Living Life in the Shadow of the End

Jesus offers surprising counsel on how to behave as we face the coming end of history or of our personal lives.

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The Last Judgment as depicted in the west tympanum of the Cathedral of Saint Lazare in Autun, France.

Several years ago, when I was working as a pastor, a young man who was attending our church asked to meet with me. He needed some guidance, he said, on a serious question that troubled him.

When we met, I asked what question was agitating him so much. He had apparently been exposed to some dispensational theology on the End Times, possibly the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. If Jesus would be returning to earth at any moment and usher in the end of history, what should he as a Christian do to prepare for that momentous event?, he asked with some clear anxiety.

I suggested that the best answer to that question could be found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 24, we find Matthew’s version of what scholars call the Little Apocalypse.

In this passage Jesus offers a description of what will happen just before the end of history. The description has many confusing and alarming features, typical of an apocalyptic vision in the Jewish tradition. It culminates in the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. This mysterious figure sends out his angels into all the world to gather the chosen ones into his kingdom. (Mark has a version of this vision in Mark 13, and Luke in Luke 21.)

Keep Awake

Jesus ends his teaching with an admonition to his disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).

This admonition immediately raises another question. What does it mean to keep awake. This is the same question the young man was asking me, except in different words.

Matthew does not keep us hanging. He answers the question immediately as he recounts four parables that Jesus taught. They all focus on what we need to be doing to keep awake as we await the end. (When I use the word the end, I understand those words in two ways. One can be the end of history; the other our personal end at the moment of our death. What Jesus says applies equally to both.)

The Parable of the Faithful Steward

The first parable (Matthew 24:45-51) is not really a story so much as an extended metaphor. Jesus uses the analogy of the steward an estate owner appoints to manage the estate and its personnel as the master goes on a long journey. The servant’s particular responsibility is to provide for the feeding of the other servants.

Jesus then remarks, Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives [home] (Matthew 24:46). The point of the parable is to caution his disciples not to become lax, complacent, and indulgent in their duties, especially their duties in carrying for others for whom they are responsible. They are to always provide responsible and faithful care.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

 The second parable (Matthew 25:1-13) tells the story of ten bridesmaids who await the arrival of the bridegroom’s wedding procession to pick up his bride. As the bridegroom delays, the girls fall asleep, but have oil lamps burning.

When the bridegroom approaches, five of the girls, called the wise ones, have extra oil with which to trim their lamps and keep them burning. The other five, the foolish ones, did not bring extra oil. They rush to buy more, but while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The five foolish girls are left out of the wedding banquet.

As I read this parable, I interpret the oil lamps as the traditional disciplines of Christian spirituality–disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, participation in the sacraments, meditation, contemplative prayer, etc. These disciplines pour spiritual oil, we might say, to our spiritual lives, keeping them burning.

The Parable of the Talents

 In the third parable (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus tells a story of a master who departs on a journey but before he goes, he hands over varying amounts of money (called talents) to three servants. He expects them to invest it. Two do, with extraordinary returns–100% over the invested capital. But the third servant, fearing a loss, buries the money in the ground, keeping it safe for his master’s return.

When the master returns, the first two servants receive extravagant commendations from their master for their return on their investment. But the third one receives utter condemnation. By abiding to his spirit of fear, the third servant not only loses the original principal the master gave, but he is banished from his master’s service and presence.

The point of this parable, as I read it, is that we have all been given talents and abilities, some more than others. Yet all of us are accountable for using those talents and abilities in service to God, the world, and our own lives. The call is to take risks with what we have been given rather than going through our lives cowering in fear and apprehension.

The Parable of the Last Judgment

Finally we come to the fourth parable (Matthew 25:31-46). This final parable provides a vision of the Last Judgment. The nations (notice not just individuals, but also nations) are called before the Son of Man for judgment.

Admittance into his kingdom, however, does not rest upon believing correct doctrines or upon the depth of their piety. Rather their admittance depends how they have treated the disadvantaged in the world. Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and those in prison?

