Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hold On, I'm Coming! (First Thessalonians 4:13-18)

It might seem odd to focus on a passage from Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica in the middle of a study and series about ideas from St. John's Revelation, but here we are.

Whether you are a believer in the doctrine of the Rapture or not, this passage is the biblical foundation of that doctrine. Studying Revelation does show offer us some insight into God's ultimate plan for restoring all of creation and its people, but we don't see direct references to the idea that believers will disappear from this world before that happens when we do. We find those references here. And like our Nativity scenes sometimes feature the Wise Men even though they probably didn't visit Jesus until several months or even a couple of years later, we have connected the Rapture to the visions John saw on Patmos.

Now, the interesting thing is that even though Paul wrote more from a logical understanding of what he knew about Jesus and John wrote from a supernatural vision, they had similar purposes: Offer hope to confused, worried and perhaps even frightened people.

Paul wrote this letter, we believe, sometime in the 50s or 60s, between 20 and 30 years after Easter. The people who follow Jesus know he told his first disciples that he would return -- some of them believe that will happen within their lifetimes and some of them just figure that no matter when it happens, they should be making themselves and the world around them ready for him. But all of these believers wonder about loved ones who followed Jesus but who themselves died before his return. What happened to them? What will happen to us if we pass away before he returns?

Paul reassures these people. Yes, if Jesus was going to return and set up a kingdom like Caesar had or like any other ordinary mortal king, those people wouldn't participate because they are already dead. But Jesus is no mortal king, and his return will bring about a kingdom nothing like anything that goes on in the world around them. They shouldn't worry about those who have died -- in fact, those people will be with the returning Christ before anyone else! Then the believers still living will meet their coming Lord in the air and take part in his return to Earth, joyously reunited with him.

Through John's vision, God offers hope to another group of his people in their own time of worry and wonder. Signs of persecution have appeared by the time we believe the Book of Revelation to have been wrtten, sometime in the last decades of that first century. Roman rulers and officials distrust this new religion and its people, who don't recognize Caesar as a god or even pay a token attention to the Roman state religion. Although the persecution will get worse, it's already harassing enough to worry churches and their members, especially in the larger cities of the Empire.

John's vision, though, does two things. One, it points out that people who follow Christ will always be at odds with people who follow the powers of this world. Even when everyone gets along and nobody's picking on each other, their differences from the cultures around them will divide them from other people. Sometimes, those differences will mean people in power will persecute the Christians who they feel threaten that power.

It is, he says, beginning now and it will keep going on and might get much much worse. The forces that work against Jesus' teaching will be desperate to defeat it, because Jesus and his work mean the end of their power. But even in dark times, when it seems like these forces have in fact won because their power and control have overcome the message Jesus and his followers proclaim, those followers should not lose hope, John says. Because God is coming, God wins, and Jesus will return to seal that victory and restore all of creation to the glory for which God always intended it.

In the mid-60s, Sam Moore and David Prater released their first major hit, a rousing soul anthem called "Hold On, I'm Coming!" In it, the duo say that whatever problems the person they're addressing may face, that person should not worry, because they're on their way: "When the day comes, and you're down/In a river of trouble, and about to drown/Just hold on! I'm coming! Hold on! I'm coming!" Although Sam and Dave may not have intended any theological meaning, those words are the words of Jesus to his people, whether through Paul's logic or John's vision or the Holy Spirit's testimony to our own spirits.

Hold on, Jesus says. I'm coming.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Propheting (Revelation 1:9-20)

Our English understanding of the word "prophet" usually includes some idea of predicting the future -- and we'll judge a prophet by his or her accuracy in forecasting. There's nothing wrong with this definition, although it sometimes leaves us switching between "prophet" and "National Enquirer psychic" a little too easily.

But when we study prophecy in the Bible, we should remember that the word we translated as prophet wasn't just about predicting the future. In fact, that was really a small part of a prophet's role. The na'vi, which is the Hebrew word we translate prophet, was thought of as a special kind of spokesperson for God. In old gangster movies, the criminals wouldn't talk to anyone until their "mouthpiece" or lawyer was present. A na'vi was that kind of "mouthpiece."

