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Rising to the Occasion

Sermon - 11/09/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

We have been studying Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, and this morning we come to one of the most misunderstood portions of that text, probably one of the most misunderstood passages in all of scripture.  So this morning I want to try and give a different way of reading this passage so that when you come across it, or folks bring up these ideas, you have a different way of describing your understanding of it:

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. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For 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. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangelís call and with the sound of Godís trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then 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 for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

I was teaching a course for Lent, I think it was last year, and one of the sessions was discussing the 'Son of Man' imagery as it is used in the gospels, from which Paul draws inspiration for this text.  In Daniel 7, we read:

I saw one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the ancient one and was presented before him.  To him was given glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.

So Paul is drawing on this image of the descending Son of Man to usher in this new era, and adds to it the image of the faithful who will rise (including the dead, who will rise first) to meet the descending Lord in the air.

Someone in that class gave me a post-card to describe this event, commonly known as the Rapture:

 

With the Internet these days, you can find such things, and I Googled "rapture" images, and lo & behold, it was the first thing that came up, that very post-card.  It portrays this idea of the dead rising out of a cemetery in the right-hand corner, and people rising out of their vehicles, which then careen out of control.  No one rising out of those business buildings, not sure what that says about the business world & Wall St J.

Notice in the upper left-hand corner -- the plane that is crashing into the building.  Kind of sends a chill up your spine, that this is portrayed as a Godly or Christian thing?  I don't know what you'd call it.

I found a nicer image (the above image has always disturbed me), the notion of people rising up from their various stations in life:

 

There's no crashing, no death and destruction, and I thought that's much nicer, I like that.  Until I looked closer at the church -- the "Global Community Church", and all the people still sitting in the pews J.  Except I want you to take careful note that the pastor is gone from behind the pulpit!  I think it's him up there on the roof, he's probably cleaning the gutters J.

I got to looking at some other images.  I like this one, because it clarifies the date when this will all take place:

October 28, 1992 -- I don't know, I don't remember the 90s.  If you look close at this poster that was made, and I'm sure it was quite serious, quotes this passage from 1 Thessalonians.  Except they used the wrong chapter -- they printed chapter 5, it's actually in chapter 4.  You know, if you're going to get the date wrong, why worry about details like that.

Now here's a timely one -- entitled "Down at the Rapture with George":

 

I find it interesting that the children are all dressed like in Sunday-school 1950s clothes.  But I think the focus is our current President.  I'd say if you think of the intent of the artist there, and their understanding of our President, you would want your President to be there.  I would hope that this artist would portray President-elect Obama in the same way, as being there among the faithful.  And maybe the two of them together -- that would be a powerful statement.

Never mind the death and destruction that's occurring down in the valley, we're going to come back to that.

As long as we're standing on thing political ice, I found these next 2 images really interesting.  This one was entitled "The Political Map Before the Rapture":

 

And of course it's from the 2004 election.

The next one is entitled "The Political Map After the Rapture":

 

I kid you not -- I'm not making this up, it's all out on the Internet J.  Evidently Mormons and Democrats don't fare too well in the rapture.

I probably should move on, and not say anything more about this, but I have to tell you, when I see something like this, it just gets my blood boiling.  And it doesn't have anything to do with my particular political affiliation.  It's when people use their religion to bash the opponents of a political party -- and I don't care if you're bashing Democrats or bashing Republicans -- this is plain wrong, to use our faith in that way. 

It is a serious mistake to use religion to condemn people for their deeply-held political beliefs, often that are held as deeply as their religious ones.  Our faith may lead us to disagree with one another about some of our political beliefs, but such disagreements must always be within the faith, in the context of love, so that we can be in dialogue with one another and not condemning each other (as I think this map does, quite intentionally).

If God sees any color, looking down on our country, I think it's purple.  The Christian faith transcends politics, rises above it.  Of course that's easy for me to say now, after the election.  The challenge for us is to work together as citizens of one nation, under God, indivisible, that is as one people.  And if we as a country are ever going to do that, if we truly believe that the American flag is color-blind, then this is the time to make it happen.  And what a wonderful occasion that is, regardless of one's political beliefs.

But if that proves to be too difficult for us a nation, then let this be the place -- the church -- that makes it happen.  Where we are called to put aside those worldly divisions, to live as one people, around the world, not just in this country.  One people, under God.

What does that have to do with this text from 1 Thessalonians?  Absolutely nothing.  I just couldn't help myself J.

