The Already and the Not Yet (Part 5)
In 1883, architect Antoni Gaudi began work on a building project in Barcelona, Spain. His task: to build a cathedral called the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi dedicated his life to the project, but by the time he died in 1926, the church was only between 15 and 25 percent complete. Today, nearly 100 years after Gaudi’s death, the Sagrada Familia is still not complete. It remains a work in progress, even though it has—for decades—served in at least some capacity as a church. Even today, the hope is that the Sagrada Familia will only take 150 years to finish. But right now, it remains incomplete—usable, but incomplete. It’s already been started, already been used as a house of worship, but it’s not yet finished.
That situation—where something has already begun but not yet reached completion—is something we all experience from time to time. You’ve already accepted that offer, but not yet started your new job. Here in St. Louis, we already know that the St. Louis City Soccer Club will be playing in the stadium downtown—but they haven’t started playing yet. That road construction project has already started and (while I’m not certain it will ever really finish), it is certainly not done yet. The already and not yet—the tension between something begun and something completed—is all around us.
The already and not yet is especially evident for those of us who follow King Jesus. He has already come and been crowned King, but His kingdom is not yet here in its fullness. Like the residents of Barcelona, we’re living in the tension of the already and not yet: the reign of King Jesus has begun, but it has not yet reached its culmination.
God’s Story Continued
This article reflects on the already and not yet as part of an ongoing series examining God’s Story. As God speaks to His people through Scripture, He doesn’t just deliver isolated tidbits of information. Instead, He communicates a grand, overarching story about how He is working in history for the salvation of the world. That’s the story that the Bible tells. To recap the story so far, in the beginning God created the universe, but humanity brought distortion and death into creation. So God chose a people, who He shaped through time and circumstance, and when the time was right, He sent His Son Jesus to live, die, and rise from the dead….
This is where we ended last time around, with the proclamation that because of His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is the saving King who has come to redeem all of creation, fix what is wrong with the world, and save humanity from our sickness, sin, and death. This is the good news of Christianity and this is the climax of God’s Story: the curse of the Fall has been overturned by the work of the Saving King.
But if that’s the case, it’s only natural to ask why we still see sickness, sin, and death all around us? If Jesus has come and defeated death, why COVID? Why hatred and division? Why suffering? Why injustice? If Jesus is reigning as King, why is the world still not fixed?
Because we live in the already and not yet. We live in an in-between time: the time between the groundbreaking of the Sagrada Familia and its completion, the time between Jesus’ work on earth and the arrival of His kingdom on earth. We live in the tension, the part of the story when we already know that God wins, but have not yet seen the totality of the victory. To draw a quick historical example, we find ourselves near somewhere like the end of World War II. With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no way that the Allies would not defeat Imperial Japan. The war was won, even though skirmishes continued to break out during the month between those bombs and the actual surrender. Already and not yet.
Why This Timeline?
Of course, this raises a couple of other questions, like, why? Why does God choose to operate on this sort of timeline? Why does God not just show up like Superman or Captain Marvel and superheroically sweep away all of the bad? Why the delay? Why allow the curse of the Fall to continue poisoning the world? And second: what are we supposed to do? What is our place and role while living in this tension?
Scripture’s answer to these questions comes from the post-resurrection period of Jesus’ time on earth. After His death and resurrection, Jesus spent some time equipping His disciples before ascending to God the Father and physically leaving earth. And during that time, Jesus gave His followers a mission: to continue the work of proclaiming Him as King. In Matthew 28.18-20, Jesus says it this way: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Paralleling this statement are the instructions that Jesus gave the disciples in the book of Acts: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1.8) In other words, the job of the Church is to proclaim Jesus as King during the time of the already and not yet.
The Mission and the Work
This mission constitutes the next chapter of God’s Story: In the beginning, God created the universe, but humanity brought distortion and death into creation. So God chose a people, who He shaped through time and circumstance, and when the time was right, He sent His Son Jesus to live, die, and rise from the dead. To continue His work, God gave the Church the mission of proclaiming Jesus as King… And this part of God’s Story helps answer our questions about the already and not yet.
Why the delay? Well, as Scripture frames it, it seems like the delay occurs so that all nations have a chance to follow King Jesus. In the words of one theologian, “More peoples must first be gathered to the banquet table so that they too may taste of the renewing power of the coming age.” (Bartholomew and Goheen, 185) The good news of Jesus had to start somewhere (Jerusalem) and then grow (to Judea and Samaria) and eventually travel to the ends of the earth. This is what Jesus says will happen, this is what the New Testament book of Acts records as happening, and it’s the sort of gradual growth confirmed throughout the history of Christianity. The already and not yet lingers so that everyone has the chance to hear the good news of the Saving King.
The Work of the Church
This part of the story also helps answer the question of what followers of Jesus ought to be doing while they live in the tension of the already and not yet. By the power of the Holy Spirit (that is, that Person of the Trinity who moves and empowers those who are following God today), followers of Jesus make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey King Jesus. In other words, Jesus gives the Church the work of sharing the good news of God’s Story and continuing His work on earth, of working toward the final restoration of creation.