So a prophet's message is not just the prophet's message -- it's God's message, delivered through a human mediator. Even when prophecy in the Old Testament focused more on pointing out what was going wrong than what was going to happen in the future, the prophets would say that their ability to discern and see patterns in the events of the day came from God.

Prophets were also less concerned with predicting what was going to happen than they were with warning what was going to happen unless. The Old Testament prophets warned the people of Israel and Judah that their mixing idol worship into their daily lives meant that when the time came to rely on God, they would be lost because they wouldn't know how to do that anymore. And they warned them that a failure to live as God's people would come back to haunt them if the time came when they were under another nation's laws that made no allowance for God's law.

In other words, the prophet's message is most often a warning and offers guidance. The opening part of the book of Revelation does just this for the seven churches mentioned in this passage. Jesus, speaking to John in a vision, warns these churches of the dangers each of them faces and tries to guide them past those dangers. A church that has lost its passion is encouraged to try to recapture it. A church that seems to be going through the motions, neither hot nor cold, is encouraged to take a stand and make a difference, and so on.

Prophets' words do this for churches, communities of people, and for individuals as well. John wrote down what he saw because Jesus told him to, not just to speak to me. But his words do speak to me, to guide me away from the dangers I might face in my walk with Christ and to point out what those dangers are. I am encouraged to recapture my early passion for following Jesus. I am encouraged to make a stand rather than try to have something both ways. I am warned that if I depend on something other than God, I might have more trouble because I may forget how to depend on God.

Interestingly, the second part of Revelation -- the part with the really wild stuff in it and the part that some people have chosen to use to try to scare people into their way of thinking -- is actually the part that's supposed to give hope to people facing the problems outlined in the first part! It's "apocalyptic" message wants its readers to understand that God wins in the end, and that even though they may have failed, God offers lasting forgiveness and redemption.

The prophet's message is: "Watch out, God is coming." The apocalypticist's message is, "Hold on, God is coming." Both, of course, are needed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bring the Fire (Acts 2:1-21)

Pentecost! Of the three most important days for Christians, this is probably the one that the outside world knows the least. People around the world who've never heard of the church mark Christmas as a season of gift-giving and tree-trimming and whatnot. Easter draws people to church who come once a year -- and who sometimes remark that every time they go to church the preacher's talking about the same thing as last time.

But Pentecost? We're just about the only ones who mark that, my friends, and not all of us do that. It's the birthday of the church, though, the reason you and I are together Sunday mornings and the reason that there's a church at all. Jesus had taught his disciples what they needed to know about God. Then with his death and resurrection he did the work he and his Father meant for him to do, healing the broken relationship between God and humanity, making possible the full communion with God we were all designed for.

And now, through the work of the Holy Spirit, people are commissioned and empowered to bring the message of that new reality to all the people of the world. Note the story: The disciples have been told they will be Jesus' witnesses to the ends of the earth, but I bet that more than one of them wonders how that's going to happen. They're a bunch of Galileans, after all.

That doesn't mean they're somehow less bright that than other people, but it does mean they lack some of the languages and knowledge of these people who live at the ends of the earth. They know the world's a big place and it's safe to assume the people who live far away don't speak Aramaic. It's also safe to assume they, as a bunch of Galileans led by fishermen, lack some of the resources needed to get them moving out across the earth to do this witnessing thing. They have been called to do something that, I have no doubt, more than one of them knows they are not equipped to do.

Until Pentecost. As the presence of the Holy Spirit moves among them, giving the appearance of fire in a rushing wind, they find themselves able to speak and be understood by people who don't speak their languages. They will find themselves able to go out into the world through ordinary and sometimes extraordinary means. The Holy Spirit has come upon them, and now they are equipped to do what they were called to do.

Which is what, exactly? Witnessing, of course, I know that, because that's what Jesus said. But witnessing to what and for what purpose? Well, let me go out on a limb here and say the purpose is this: To end the world.

Wait, what? Like that guy who was talking about the end of the world and bought all those bus signs? Or one of those cult leaders who gets his people together because some comet is a sign from God? Or those people who spend eight hours a day matching world events to the verses in Daniel and Revelation to identify the Antichrist? Hint: It's not the pope.