Some people, though, think 'only the Republicans' are going to be raptured.  Some people think 'only the Protestants', or 'certain protestants'.  Only 'bible-believing Christians', only 'born again' Christians, only the 'holy roller church of God Millennial' Christians, whatever your stripe may be.  Every group has their own theories about who's in and who's out.

If I may so humbly say:  they're wrong.  All of them.  How can I say that?  It's easy, really. 

Read my lips:  THERE IS NO RAPTURE.  None.

And I don't mean to ridicule anyone's beliefs, but please look at this picture again:

 

I mean, how can we, as Christian people, believe that.  It's no wonder that serious, thinking people have a problem with Christianity when that's the image that they have.  That our faith is about teaching that some get selected and everybody else is damned to Hell.  I think it's a serious problem.

On the Internet site where I found a lot of these images, there was a discussion, and one person said "I'm so glad I'm not a Christian, we Jews don't believe in this nonsense".  And someone else said:  "Waiting for, looking forward to, and welcoming death and the end of the world -- what is wrong with these [bleep] Christian [bleep bleeps].  Right, like your profanity-laced attack on Christians is an example of the goodness of humanity (?). 

But be that as it may, my problem with the rapture is not just that it's bizarre, and it portrays violent death of millions of people as the will of God, my problem is that it's not scriptural.  It is a complete and total fabrication based on a faulty interpretation of this one text (primarily), which comes out of historical ignorance.  You know me, how important I view such things.

So, let's set the record straight.

Now, please first of all note that whatever Paul expects this event to be, his description of the coming of Christ, he expects it to happen in his lifetime: 

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.

Paul expects it in his lifetime.  So how we can take that as to be referring to events some 2,000 years into the future (and counting), is beyond me.

Second, and more importantly, please read the text carefully, and tell me where it says that after meeting Jesus in the clouds we will then go with him up into the heavens?

. . . [we] 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 for ever.

Now, you can read that literally ("forever and ever, all time"), or you can read it like a fairy-tale ending ("they lived happily ever after").  But the question is:  where does this ending of 'forever' take place?  And the fact is, Paul doesn't say.

However one sees this happening -- literally or figuratively -- is the point that Jesus is going to lead us back into heaven with him, or that we are going to escort Jesus back to earth?

I don't know about you, but I was taught that whatever goes up, must come down.  So if we're going to meet the Lord in the air, we're going to come back down, right?  Except for the stock market, of course. . . . . .

If an Emperor/King comes to your city, what do you do as the Mayor of that city?  You get a delegation of folk to go out and meet that arriving dignitary, and escort them back into the city.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing just a couple decades after Paul writes, gives this account of when Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem with his world-conquering army, causing no small consternation among the leaders of Jerusalem.  Josephus says [2]:

"The high-priest of Jerusalem, one Jaddus, had a vision.  God spoke to him in his sleep, telling him to take courage, and adorn the city with wreaths and open the gates and go out and meet [and the Greek term here is apantesis] them, that the people should be in white garments.  And after doing all the things that he had been told to do, he awaiting the coming [the Greek term here is parousia] of the King".

 

Now, "meet", and "the coming".  Look again at Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, and we see those same two terms:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangelís call and with the sound of Godís trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet [apantesis] the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

'The coming', or 'parousia' of the Lord, and the 'meeting', or 'apantesis' of the Lord.

You don't have to be a reader of Josephus in the ancient world to know that when a King or Emperor comes, you go out and meet him and escort him into the city.

Paul is using this common image of a parousia, a coming of a dignitary, a royal person, to describe the coming of Christ.  So wonderful and glorious that even the dead will rise and together with his living followers, they shall meet him and escort him down to earth, in a victorious celebration marking the end of evil, event death itself.

That Paul doesn't have to say the fact that they are coming back down to earth is because it's obvious to all the readers of ancient times, because they are so familiar with this image of the apantesis, of meeting the dignitary, and the parousia, of coming back with him to the town.

By the way, that's the same image in the Book of Revelation -- where the new Jerusalem comes to earth and God dwells among the people and death shall be no more.

Now whether or not Paul understood this to be a literal event that you can mark on your calendar (and it's quite possible he did), or as a metaphorical event (like the story Jesus tells of the poor man Lazarus eating the crumbs at the table of the rich man and then in the next life their fortunes are reversed), the point is there will be no rapture to take us out of this world.  And if this world is the only one we've got, we better be sure we take good care of it so it's going to be here long into the future.

So then, if Paul is not telling us that Jesus is coming to take all of his followers away, out of this world, what is he telling us?

