepit billboard, with old notices that are now faded and meaningless. This image can represent one vision of the future – a vision in which we are victims – in which we lose control, and everything falls apart. Dystopia.
And here is another of his paintings, which pushes toward the other end of the spectrum – toward the utopian – it’s entitled BBQ sur l’herbe. BBQ on the grass. In a way this piece will simply seem normal and everyday to us in these summer months – but when it is set among his other words, it has a utopian feel to it. We will overcome difference, we will live in easy proximity, we will build a society defined by peace and prosperity and love for all. Utopia.
But how, then do we fit God’s future – our future – into all of this? In the midst of these ways of thinking, how does the resurrection life of Jesus – the kingdom of the living Jesus – fit? We remember again that Tom Wright describes the kingdom inaugurated Jesus in this way: “One day all of creation will be rescued from slavery, from the corruption, decay and death which deface its beauty, destroy its relationships, remove the sense of God’s presence from it, and make it a place of injustice, violence, and brutality.”
Certainly this represents simply a refusal of dystopia – it represents a refusal of the idea that the future means everything falls apart – that there must be social chaos and environmental degradation and manipulation and violence. That is not the future of our world. If faith in risen Jesus means anything, it means some degree of hopeful confidence that his kingdom is coming to our world. Things may get worse, but they will not finally be worse.
But on the other side, our world’s future in Jesus Christ is also not a utopian vision. A utopia, as we’ve said, is something we have to create; something we have to achieve; something we have to imagine; something we have to accomplish. And one of the general lessons of history is that any attempt to create a utopia – to create a paradise on earth – inevitably involves the control and manipulation of others for its achievement. Rather than treating humans as persons who must learn and mature and contribute, the quest for a utopia often means treating people as pieces on a game board to be manipulated and shaped for the purposes of whatever future is imagined.
The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not something we have to accomplish; it is not something we have to achieve; it is not something we have to manipulate others into. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not some distant utopia toward which we are striving. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is the future of our world, but that future is breaking into our present now, by the moving of the Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit blows in our world the way and goodness and love of Jesus is becoming a reality in our world. As the Holy Spirit moves, lives and hearts and characters and communities are renewed and restored in the love of Jesus. Christian spirituality is about getting in touch with what the Holy Spirit is doing to bring the future to our world today.
In this short sermon series, we began last week by speaking about the Holy Spirit as the presence of God with and in the creation. So that in the creation itself we may encounter and know and be blessed by the God who is creator – the God who remains present to that world in a deep and meaningful way.
The same Holy Spirit is bringing the kingdom of the risen Jesus into our present. A defining feature of our faith is the Spirit’s presence to the creation and to human lives and communities. A defining feature of our faith is the promise that what the Spirit realizes among us now, is just a foretaste of the beautiful future that God is giving to human community. Lives of faithfulness; lives of love; lives of mutual service; communities of that live in obedience to the good and grand purposes of God.
In the next three weeks we will say more about how the Spirit works among his people. We will say more about the shape of the Spirit-led life. But this morning we simply want to recognize and affirm the future of our world – not a dystopian horror in which we are ultimately victims – not a utopian world we have to create or manipulate others into. But a future with Christ in his kingdom – his rule – his goodness – his love. Thanks be to God for the Spirit, bringing that future to our lives. Amen