Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Easter

John 14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

It seems unfair to end the world on a long weekend.

It’s been a long winter, and so it also seems cruel to schedule the apocalypse on the first decent day of spring. Do I need to weed the garden if the whole thing is coming to an end anyway? Should I worry about the phlox that seems intent on pushing everything else out of the garden? Should I finally split the sedum? At least we harvested our first rhubarb, preparing for the end with a belly full of tangy sweetness.

I’ve often wondered about the end of the world. I’m not sure I understand the attraction, or the fascination, but I have three theories, so you can decide for yourself.

The first theory I’m calling “the world is lost and cannot be redeemed.” In this theory, those who wait for the end of the world are convinced that humanity is too depraved to save, that sinfulness has taken over, and that only a fiery end will cleanse the earth. Think of a modern Noah minus the ark. In this case, salvation doesn’t come through saving a family and animals two-by-two, but in the rapture, a topic I will return too in a moment.

The second theory we might call “creation is complete, time to move on.” In this theory, we have done all we can to and with the earth, human history has reached an endpoint, and now it must conclude. This may be a slightly more positive expression of the first theory, but the result is the same. This theory most often involves the State of Israel, and the rebuilding of the Temple, and any number of other factors. On this last point, you can trace many of the outbursts of apocalypticism to the various wars in the Middle East, especially 1948 and 1967.

My final theory, I’m calling “I can't go on, plus or minus.” On the plus side, there seems to be a link between the enthusiasm of the newly converted and the end of the world. If you have just begun a passionate relationship with your Lord and Savior, there follows a desire to meet him as soon as possible. Apocalyptic hope can mean accelerating the process. On the minus side, and related to the first theory, is the sense that the world is not just a terrible place, but a terrible place for the individual believer, and the sooner the suffering ends the better. These are the scariest folks, because trying to speed up the process can have the side-effect of making it happen. The Israeli tourist people love conservative Christians, but there are a little wary of them at the same time.

It seems unfair to preach on the end of the world on a long weekend. It should be light, and pleasant, more flowers, and less hellfire. But it’s not my fault, it’s the lectionary, which gave us an end-of-the-world passage on the same weekend it made the news:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

There are twenty-one chapters in John’s Gospel, and already at chapter twelve Jesus is be anointed for death and we begin to understand the role Judas will play in the unfolding story. Later in twelve, Jesus predicts his death, and in the chapter that follows he predicts both the betrayal and Peter’s denial.

And so you see, almost half of the last Gospel concerns the passion of Jesus, his end, and the promises that follow his passage to new life. It is in this context then, that we hear the words “and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This is a very personal promise of the end, a pledge that has sustained many through the centuries.

Many of you, of course, will recognize John 14 as a regular funeral reading. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” For the faithful, for those who have lived under the promises of God, there seems no better expression of the Christian hope. If John 14 has a serious rival, it might be Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, with the conclusion “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it also for me.” It almost becomes a Mary and Martha-type division, where the tireless workers get Matthew 25 and the rest of the faithful get John 14.

Turing back to John 14, the promises continue: “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus said, “I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” You begin to get the sense why this is among the most beloved chapters in scripture. And you also get the appeal for those who look forward to the end of the world. “…the world will not see me, but you will see me…I will come again and take you to myself”

Now, I promised a word on the rapture, and this might be the moment. If we return to Matthew, and we go back a chapter to twenty-four, we will find Matthew’s “Little Apocalypse,” his recounting of Jesus’ teaching on the end-time. It starts with a promise that the Temple will be destroyed, it outlines the various thing that will happen near the end, and concludes with this prediction: “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

Since the beginning of the last century in particular, and before that to a lesser extent, there has been an ongoing and lively debate about the moment believers will be taken up. If you study the parallel passages in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, you will see that the predictions are similar, but also vague enough to spark rival interpretations. These interpretations ended up with names, such as pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, and so on. People have spent a great deal of time worrying about the hour and the day, but also the degree of suffering they will witness before the event actually comes.

You may have gathered from all that I have said that I’m unconvinced that everything will end in fiery tribulation. Yes and no. On a planet where the average yearly temperature is on the rise, and species such as the pine beetle can spread throughout our northern forests for the first time, and the constant risk of lightning strikes and forest fires is only increasing, and entire towns face destruction that seems to relate directly back to climate change, I’m keeping an open mind on the fiery tribulation. Call it a variation on the first theory of the apocalypse, call it “the world may be lost and may not be redeemed.” If we cook ourselves into oblivion we might prove the May 21st crowd correct after all, an outcome we would do well to avoid.

It might surprize you to learn that the roots of the United Church, and in particular the movement called the Social Gospel, was very much an end-of-the-world movement too. It came about around the very same time as the first fundamentalists were arguing pre-trib and mid-trib, and it also welcomed the end of history as a fitting goal for believers. It was related to the second theory I shared above. It argues that the goal of the Christian life is to bring about God’s realm, to usher in a new realm of peace and equality and at that moment history would be complete.

It was the movement that sparked the urge to unite the various churches in Canada, assuming that Christian unity would be a natural first step to creating the Kingdom, and based on the belief that improving the human condition superceded denominational tradition and worship practice. The union would not be completed until 1925, but the movement that gave birth to it—the Social Gospel—it died in the trenches in Belgium. For you see, the Social Gospel was based on the idea of human progress toward common goal, something that become a hollow fiction as so-called Christian nations fought the “Great War.”

And it was about that time that the mainline churches, United and Anglican and others simply stopped talking about the end of the world, and handed the entire conversation over to the conservatives. Mainline churches moved on to other topics, the problem of evil, Christ and the modern world, and gave a discussion of the life to come to others.

To all of this, to all of the discussion and all of the debate, I say ‘it just doesn’t matter.’ And the reason it doesn’t matter is found in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” It doesn’t matter if there is a fiery end or your life ends peacefully in your bed, the promise is the same: In my Father’s house there are many rooms. Yes, we need to leave the world better than we found it, and yes we need to work for a healthy planet and healthy children and healthy relationships, but the matter of my end and your end individually, it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is the promises of God. What matter is knowledge that a place is prepared for us, whatever route we take to get there. What matters is the assurance that a loving God waits to welcome us, forgive us, and embrace us in eternity. I believe the earth will go on, and people will smarten up and clean up the mess around us, and my children and grandchildren will enjoy life on earth as much as we do. But I also believe that death is something you train for, something to be pondered, something we can even welcome like an old friend if you work at it long enough.

We can make fun of the end of the world, as most newspapers and bloggers and preachers will today, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the world will end for each of us, that we will each experience our own little apocalypse, and that this place is always the best place to do your preparing. So enjoy the rest of your long weekend, and when someone asks you Tuesday what you did to celebrate the fact that the world did not end, tell them you went to church, to train for the next time. Amen.


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