First of all, I think what Paul is saying is that to speak of this 'parousia', of the coming of Christ, is another way of saying that the end of evil has already begun.  We're confident in it, because he is coming.  And that is the same message of the resurrection:  death, powers of this world, have been defeated in the rising of Christ.  And therefore, the message that we as Christians are called to proclaim is not doom, but hope.  Not death, but life.

And that is why the symbol of our faith is an empty cross -- to remind us that Christ was not defeated by it (the power of terror -- remember, crosses were symbols of terror in the Roman world), but that symbol has been transformed into a new kind of power that will not terrorize, destroy, or kill anyone, because it is the power of love and life.

Sojourner Truth, the freed slave and great abolitionist of the 19th century got this, understood it.  Although not a highly educated woman, her insights are wonderful.  Speaking at a conference, a clergy conference of some kind, in typical fashion she probably interrupted the meeting to do so, she said [1]:

"You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere.  And when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes.  This is to be your new Jerusalem.  Now I can't see anything so very nice in that, coming back to such a mess as that will be.  A world covered with the ashes of the wicked.  Besides, if the Lord comes and burns, as you say he will, I am not going away.  I'm gonna stay here and stand the fire, and Jesus will walk with me through the fire to keep me from harm".

So, I'm sorry, though I know the artist meant well, President Bush and President-elect Obama, if they are followers of Jesus, they will not be up there on the hill overlooking the city in flames and destruction:

 

They will be down in it, aiding the victims.

The second thing that I think Paul is trying to say to us, through the whole thrust of this letter, is to call on the good folk of Thessalonica not to sit and wait for the coming of Jesus to solve all the world's problems, but to work as the body of Christ with God in the on-going work of transformation that ultimately will result in the end of evil.

And if we believe that God's intent is to bring and end to evil, then does it not make sense that the least we can do is not use or support the use of evil ourselves?  Indeed, Paul says in the very next chapter:

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another, and to all.  Abstain from every form of evil.

When "Glorious Appearing", the 12th and final book of the popular 'Left Behind' series by authors LaHaye and Jenkins was published last year (or maybe 2006), with Jesus returning to wipe out all the non-Christians on earth, Oregon's favorite son Nicholas Kristof wrote for his syndicated column in the New York Times:

"It's disconcerting to find ethnic-cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.  We should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels.  That's not what America stands for, and I doubt it's what God stands for".

I believe that Kristof is absolutely right.  That's why I, and a dozen other Protestant, Roman-Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim clergy are going to meet with Representative Peter Defazio on Thursday, as part of a national campaign of religious leaders, to request that our representative, on our behalf, go to the President-elect, and request that upon taking office that he immediately issue an executive order banning the use of torture (in all its forms) by our government.

The statement that we will release to the press tomorrow says:

"Our President must lead by our core principles.  We must be better than our enemies.  And our treatment of prisoners captured in the battle against terrorism must reflect our character and values as a Americans".

By the way, this campaign was organized months before the election, and so was to be held regardless of the results of that election.

In just a few weeks, we will be entering into Advent, which of course focuses on then coming of the Messiah.  There is something incongruent with angels singing about singing 'peace on earth' at the birth of Jesus, and us calling this newborn Christ the 'prince of peace' at his first coming, and then to proclaim the second coming of Christ as a victorious warrior who slaughters all non-believers.

Such a vision is not only wrong, I believe that ultimately it is evil.  It's what is behind much of the evil that we have been caught up in.

So what about Revelation, you say?  That's another sermon, it's a little late to go there now, but you can read a serious of sermons I gave back in May of 2004 on our Internet site.  Also Barbara Rossing's book, "The Rapture Exposed", I recommend very highly.

But let me just summarize by saying the Book of Revelation is not about the end of the world, it is about Christianity's struggle with the evil of empire, specifically the Roman Empire, which I studied on my sabbatical this summer.  And the beginning of the peaceful reign of God that will bring an end to that kind of evil.

So we have to ask ourselves in these times, not just what does America stand for, but what does God stand for? 

Is it violence, destruction, torture, wars for non-existent weapons of mass destruction?

Or love and life, beauty, harmony, peace, and an end to that kind of violence?

Paul wants to give us, the Christian community, a word of hope.  That death does not have the last word.  That the Lord will come to usher in a different kind of world which we cannot only look forward to, but which we can begin working for, now.

Encourage one another with these words.


References:

[1] Sojourner Truth--Barbara Rossing, "The Rapture Exposed".  2004, 
Westview Press.  p. 10.

[2] Josephus--John Dominic Crossan, "In Search of Paul".  2004, 
HarperCollins.  p. 167f.

 


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