This parable remains a sober reminder that how we treat our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need, has eternal consequences. And so as we live our lives, we need to be taking our responsibilities to the needy and disadvantaged with utmost seriousness.

The Point of the Parables

Now when we look at these four parables, we find Jesus counseling behavior that looks remarkably like living responsible lives in the world. It is not advocating anxious behavior to withdraw from the world and live in spiritual isolation, as we see sometimes in apocalyptic groups like the Branch Dividians or the Jonestown community.

Nor do these parables sanction alarmist behavior like the 19th century Millerites who abandoned jobs and sold all their property in anticipation of the return of Christ on March 21, 1844.

Rather what comes across in these two chapters of Matthew is wholesome living in this life and world, balancing a life of simultaneous inner cultivation of the spirit and outer service to others, especially others in need. This is true preparation for the End, whether that be the end of history or our own personal death. Alarm and panic over the approaching end of history is not fully warranted, though emotional sobriety, calmness, and alertness about our responsibilities in life are.

This is what I tried to share with this young man who came to see me. But I guess it was not the answer he was looking for. We never saw him in our church again.

 

 

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Divine Desolation

Mark’s account of the death of Jesus is the bleakest of the four gospels, yet it evokes a surprising sense of awe.

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The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

Of the four gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, I find Mark’s account (Mark 15) the bleakest.

Jesus dies utterly alone. All his disciples have fled out of fear of the authorities. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ mother being at the foot of the cross, as John does. Only three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Jose, and Salome, witness his death. They do so from a distance.

In Mark a barrage of abuse accompanies Jesus in his death. In the Roman judgment hall, the Roman soldiers mock him. They spit on him and pay mock homage. The passers-by at the crucifixion site deride him. The priests and scribes witnessing his death mock him as well. In Mark both of the bandits crucified with him also taunt him. There is no mention of the repentant thief that we find in Luke.

Jesus’s final words in Mark are the quotation from Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) Jesus seems to be saying that even God his Father has abandoned him. The bystanders misunderstand and therefore distort this final cry of desolation. They think Jesus is calling on Elijah to come to his rescue.

These final words in Mark contrast sharply with Jesus’s last words in Luke, where Jesus’ final cry is: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46). This seems to be a much more faith-filled acceptance of death than the words of Psalm 22. They follow upon Jesus’ earlier compassionate words on the cross: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

And in John, Jesus’ final words are a kind of triumphant declaration: It is finished (John 19:30). It is as if Jesus is the valiant soldier, who has achieved his assigned objective, and now in his dying breath declares: “Mission accomplished.”

There is none of these positive notes in Mark’s account. Jesus not only dies alone, but in deep darkness. Mark says a gloom descends upon the land even though it is noontime. It is as if the whole of creation is closing in on Jesus to suffocate him.

A Mystifying Turn in a Bleak Account

It is because of this bleak account that I find so surprisingly unexpected the final words in Mark on Jesus’ death. They are the words of the Roman centurion who presides over the crucifixion. Mark quotes the soldier as saying: Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39).

 An alternate translation of the Greek could also be “Truly this man was a son of God.” The right translation does not concern me, even though it will some who worry this alternate translation disparages Jesus’ divinity. What jumps out at me is this startling comment from a Gentile who apparently had never had any previous contact with Jesus.*

Mark says the comment was provoked by the centurion’s observation of the way Jesus died.

This raises for me the question: What was it about the way Jesus died that would evoke such a startling comment from a bystander who had probably witnessed many a crucifixion? It seems to be all the more extraordinary given Jesus’ final words in Mark. We are left with a mystery.

If their accounts give us accurate reports on the crucifixion, then Luke’s and John’s accounts of Jesus’ dying words may give us some insight into the centurion’s reaction. Comments like those Luke and John record would have likely been highly unusual in a normal crucifixion. And given the barrage of abuse he endured, it is surprising that Jesus never responds with words of anger, cursing, and vituperation such as many a dying man on a cross might have hurled back at his abusers.

