Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture, Sweet Rapture

Great A.A. Bondy Tune Here

In the undergraduate course I teach at Assumption College, "Intro to the Bible," I always ask them a question on the final about the Book of Revelation that goes something like this: 

Your roommate comes into your room to tell you that she has cracked the code and knows for sure that the world will end on 5.21.11 (or whatever date someone will be certain about next time around.) Based on a critical exploration of the Book of Revelation, how might you respond?

My most attentive students are always a little surprised to learn that in Revelation there is no rapture; rather, the prayer of Jesus is answered as the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, and the New Jerusalem replaces the old one, and lives up to its noble calling as a city of peace.

As Episcopalians we affirm the Paschal Mystery every time we come together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We live “between the times” – between already, and not yet. We live with mustard-seed signs of the Reign of God all around us. But we know that that Reign of God has not yet grown to fruition. The work that God has given us to do is to cultivate and tend to the growth that is already there, with God’s help. 

Jesus himself says that the Bible is not a code to be broken, or a puzzle to be solved. He says that “of that day or hour no one knows—not the angels of heaven, not Jesus himself—only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36). It is the height of arrogance to assume that we know a secret that the Father has not revealed even to the Son. 

One of my colleagues here in town chose to use the news of this week to send out an email blast, basically saying that if the rapture happened this weekend he’d see them all for worship in heaven around the throne of Christ. And if not he expected to see them in church on Sunday morning. Clever, and mostly (I hope) tongue in cheek. And I’m all for encouraging people to be in church. 

But I would respectfully say that if we take seriously the end of human history then the mission before us is not to get to church on time but it is to do the work God has given us to do in the world. The Church has a role in the missio dei, the Mission of God, but the Church is a means to that end, not an end in itself. The criteria by which the nations, the Church, and we as individuals will be judged is the difference between the goats and sheep in Jesus’ parable about the end of human history. Have we done the work God has given us to do? Have we fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited those in prison? (See Matthew 25) If we are about these things, about caring for the least among us, then we do it to Christ himself. And if not, then we ignore the Christ who is not confined to the heavens but already among us—hungry and thirsty and alone in this world. 

Forget for a moment about the end of the world. Think about something that may be just as great a mystery, but is much easier to narrow down: the end of your own life. Each of us will have to account for our lives.So if you found out that you had a year left, or a month, or a week—or indeed if you knew that today would be your last day on this earth, then tell me this: how would you spend it? What would you do with your one wild and precious life?

Do that! Do not let whacked-out fundamentalists who spend their money on billboards and media campaigns to announce the end of time sow fear in your life. Do the work God has given you to do, today, tomorrow, and the day after that. Contemplate the end of your life and then work backwards: what is it you hope to be remembered for? How will the world be different because you lived in it? Bottom line is this and it is pretty simple—as one poet wrote during one of the most difficult times in the history of this nation, in the middle of the nineteenth century when this country was almost torn in two:  

Come, labor on!
Claim the high calling angels cannot share—
To young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.            (Jane L. Borthwick)

1 comment:

  1. Rich, well said. I particularly like the admonition to not let others sow fear. You stand in a long line of messengers who proclaim, "Fear not!"

    Regarding the New Jerusalem, in the end the city is the New Heaven and the New Earth. For heaven and earth pass away. Wow! That says something profound: and it is not conservative. One excludes oneself if one is not open to change.

    So for every vision of the open door to the holiness of God, heaven and earth are shaken up. Why the shake up in heaven? Well, the lamb that was slain is more and more identified with God. Why the shakeup of the earth? Evil is washed out and away. There are several such waves of increasing intensity until all is undone. All that endures are the holy relationships with God, and the relationships with others that we see in the light of God. The New Heaven and the New Earth are a city--a community of relationships illuminated by the love of God.

    As you said, "Contemplate the end of your life and then work backwards." If doesn't want to be shaken or washed away, then the key is to be open to God, be open to others (including to their needs), and to be open to change.

    The Book of Revelation leaves no room for conservative souls to retain anything unchanged, not even themselves. Do not fear this, but rather be glad. Trust the process of change that God is working in you and join God in changing heaven and earth.