No, but the ultimate goal of the disciples' preaching on Pentecost and our witnessing today is still to end this world. We may not understand everything in the book of Revelation or the Bible's other books of prophecy and apocalypse, but we can understand that God's ultimate goal is the restoration of our fallen world to its original purpose. God made the world and all that is in so it could be in a relationship with him. His love overflowed to such a degree it actually created beings who could love him back. Out of our free choice, we turned away from that love and the world itself fell away from its purpose. But God wants the world and that relationship restored, and intends to remake the fallen world so that it will be.

This world will be ended, so that the world God desires -- including the people God desires -- can come into existence. The fires of Pentecost will begin that transformation.

After the flood, God did indeed promise that he would never again come close to destroying everything through water, and told Noah the rainbow in the sky was a sign of that promise. But Pentecost is God's promise that he will in fact change the world, change it so much it will not even resemble its fallen self. His love will transform it as surely as fire transforms that which it burns, from matter into heat and light.

And he will kindle that fire one heart at a time, lighting it with the sparks of you and me.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Rise Up (Acts 1:1-11)

This is one of those gospel stories that's pretty straightforward in its telling but which doesn't have much for us today on its surface. After all, we have not followed Jesus, eating and drinking with him, we haven't seen him killed or met him risen, and we haven't seen him ascend to his Father. Just what exactly could we learn from reading about those who had?

Well, one or two things, when we look at what Jesus said to them and at what they did after the ascension itself.

First, we note how the angels told them they shouldn't stand around gaping at the sky. When the time was right, Jesus would return and meanwhile, they should get cracking on that whole witnesses unto the ends of the earth thing, which was a much bigger job than they believed it to be given that they and everyone else around them had no knowledge of about half the earth's surface.

Their desire to stand around looking at the last place they'd seen Jesus connects pretty well with real human experience. Each of us probably has had a time where we believe we've really felt God's presence, and our natural human desire is to keep hold of that. Nobody wants good things to end. But just as no one else would have known about Jesus' message if the disciples decided to stay up on that mountaintop, no one will know the meaning of our experiences with God if we stay where they happened.

This is a problem we face in church. Church may be a reminder of our God-experiences, but if we don't ever go outside of the church with those experiences we're the only ones who know about them. Churches in American don't meet in secret caves or at unannounced times -- we're not hiding anything from anyone. But our whole way of doing things is a lot more like a group that meets in a certain place, has a great time there, and figures it's done all the invitation it needs to do because it left the door open and will welcome anyone who happens to stroll by.

So one message from the Ascension story to us is clear: Go! And, when we look at it, the second message becomes clear too: Stay!

That's not as contradictory as it sounds. Physically, the disciples will now go into the world and proclaim the gospel. Spiritually, however, they will stay with Jesus, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. They stay on the mountaintop for awhile partly to try to maintain their feelings of Jesus' presence as long as they can, sure. But I think it was also partly because, even though they knew Jesus was unlikely to ascend to heaven and then turn around and come right back, there may have been a part of them that thought he would and they wanted to be ready for that as well.

At the ordination service Tuesday night, Bishop Hayes talked about taking his son fishing when he was a little boy, not yet tall enough to cast the line on his own. As soon as his dad cast the line into the pond and handed him the rod, the little boy's excitement could not be contained. He was going to pull Moby Dick out of that pond, and declared so in a loud voice. The bishop said his son stood on tiptoe because he was so excited and the anticipation was so great. Even though they ended that trip without any fish -- or great white whales -- his son was not discouraged. "He's still in there!" the boy said. "We'll get him next time!"

The bishop asked the people being ordained if they could keep themselves "on tiptoe" in their ministry, anticipating what God would do. And I ask that of myself, and of you too: Can we go out as Jesus commanded, while staying at his side anticipating the amazing things we will see?

That's how the disciples returned to Jerusalem, after all, rejoicing. Sure, joyful enthusiasm isn't cool, but neither is it engaged with the world around us. James Dean's slouch and Kurt Cobain's moody stare through his uncombed bangs may be cool, but they show disdain for the world around them, not the connection to it we Christians should display.

Although the Bishop didn't say, I imagine he and his son went fishing again. Would they have done so if his son responded to the experience with a shrug and "Whatever" instead of tiptoe-standing anticipation and excitement? What do you think?

Will the people we meet want to know about the Christ we claim to follow based on how we approach them, and how we approach life, and how we approach the world's needs that we're supposed to meet?

You tell me.