Tag: Eschatology

Time Is Short – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (1 Corinthians 7)

 

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

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                Jesus  is on his way! The end is near! As Larry Norman sang decades back, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” I came of age in the 1970s when everyone in my Christian circles was sure that the end was near. Larry Norman sang about the “Six O’clock News” and Barry McGuire turned his antiwar protest song “Eve of Destruction” into an apocalyptic message. We were sure that Jesus was going to return any minute. How did we know this, well we read Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth. He made it seem as if all the signs were there. These purveyors of apocalyptic messages weren’t the first Christians to offer such visions of the times. It seems as if every generation has its apocalyptic preachers. Going back a bit to the early nineteenth century, we can point to William Miller’s message. He thought he could pinpoint the actual date of Jesus’ return by unlocking the code he believed was to be found in books like Daniel and Revelation. Of course, he was wrong in his calculations and his followers went away disappointed. But he attracted a lot of attention, even among leaders of my own denomination. We can trace such visions all the way back to the first century. So, here we have Paul telling the Corinthian church that getting married, having children, planning for the future might be futile since the time was short and “the present form of this world is passing away.” 

             Over time the expectation that the end was near began to ebb and Christians began to settle in for the duration. It’s not that they gave up the expectation that Jesus might return in glory; they just began to realize that the Day of the Lord might be a bit delayed. So, you might as well prepare for the long haul, even if the times might be short. We just know the timing of this event. There is value in heeding the apocalyptic/eschatological messaging of Paul. It keeps us on our toes so we don’t get complacent.

                Unfortunately, not everyone interprets such directives in the same way. It appears that some of these newly converted Gentile Christians had embraced disembodied spiritual practices, which led to problematic sexual issues. Since the body is irrelevant, anything goes. Thus, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, and there is more to come in the chapters that follow. Paul writes these words as part of his effort to explain how one lives faithfully in such times. In suggesting that the form of this world is passing away, Paul understood that to mean living into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5).  

                Paul’s time was a bit off. Jesus didn’t return in his lifetime. As we know, Jesus still hasn’t returned (and may not return in the way Paul envisioned). Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking continues to make itself felt within the Christian community. Sometimes that can be helpful and healthy and other times not so helpful. On the positive side, the season of Advent invites us to hear again each year the call to be prepared and stay awake to what God is up to in the world. Unfortunately, apocalyptic thinking can lead to a form of hypervigilance that has dangerous political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences. We are living at a moment in time when many Christians have bought into conspiracy theories that undermine democracy and endanger one’s neighbors. As an older example of susceptibility to conspiracy theories, I’ll point back to the 1970s and 1980s when UPC codes were first introduced. These now-ubiquitous icons that allow us to scan our groceries and other merchandise were portrayed in books and magazines as the mark of the beast. We were told that before too long we would have them emblazoned on our foreheads and hands so that the anti-Christ could keep track of us. So far that hasn’t happened, but these kinds of theories continue to flare up. Now the theories relate to stealing elections by cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats who control the Deep State. Apparently only Donald Trump can save us from these dark forces. Then there are the warnings being issued about the COVID vaccine. In this case, it is being suggested that tracking devices will be injected so that the deep state/anti-Christ can keep track of us (just a reminder since most of us carry smartphones with GPS, we’re already being tracked!). It’s this susceptibility to conspiracy theories that have led Christians to share false information about the presidential election and even join in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

                As we ponder this brief reading from 1 Corinthians 7, perhaps it lends itself to having an important conversation about eschatology and apocalyptic messages found in Scripture and Christian history. We can have a conversation about the way we envision the emerging future and our role in it. We can consider Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God/Realm of God. What might the passing away of the form of this world look like?  What role do we play in all of this? If Jesus inaugurated the realm with his baptism, what role does the cross and resurrection play in all of this? If we take seriously the message of the Book of Revelation, which envisions a new heaven and a new earth, what does that have to do with the present? If, as Paul believed, the form of this world is passing away, even if that passing away is taking longer than he expected, what should we expect the future to look like? 