In order to counter the pervasive effects of the Fall, the Church has been given the task of continuing the work of Jesus in all areas of life and society. And historically, the Church has done a pretty good job of this. The creation of hospitals, care for those abandoned by society, the accessibility of education, the fight against slavery, the advancement of science, care for creation, and countless other causes have been championed by followers of Jesus. As C.S. Lewis once commented, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Because King Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth, every area of heaven and earth is accessible to the work of the Church as it fulfills its mission. The last 2,000 years of Church History have been all about followers of Jesus trying to do just this: spread the good news of the Kingdom and continue the work of God on earth.
Now, the historian in me requires that I tell you that Christians and the Church have not always done a good job of following Jesus as we’ve tried to complete this mission. In fact, there are some dark chapters of Church history, where people claiming to follow Jesus seem to have been doing anything but. This is one consequence of God entrusting this important work to His beloved but fallen creations—we still screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing. But in our best moments, the history of the Church has been one of trying to faithfully proclaim the news of King Jesus to the world and to work toward the restoration of creation.
Our Part of the Story
Now, in case you have not realized it yet, this is OUR part of the story—this is part where we come in, this is the part of the story taking place right now! Which is Christians continuing the work of the historic Church by proclaiming the good news of King Jesus to our communities, and working toward the restoration of creation. This is why many in the Church continue to prioritize understanding and applying Scripture, because faith isn’t just intellectual or practical, it’s both. Faith and action are both important.
This is also why, at our local church, we do not just talk about issues facing our world but instead do something about them. To give one example, consider our homeless outreach. Scripture commands us to care for the least of these (Matt 25.40). So we visit with them, help them come to church, bring them necessary supplies, help them stay warm and fed, get them haircuts, work with them to find jobs and turn their lives around. It’s one thing to say that we care for the least of these—and it’s another to actually live out that care. Which is why, as a church, we support homeless outreach and other ministries—because we cannot sit idly by and let brokenness reign. Our purpose as the People of God demands that we work toward wholeness and restoration.
This is what we do as we live in the tension of the already and not yet: we pursue the mission God has given us. We live as disciples who make disciples, we continue the work of Jesus.
Now, I want to dig a bit deeper into what that looks like, but instead of using our normal Story Highlights, I want to offer some story applications because this is the part of God’s Story that we are living in. So how do we do our part while living in the tension of the already and not yet?
First, we remember our place in the story. We remember what we have learned about ourselves so far in God’s Story. Creation tells us that we are made in the image of God. The Fall reveals that we are distorted, and our relationships have been damaged to the point of breaking. The Waiting shows us our need for God to intervene in our lives. The moment of Redemption in Jesus turns us toward wholeness, though it has not been realized yet. And while we live in the Already and Not Yet, we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and we look forward to our complete Restoration in the end. Keeping the big picture in mind is, I think, important for us to make sense of reality.
Second, we reflect God. In high school, I had a friend named Micah. And one time, Micah and I were raking leaves. Now, we were not raking leaves in a normal yard—no, no. We were raking leaves in a huge yard that was almost entirely covered in ivy—which (of course) made raking tremendously difficult. And so I was grumbling about what a pain it is to do this and I was so good at my grumbling that I eventually got Micah to join in with me. But a couple days later at church, he came up to me and apologized for grumbling. Which was a little shocking to me—did you find the raking frustrating, I asked? He did, and then added, “But I want to always reflect God—even if things aren’t easy. And complaining about raking those leaves wasn’t reflecting God.”
Are you reflecting God? Can people see Jesus when they look at your life? Jesus tells us that each tree is recognized by its fruit (Luke 6.44). What does your fruit say about you? Are you reflecting God in everything you do and say—even if you’re justified in being angry or upset? There is grace when you don’t; but there is also something to be said for listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit and using every opportunity as a way to reflect God as you live in the tension of the already and not yet.
Living in Our Pocket of the Kingdom
The third thing we can do is live well in our pocket of the Kingdom. In his book Recreatable, Pastor Kevin Scott writes that, “Being a disciple of Jesus is about becoming a person who reflects his glory by living well in a pocket of the kingdom.” Where is your pocket of the kingdom? Where can you love God and people? Where does your great hunger and the world’s great need meet? Where does your attention gravitate? What gives you hope in a difficult time? There is a good chance that that is your “pocket.”
Sometimes in the Church it is easy to think that only pastors or elders or leaders really do the work of ministry. But that’s not even remotely correct. You do not have to be in vocational ministry to fulfill the mission of the Church. Everyone who belongs to the Church has a role to play in the mission of the Church. As Paul tells us in Romans 12.4-5, For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We all have a role to play in the kingdom and your greatest contribution will take place through the ways you have been gifted by God. So, what’s the thing you’re doing? It can be in the Church, in the home, at work, at school, in the marketplace, online, in-person, wherever and however God has gifted and called you to work. Where is your pocket of the kingdom?
Living in the tension of the already and not yet isn’t easy and it isn’t simple. This is one reason why Christians have disagreed with and divided from one another so much throughout Church History. But amidst this tension, let us not forget the truth of the good news: Jesus has already come and been crowned King, though His kingdom is not yet here in its fullness. Like the residents of Barcelona waiting on the Sagrada Familia, we’re living in the tension of the already and not yet. The reign of King Jesus has begun, and the moment of His kingdom’s coming is soon. That moment will mark the end of the tension and, more importantly, the end of God’s Story. And assuming it doesn’t happen before next time I’m scheduled to post, I will dig into it then.
Image courtesy of LibreShot.