But there was something unusual about Jesus’ death that evoked this judgment from the centurion. It is as if the centurion was able to discern the presence of the divine in this moment of desolation. This is what I presume that Mark wants his readers and listeners to discern as well.

What was it that opened the centurion’s eyes to this perception? We cannot know, but as in his life so also in his death, Jesus’ actions evoked a sense of awe from some of the people who encountered him.

Two Awesome Deaths

As I read Mark’s account, I am reminded on another death where the manner in which the condemned man died results in a kind of awe from bystanders. It is the death of Socrates, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo. Like Jesus’ execution, Socraetes’ death too is an blatant act of injustice. But when you read Plato, you get the sense of awe that Plato and Socrates’ other companions had as they witnessed Socrates’ calm acceptance of his approaching death. They must have been mystified by it.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, there are not the notes of placid calmness that we find in Plato. Jesus’ death is much more unsettling. Mark punctures any pious Pollyanna complacency we might feel about that death. Yet Jesus’ death too issues in an emotion of awe on the part of the centurion. That is part of the drama of Mark, and part of the drama of the Christian gospel.

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* I am aware some people question whether Mark records facts accurately. Is the centurion’s comment Mark’s embellishment? We can never know. But the issue of historicity does not concern me. I enter into the story as Mark tells it. And I ask the question that the story raises within me.

 

The Bible Says It. I Believe It.

Differing views on how we look for an ancient book to speak to us today.

I want to call your attention to a recent blog posting by Adam Hamilton. It’s titled: The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC–Part One. He wrote it in anticipation of the meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is gathering in Portland, Oregon this month.

One of the contentious issues that the General Conference will be dealing with is the stance that United Methodists adopt to homosexuality. It is a long unresolved issue among United Methodists.

I am linking to Hamilton’s posting not to push his position in the debate.* But I am impressed with how Hamilton lays out the different assumptions in the debate about how the Bible functions as the Word of God. Those differing assumptions lie at the base of many of the church battles over homosexuality.

Sometimes conservative Christians who oppose homosexuality argue that Christians who support it are playing fast and loose with Scripture. In extreme cases, they charge that such Christians are not Bible-believers.

That is simply not true, in my opinion. The two camps both take Scripture seriously, but they adopt different approaches to reading the Bible and expecting to hear from it a word from God for today. These differing approaches affect not only how we read the Bible on issues of homosexuality, but on a host of other theological and social issues as well. Hamilton does a great job of highlighting these divergent positions. And that’s why I consider his blog worth your time reading. I hope you will take time to do so.

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* If you wish to know my own views on the Bible and church debates over homosexuality, you may want to read the two blog postings I published two years ago. They are: Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider and Gamaliel’s Rule and Christian Debates over Homosexuality.

The Beauty of Holiness

How is it that we have come to think of holiness as grim, gray, and kill-joy?

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Sunset on the island of Maui

Now and then as I read a Bible text, a phrase grabs my attention and then haunts my thoughts for some time afterwards. I can’t quite make sense of it, and yet I can’t quite let it go. It’s like a musical tune that runs over and over again in my mind.

That happens for me when I read Psalm 29 in the translation of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It is a praise psalm. It begins:

Ascribe to the Lord, you gods,

            ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name;

            worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. [Psalm 29:1-2]*

There it is, at the end of the last line, the phrase I find so odd: the beauty of holiness. The psalmist invites us to worship God in a mode of holiness, which for him is something incredibly glorious and beautiful.

The reason why the phrase pulls me up short is that I don’t customarily link holiness with beauty. In the religious tradition I grew up in, the two are opposites to each other, like matter and anti-matter. There is always something a bit suspect about beauty. You can never quite trust it. It can seduce into sin. And so you never dare to link it to holiness.

A Legacy of the Reformation

How did the religious tradition I grew up in acquire that mindset? I think it goes back to the spirit of ascetical Christianity, but in my tradition, especially to the Puritan strand in the Reformation.

Puritans were generally appalled at all the sensual display of medieval Catholicism–its incense, its statues and stained glass, its fussy vestments, its grandiose architecture, and its elaborate music that only trained choirs could sing. Throw all that out and give us just the plain Word. We often forget, for example, that for a couple of centuries after John Calvin Presbyterians never sang hymns in church, only metrical psalms, and never accompanied by an organ.