                Perhaps one way to read this passage is to hear it as a call to resist the worldly regime that opposes the realm of God. Might we hear this as an expression of the new creation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5? If so, we might hear this as a call to living out that vision in the world. Might this speak of a different set of values from the one the world that is passing away sets before us? As we ponder this message of Paul concerning the passing of ages, it’s important to remember that he was still living in the old age and was influenced by it. We see this in his views on slavery and gender roles. Paul wasn’t a progressive Christian thinker in the modern sense. Charles Campbell writes that Paul’s “own theology remains to some degree captive to the old age ‘cosmos’. On the other hand, one should not interpret Paul’s words in a static, moralistic way in order to reify any hierarchical status quo” [1 Corinthians,  p. 133]. To be faithful to Paul’s message concerning Christ doesn’t mean we embrace first-century social structures. So, Campbell continues: 

“Interruptions and tensions abound, even within Paul’s assumptions about the male-female hierarchy. In the midst of the old age, Paul gives us glimpses of the new creation. The old age nevertheless continues to exercise its influence, and even Paul remains captive to some of its perspectives and priorities. Paul’s own concession that he is often not speaking a command from the Lord, as well as the disruptive qualifications that punctuate his argument highlight his own recognition of the dynamic, contextual character of theology between the ages. At the turn of the ages, as we seek to do theology in the Spirit, we celebrate the glimpses of the new, even as we remain humble about the ways in which theology itself may remain captive to the old. We keep moving and struggling to resist the old-age hierarchies that are passing away.”  [1
Corinthians
,
pp. 133-134]. 

We still experience the penultimate reality. The realm of God has broken into this world, but we still live in the old creation. We see this in all the “isms” of our day, from racism to sexism and more. Thus, there is no place for complacency, even if the time is not as short as Paul envisioned!               

Belonging to the Daylight – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24A (1 Thessalonians 5)

 

 

 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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                The Day of the Lord, when Christ returns (Parousia), for his people (1 Thess.4:13-18), will come without warning, just like a thief in the night. The analogy Paul uses here of the thief coming in the night is well-known in
certain circles that insist that we are living in the last days. The reference has apocalyptic elements, which were developed for full effect in a movie by that title made back in the 1970s with the title A Thief in the Night that proved rather popular (strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing it).

                Paul uses this image of a thief coming in the night because it catches one’s eye. We understand the implications. If you know when the thief is going to strike, you will be ready. Of course, thieves don’t give warnings. They don’t call ahead to tell us the time and location they intend to make their entry. They also don’t generally come during the day (bank robbers are not in view here), because they could easily be seen. At night, they can wear dark clothing and skulk about in the shadows. When they find a weak spot, they can get in and out without anyone knowing the difference (unless you have a very effective security system that wasn’t available in the first century). At least that’s how it works in the movies! The image, therefore, underscores the unexpected nature of Jesus’ return.

                What we read here is a continuation of the message Paul delivered in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. In that reading, Paul gives us a few details about what the moment of Christ’s return would look like. On that day, Jesus will return in the clouds and the dead in Christ will rise first, after which the believers who are alive will join them for the grand procession. Paul offered that message as a word of encouragement to a community worried about those who had died before the Day of the Lord. While Jesus might come as a thief in the night, without warning, Paul wants the Thessalonian believers to be ready when that moment comes.

                One must be ready  for the sudden appearance of Jesus, like in the thief in the night, but believers should live in the light as children of the day and not the night. The assumption here is that evil takes place under the cover of darkness when things go bump in the night. Keep in mind that the action in most horror movies under the cover of darkness. There is a clear dualism at work here, with light and darkness, day and night, contrasted. Thus, daylight is when we are awake, but we sleep at night. Here, we’re not supposed to sleep. The night is also the time when people get drunk. Believers, on the other hand, are supposed to be sober,
not drunk.   

