I am writing this from a place in Aotearoa NZ which could be called Paradise. Many years ago, when living in England but destined to next live in Paradise, a visiting Australian academic told me that he had recently visited Paradise and thought it was the best city in the world. When I arrived here six days ago the weather was a little bleak and I struggled for a day or two without a light top to put over my shirt. But the last three to four days have been perfect, especially yesterday and today: cloudless sky and the sun shining with a brightness peculiar to this place (apply sun tan lotion copiously). So the joy of summer has been warm sun, bright sky, peace in my relaxed heart, and swimming. Lots of swims. To the point where I wonder if the Seer got it right in Revelation 15:2 when he saw a 'sea of glass' in heaven (an image sometimes explained as representing victory over ancient Jewish fear of the sea and its chaotic storms). Surely heaven will include a sparkling blue pool of water in which swimming and diving give endless pleasure!
Sitting in a cafe yesterday with a friend I received a wonderful insight into the obstacles our faith in Christ face in this fair land of ours. Having recently journeyed to a depressed and destitute country where he experienced proclamation of the gospel in the context of tragic death in terms of heaven being a 'better place' he made the observation to me that here on earth where life is experienced as 'paradise' no one wants to leave this life for the next. In a pleasant cafe on a perfect summer's day, the point was well made and easily absorbed.
Yes, we have a grizzle here and there (and lots more grizzles in Christchurch where I now live and work) but generally speaking, in the age of perfect coffees, brilliant technologies, cures for most diseases, abundantly stocked supermarkets and a benign climate, here in 'God's Own' country there is not a lot of pressure to yearn for heaven. There are many incentives to live as long as possible in order to experience paradise endlessly.
This year I am attempting to teach John's Gospel at Laidlaw College Christchurch (with a few preliminary thoughts here). To aid me I have been re-reading through the summer break one of the most brilliant books of theology I have ever encountered, John Ashton's Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Beyond the great debates about this gospel such as whether it is first-hand testimony of a genuine eye-witnessing disciple of Jesus or a veiled testimony to the history of the sectarian Johannine community as it separated from the local synagogue, all interpreters agree that the Fourth Gospel is a message of life, of the abundant life which Christ came to give (10:10). But what does the gospel of abundant life in Christ mean in a land abundant with life?
It is tempting to (attempt to) answer the question. But perhaps the question is better left as one for all Kiwi Christians to reflect on slowly and profoundly. Indeed, to do so would be to follow John as the Beloved Disciple who offers in his gospel a proclamation of the gospel after slowly and profoundly reflecting on the gospel tradition he received (which we know from the first Three Gospels) as well as his own experience as an eye-witness. In that reflection the 'kingdom of God' became 'eternal life'. In our reflection what is the translation of the gospel into the language of Paradise?