So Protestants of the Calvinist variety tended to frown upon any efforts to inject beauty into worship services. Keep everything stark and simple.

But I think there is a deeper reason for the dichotomy, and it goes back to the Separatist strand in the Puritan effort to reform the Church of England. The Separatists took very seriously what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:17: Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you. [I quote it in the King James Version, for that was the wording that was always used in the churches where I grew up.]**

Holiness meant keeping separated from anything unholy and unclean. That included anything in churches corrupted by association with ungodly Catholicism, but also anything in the wider world that smacked of sin and evil. And one of those corrupting forces in the wider, sinful world was beautiful things, whether fine fabrics and gold buttons or paintings upon their walls.

As a result, holiness came to be associated with a kind of austere life, simple, plain, and unadorned. It tended to dress in black, and avoid amusements like dancing and theatre. A fine example of this grim, kill-joy understanding of holiness is the grim, kill-joy Christian community we meet in the movie Babette’s Feast. Its austere, gray life fits perfectly into the barren, wind-and-rain-swept landscape of coastal Denmark.

This was the tradition I grew up in, and so I find it odd indeed when I hear the psalmist linking holiness with beauty. How can he do that?

In Search of the Fuller Sense of Scripture

Here’s how I have come to deal with that strange juxtaposition. It involves a practice of reading Scripture that I like to indulge in: the practice of juxtaposing one text against another. In this way I can grasp the fuller sense of Scripture.

This past Sunday, the lectionary assigned as the epistle reading portions of Revelation 21-22. These two chapters describe the elder John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth that God will create at the end of time. At its center is the city of the new holy Jerusalem that descends from heaven to settle on earth.

The descriptions of the city are glorious indeed. It shines. It shines not only in the hovering glory of God, but also with its shimmering gold streets and jewel-studded gates.

The city is built around a garden, from which flows a river of living water. Besides its streams grow the trees of life, producing fruit in all seasons. John compares the city’s beauty to that of a bride adorned in her finest for her husband.

Here in this vision beauty is indeed linked to holiness, for the city is said to be the holy Jerusalem. But what constitutes its holiness? It is that God dwells in this city fully. There is no temple because there is no need to confine God within the sacred space of a building. Instead sacred space has expanded to embrace the whole of the new creation.

What makes the city holy is God’s indwelling presence. It is also what makes the city incredibly beautiful.

Now I always read the visions of Revelation as symbolic, not literal. The city stands for the new community of humanity that will become the norm in the Kingdom of God. And in that kingdom, the promise of Christmas–Emmanuel, God with us–will be completely and ultimately fulfilled.

The Incarnation Points to the Answer

The story of the Incarnation, therefore, provides the key to how beauty and holiness become not only linked but fused together. As God comes to dwell in every human heart and in every chink of God’s world, everything comes to be absorbed into the holy. The distinction between the profane and the sacred is abolished. The holy can shine in beauty in all of creation.

What then we Christians are called upon to do is not to separate ourselves from the world in grim, kill-joy grayness, but go forth to fulfill the call that the voice in the vision speaks to Peter in Acts 10:15: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. That message comes just before messengers knock on Peter’s door with an invitation to come and meet with the Roman officer Cornelius. Peter does, preaches the gospel to Cornelius and his family, and they become the first Gentiles to enter the Christian church.

With this story, we see the momentum of the Incarnation on the move. The distinction between the Jew and the Gentile (a distinction that many Jews and Christians saw as a distinction between the sacred and the profane) was starting to be erased. And as more parts of God’s creation were brought into God’s kingdom, the holy was able to shine more and more in all things as the beauty of God.

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* The King James Version follows the translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Other modern translations translate the line differently.

**What my religious tradition also tended to ignore is that in this verse in 2 Corinthians, Paul is quoting the Old Testament. It is not his own words. That also affects, I believe, how we read and interpret this verse.