In seminary, I encountered a new word. Some of you may already know it, but it was new to me: Teleology. My professors used teleology enough in their lectures that I knew I needed to know what it meant, but I was too embarrassed to ask. So, I broke it down…
I knew that the phoneme “-ology” derived from the Greek word logos, which means “word” or “knowledge” or “thought.” Theology, words or thoughts about God. Psychology, words or thoughts about the mind. Biology, words or thoughts about life.
That put me in the right language family, but it did not answer my question: Teleology – words or thoughts about… what?
With a little digging, I encountered a new Greek word: Telos.
Literally translated, telos refers to an end, or a purpose, or a goal. Aristotle uses the word telos a lot, referring to something’s ultimate aim, or to its full potential. For Aristotle, the telos is the very purpose of our living.
Mystery solved: Teleology, words or thoughts about the ultimate purpose of life.
Well, at least one mystery solved. I now knew the definition of the word, but understanding its meaning – that is, the very meaning of life – was going to take some more work. (Would that I had known Rev. Bush or Mrs. Ray at the time!)
In Christian theology, the word telos represents what Jesus describes as the Kingdom of God. The ultimate pursuit of a Christian – that is, the ultimate pursuit of our living – is to bring about the “Kingdom of God.”
Too often, Christians suggest that the “Kingdom of God” is synonymous with “heaven.” But, when Jesus refers to the “Kingdom of God,” he hardly ever refers to the afterlife. In describing the “Kingdom of God,” Jesus describes what this physical world will become when all people live together in perfect harmony, and perfect peace, and perfect unity with their God. Jesus describes what this physical world will become when all of the ancient prophecies are fulfilled – when lions are laying down with lambs, when people are doing justice and loving mercy, when authority rests on the shoulders of God, and when justice is rolling down like the mightiest river.
The telos of the Christian – and, I am confident, the telos of just about every other religion – is to make this world a better place, to make this world more like the place that God truly wants it to be.
I encountered a poem a few years back that captures the spirit of this telos:
Now the holy gates are opened,
Past and future pierce us through;
This, the goal of all our hoping:
God is making all things new.
As I look at the world in which we live, Jesus’ vision of the “Kingdom of God” seems a long way off.
The world that I see today is not a place characterized by peace, or justice, or unity. The world that I see today is not a place where people can be at ease with each other, much less a place in which a lamb could be at ease with a lion.
We have a long way to go, but hope is never lost for people who live by faith. Hope is never lost for people who put their faith in a God who never quits.
St. Peter writes in his second epistle, “[Do] not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient…not wanting any to perish, but [for everyone to return to him.]”
The journey from here to the “Kingdom of God” is longer than any of us would like it to be, and this journey will require more patience than any of us would like to offer it. But, God plays the long game, and we must play the long game too. God’s promise is that all things will be made new: On this earth, and in God’s time. I believe that promise to be true, and I wait with eager longing for the day when I can believe it by sight and not just by faith.
In a Sunday sermon a few weeks back, Fr. Jonathan Chesney – who sometimes speaks from this podium – said something that both challenged and inspired me. Forgive me for not remembering his exact words, but the spirit of his words was this: “If it’s not the Kingdom of God, then it’s not the end of the story.”
If we have not reached the ultimate goal of our living – that is, if we have not reached the telos of our believing – then we still have some living and some believing left to do. The hard work of making the world a better place is not one that yields instant gratification, but there is no higher calling than that. There is no higher purpose in life. There is no greater telos.
I believe this deeply: If we do our part – that is, if you and I keep ourselves focused on transforming the world we know into a world that is defined by unity, and justice, and peace – then God will do his part. God will make all things new. And, we will reach the goal of all our hoping: We will know the “Kingdom of God.”