                What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the apocalyptic message he had earlier delivered. He has offered them a word of encouragement concerning the dead in Christ (they will rise first). However, Paul is concerned that in the interim, they might grow complacent. If this happens then they could easily fall back into old Gentile habits (living in the night). That concern is revealed in Paul’s reference to those who speak of “peace and security,” a watchword of the Empire, which placed those words on some of its coins. This may be the message of the Empire, but Paul warns against taking it to heart because to do so leads to destruction. Paul uses the metaphor here of a pregnant woman whose labor pains come without warning. When they begin, there is no going back. The same is true of the coming of the Lord. So, don’t get complacent. Be ready!

                All of this is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, which offers a dualism of light and darkness, earthly realm versus the heavenly realm. As George Parsenios notes, “the hostility between the two realms is most obvious in Paul’s use of the imagery of armor in verse 8. This armor, though, is also the basis of the Thessalonians escape from judgment because the helmet that arms them is the ‘hope of salvation.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 305]. The reference to armor is similar, but not as developed as that found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It should be noted that this armor is not something we choose, but is something received. In any case, Paul is preparing them for spiritual warfare that includes salvation that is received through Christ who died for us. As we hear this message of spiritual warfare, it’s worth noting that, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write: “Given the fervor for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments of killing” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 101].

                While the Day of the Lord will come, according to Paul, the Thessalonians, if they keep alert and stay in relationship with Jesus, they will receive the gift of salvation. They will not be subject to God’s wrath, God’s judgment. It is good to remember as Allen and Williamson remind us, this apocalyptic message isn’t a “pie in the sky” sentiment. For Apocalyptic theologians, like Paul, the Day of the Lord was understood to be the means by which “God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence” [Preaching the Letters, p. 101]. We might not embrace a full apocalyptic vision, but we must recognize the need for God to set things right, lest we not take seriously the realities of our age. For those of us who have universalist tendencies, we need to be careful that we don’t deny the possibility of God’s judgment. To do so might lead to the belief that there are no ultimate consequences of our actions.  

                Even as the previous reading from chapter 4 concluded with a call to encourage one another with this message, so does this portion. Paul wants them to encourage one another and build each other up with this message that believers are not destined for wrath but for salvation in Christ who died for us. With that, we can know that whether awake or asleep we will ultimately live with him, for as we learned in chapter 4, Jesus will gather us up. The challenge here, especially for Christians living in the United States, we must be careful not to receive

He’s Coming Back – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A (1 Thessalonians 4)

 

 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 
New Revised Standard Version

 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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                Down through the years, debates have raged over when or if Jesus will return to gather up the saints. Among the questions asked is whether Jesus will return before or after the millennium (Rev. 20:4-5). There is a third position on this question, in case you’re wondering. Amillennialists avoid the question of a millennium, treating it simply as a metaphor for the church age. Beyond the question of a millennium, there is the question of the timing of the tribulation. Are you pre? Mid? Or Post? There is a multitude of books that will explain how all of this works if you are interested. Truth be told lots of people are interested.

                As a high schooler, I got extremely interested in these speculations. So, I read Hal Lindsey and other prognosticators who were sure that we were living in the Last Days. I was led to believe that Jesus would return around 1988 (a generation after the founding of the state of Israel, according to Lindsey). I also learned that those bar codes that allow us to scan our goods at the grocery store were the mark of the beast, and that before long they would be imprinted on our foreheads and our hands (and you wonder how conspiracy theories find a ready audience among Christians?). Then there is the rapture, an idea that seems to have its roots here in 1 Thessalonians 4. Many attempts have been made to visualize this event. So, as Christians are caught up in the clouds, cars careen off the road and planes fall from the sky because the drivers or pilots have suddenly disappeared.

                So, are you ready to dive into this passage? Or, like many progressive/liberal Protestants would you rather avoid the passage and others like it as if it were the plague? I understand the sentiment. Talk of Armageddon and the like is often troubling, as is the glee with which tales are told of how people are going to die horrific deaths after the Christians are rescued. However, avoiding passages that have been used to support ideas like this might not be wise. That’s because the kind of images that many find present in texts like this have a certain hold on many people. Since there are numerous apocalyptic passages in Scripture they can’t be avoided and beg for interpretation.  

