1 Thessalonians 4.13–18
…If Christian hope is reduced to the salvation of the soul in a heaven beyond death, it loses its power to renew life and change the world, and its flame is quenched. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God
When I was a young Christian, I was part of a church that believed in the Rapture. I heard about the Rapture often. Do you know what the Rapture is? It’s the belief that one day, Jesus will descend from heaven and take up all true Christians and take them back to heaven. Everyone else is ‘left behind’, and there will be a great time of suffering.
A lot of people have tried hard to predict when that will happen.
I’m not going to try to guess when it will be; mainly because the Bible doesn’t teach it. According to the Bible, there’s no such thing as the Rapture. In fact, it’s a very misleading idea. I hope I can show you that today.
There’s a common script that people assume when they talk about the second coming. The world will get worse and worse; Jesus will come and whisk all the believers up to heaven; and then the world gets even worse still. Then Jesus comes as an enforcer and ‘kicks ass’.
The passage we heard today from 1 Thessalonians is the proof text people use to teach the Rapture. We’ll look at it soon, but first let’s look at that phrase ‘second’ coming.
Do you know it’s not actually biblical? The Bible doesn’t mention the ‘second’ coming. The Bible simply speaks of the ‘coming’ of Jesus. The Greek word for ‘coming’ is parousia, which means ‘being alongside’ us. Jesus is coming all the time, because he is always coming alongside us. But there are times when he is alongside us in particular ways—and dare we hope that one day, he will be fully and completely ‘alongside’ the whole creation?
Jesus may be coming alongside us at every moment, but how? Our experience is often quite different: it’s the absence of Jesus, the absence of God. Our prayers are unanswered. Injustice reigns in the world. The church lets us down. We struggle, we may lose our faith and hope. God seems real at one time, and the next day our sense of God’s presence seems to evaporate.
But God has come alongside us in Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus is risen within us, as we share his Spirit; and one day, our hope is that Jesus will be all in all to everyone. As we shall say in our Communion service soon:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
This is our proclamation to the world of the great new Event of Jesus Christ.
But what do we do in the meantime? Back in the 1500s, someone asked Martin Luther that very question. Luther answered like this: if he knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, he’d go out and plant a tree.
What did he mean? That seems a pretty earth-bound thing to do when time is so short. A bit longterm. Do we prepare for Jesus to come alongside us through working on very earthly things? That may be a new thought.
Recently—just back in September—some were saying that the second coming was upon us because of stars aligning and an imaginary planet coming close to the earth. It excited a few people.
If you believe these people, we should prepare for the coming of Jesus by throwing in our jobs, selling our homes, putting up billboards and giving them our money. Planting trees is not on their agenda.
Is there any biblical basis for saying that actively improving life here on earth is the way to prepare for Jesus? Yes there is, and some of it is here in today’s readings in Matthew and 1 Thessalonians.
Let’s look at 1 Thessalonians 4. I said this is a key passage for those who believe in the ‘Rapture’. Here, Paul writes:
the Lord himself…will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.
So, according to the Rapture idea, Jesus will come in the air, believers will join him there and then whoosh!—Jesus hits the ‘air brakes’, turns around in mid air, and takes us off to heaven.
The problem is that’s a serious distortion of what this passage means.
Some of you will no doubt remember the old Star Trek series. Captain Kirk would be in a spot of bother on the surface of some planet, and he’d talk into his wireless receiver and say “Beam me up, Scotty!” And instantly, he’d dematerialise and then re-materialise back on the Starship Enterprise.
I think of the Rapture as a kind of Beam me up, Jesus thing which lifts us up into celestial certainty.
But that’s not what is pictured here.
Paul here is picturing Jesus as a VIP, a special or powerful person coming to town. It’s as if Caesar himself were coming to town. It’s like the Queen visiting Brisbane. Whenever she would visit, people would prepare. They swept the streets, mowed the grass in the parks and gave their teeth an extra floss. They made the place and they made themselves ‘fit for a queen’.
That’s how we prepare for the Queen; it’s how the people of the ancient world prepared for Caesar when he came; and it’s how we prepare the world for Jesus.
We prepare by doing what Jesus did: we work for peace, for healing, for life in all its fullness. We tell out the good news that Jesus is Lord, not the stock market, not political expediencies and not some celebrity culture. We make the world a better place, a place fit for the King of kings.
What happened when the Queen visited Brisbane a few years ago? Did she say to us all, I’m going to take you away from all this and whisk you off to Buckingham Palace? Of course not. She entered our city. She came to our place.
When we talk about the parousia of Jesus, one of the things we’re picturing is a world in which Jesus is the coming King. A world in which he enters our city and finds himself at home. When he entered Jerusalem 2000 years ago, he was rejected. And I fear the same would happen right now, today, in Washington, London, Berlin, Beijing, or Brisbane. The world would not receive him.
We as the Body of Christ are meant to be a people who are making themselves and their world fit for Jesus. People who are listening for the Spirit’s voice, and learning to follow Jesus.
So when Paul speaks of Jesus coming, he’s using a familiar picture. Indeed, the normal practice in the ancient world was that when a special or powerful visitor came to a town, the people of that place would come out beyond the boundary of their town to meet their guest. They would then turn back, and escort the VIP into their town.
That’s why Paul pictures us meeting Jesus in the air. Jesus comes down from heaven, which was above the sky for the people of the ancient world. So believers go out—up!—to meet him, and then they accompany him as he comes to earth. The way Paul pictures it, when Jesus comes even the dead greet him. His coming is so exciting, so all-transforming, that even they can’t keep still! The dead are also caught up into the air to meet him as he comes down, just as the living are!
This is quite different to the ‘beam me up Jesus’ picture. Jesus doesn’t stop in mid-air and turn back to heaven with all those who are saved. Jesus keeps coming; he comes down earth, to transform the earth.
And that’s what he calls us to do with him.
The question to us at Trinity Wellington Point is how we may do this. How do we make the world a better place, as we wait for the world to become the place in which God’s will is done? How do we use what we have been given?
As we engage with these questions, we prepare for Jesus. In terms of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, this is the oil we need: to keep focussed on the mission of God for the world today.
Beam me up Jesus? I don’t think so. There’s far too much to do down here.