                In the passage before us, Paul and his companions, offer a word of encouragement to a group of believers who are concerned about where they stand with God. More specifically, in light of certain expectations—that Jesus was going to return in the near future—they were concerned about those who had died in the interim. What is their fate? What does Jesus plan for them? Paul offers this brief word in the closing verses of chapter four of his letter to set their minds and hearts at ease. He tells them that he doesn’t want them to be uninformed, so he will give them some more details as to what the future might entail. Remember that this letter comes very early in the life cycle of the Christian community. The movement is a little more than fifteen to twenty years old. Apparently, they didn’t think that they would be long for this world. That can put people on edge. While it can motivate action it can also hinder it. 

                Paul answers the question of the fate of those who have died by letting the Thessalonians know that they need not grieve as if there is no hope. It’s not they shouldn’t grieve their loss, but the nature of their grief should be different from those who live without hope of the resurrection. That is because they could hold on to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. So, don’t worry, God will bring the dead with Jesus. Thus, they can take solace in the hope of Jesus’ triumphant return. This was not a vision shared by all, as seen in the words of people such as Plutarch and Seneca, who essentially encouraged those who grieved to face their mortality with a stiff upper lip. Not so with Paul. [Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 63]. For him, the promise of the resurrection offers a very different sense of things. As Beverly Gaventa writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event, a single rabbit God pulls out of the hat to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Christ. The resurrection is directly connected to God’s final triumph and with the lives of all human beings” [First and Second Thessalonians, p. 64].

                To clarify things further, Paul speaks of timing. First, the dead will rise, and then the living, not the other way around. Using very apocalyptic language, Paul writes that the Lord will issue the command and then with the archangel’s call and God’s trumpet sounding, Jesus will descend from heaven and meet the dead in Christ who rise first. The descent from heaven and the sounding of the trumpet are common visions found in apocalyptic texts. When we hear about a trumpet here, think of royal trumpeters letting the people know that the monarch is arriving. As for the references to angels and in this case archangels, these are common in apocalyptic texts (see Daniel and Revelation). Though, in this case, Paul doesn’t identify the archangel.

                Unless you are used to being with people who embrace apocalyptic visions, this language might be unfamiliar and even bewildering. While this isn’t true for me due to my own experiences in contexts where this kind of language was common, I can understand how bewildering this might be to some who don’t have my background. It all might seem like watching a TV show like Grimm.

                As for the living in the Thessalonian church and beyond, at the time of the “coming of the Lord” (Parousia) they will be caught up in the air so they too might be with Jesus forever. This is where the idea of the rapture idea comes into play. The word itself is not present in scripture but the idea surely is. Modern speculation might be somewhat off-center, but you can understand where it comes from. In fact, in the subsequent chapter, things get a bit more specific. Though at the same time Paul warns against getting caught up in trying to figure out when and where this will take place. Know that his return will be similar to the coming of a thief in the night—unexpectedly! (1 Thess. 5:1-2).

                A text like this may seem strange to many in the church. We don’t have the same sense of expectation that the second coming, the Parousia, is close at hand. We’re too far out from these early moments. It’s not that there is no expectation, we’re just not quite as on edge as these believers were. At the same time, it’s understandable that a community under duress, which appears to be true for them, would find a certain comfort in the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes to set things right. Nevertheless, the text does offer a reminder of the strong eschatological dimension to the Christian faith. There is an expectation that is rooted in the message of Jesus and Paul that a day of judgment, a final accounting, will take place. We might not know the times and seasons (1 Thess. 5:1) with any precision, but that’s the expectation. While we’re still a few weeks out from Advent, that is one of the elements of the season. We don’t just observe Advent as preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus. Advent speaks also, and very profoundly, of that second coming spoken of here.

                Perhaps the word we can take from this passage is that death will not have the last word. Whether living or dead at the coming of Christ in triumph, we will experience resurrection. This is a promise to take hold of, not as an escape from reality, but as empowerment to live boldly (though Paul would have us live rather quiet lives, living holy lives and behave properly to those outside the community of faith—1 Thess. 4:11-12). As Paul notes in verse 18, let us encourage each other with these words of hope in the resurrection.