Beam me up, Jesus? (12 November 2017, Year A)

Readings
1 Thessalonians 4.13–18
Matthew 25.1-13

…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

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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.

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What would make you call someone a saint? (5 November 2017)

Readings
1 John 3.1–3
Matthew 5.1–12

I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying. — Nelson Mandela, 1999 speech at the Baker Institute, Rice University, Houston

In the lives of the saints, we see in our own time the qualities that make life possible. — Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year

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Last Thursday, 1 November, was All Saints’ Day. So today, we’re hearing the readings for All Saints’ Day. On this day, we celebrate women and men who have been examples of faithful and joy-filled service for us who are still on the pilgrim way.

What would make you call someone a saint?

Now, some of you may remind me that every single Christian is a saint. A saint is someone who is called to be holy. The Apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth — in other words, to the whole congregation. Some of them were living in pretty ethically dodgy ways. But Paul called them saints.

However: today, I’m using the word ‘saint’ in its everyday sense. In an ordinary way. In everyday terms, a saint is someone in whom we see something of the goodness of God. Someone who has some quality of love, or compassion, or faithfulness, or patience that we recognise taps into a very deep well.

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Failure is fine; God is here (Year A, 13 August 2017)

Readings
1 Kings 19.9–18
Romans 10.5–15

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. — Deuteronomy 6.4

Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, … ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.’ — Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
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I have a granddaughter, E., who lives with her mum (my daughter) and her dad in South America.

E. is two in October, and she is growing up bilingual. She is learning to speak Spanish and English. At the same time.

My daughter is fluent in Spanish, but she speaks to E. in English.

E.’s dad is improving his English. His English isn’t bad, it’s better than my Spanish. But he speaks to her in Spanish.

E. is growing up hearing both languages all the time.

One day, she’ll separate them out and speak both English and Spanish fluently, but right now anything goes. She was playing with the family cat the other week. She calls him ‘Gato’, which is Spanish for ‘cat’.

Gato is ve-e-ery patient with her, but when he gets tired of being poked and picked up in awkward ways, he just trots off.

It happened the other day. As he was moving somewhere quieter and safer, E. called out, ‘Bye bye, Gato’.

As far as she is concerned, ‘bye bye’ and ‘gato’ are words in the same language. (Maybe it should be called ‘Spanglish’!)

It’s cute for her to speak Spanglish right now. But by the time she’s my age, it won’t be cute any longer. She’ll need to have it all sorted out.

She will do that by listening to her parents, and to others, and sorting out which words belong in which language. E. is going to make lots of mistakes. We can’t call them mistakes yet, it’s all too cute, but one day she may embarrass herself be getting English and Spanish all mixed up. She could feel a failure if she does that.

Failure’s bad, right?

And success is everything, yes?

You know, success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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God/struggles (Year A, 6 August 2017)

Readings
Genesis 32.22–31
Matthew 14.13–21

Israel’s self-understanding is one of being in a locked battle with God. In their very name, the Israelites make very plain and public that they see themselves as a people that struggle with God. — Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People

Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
and I am left alone with Thee;
with Thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day. — Charles Wesley, ‘Wrestling Jacob’

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Today, we heard about a wrestling match between Jacob and—who was it? A man? An angel? God himself? Or could we even read it as a parable of Jacob’s inner struggle with himself?

This is a text to struggle with.
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Hidden in plain sight ( Year A, 30 July 2017)

Reading
Matthew 13.31–33, 44–52

For Jesus, God’s realm is not some esoteric kingdom in the sweet by and by, but as close as the next mustard bush or loaf of bread.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.3.

Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour. (Isaiah 45.15)
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In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with these words:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

The kingdom of heaven—what Mark and Luke call the kingdom of God—has come near.

What is the kingdom of God? Well, it’s something Jesus tells stories about.

We can tell that this kingdom is near because when Jesus tells stories about it, he tells stories about things that are near at hand. Jesus’ ‘Parables of the Kingdom’ are stories about farmers and seeds and merchants finding pearls and women baking bread.

But these stories have a bit of a twist. The twist is there because whilethe kingdom of God really is nearby, it is also hidden. You can see it—hidden in plain sight—if you know how to look. If you can repent and look with new eyes. The parables of Jesus call us to engage with them, to rethink, to redirect our heart.

In today’s terms, we could tell a parable something like this:

The kingdom of God is like an old woman in a coffee shop who pays for the strangers at the next table, and slips out before they realise it.

Or,

The kingdom of God is like a pregnant woman getting on a full bus, whereupon a gay man gives up his seat for her.

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Pilate tweets Holy Week

I came across this the other day. It’s delightfully hilarious!:

Pilate tweets

Read the rest here.

 

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How great the pain of searing loss

Readings
Hebrews 12.1–3
John 13.21–32

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.
(Brian Wren)

Last night, we heard that when Jesus was on the cross, he cried out (Luke 23.34),

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

We saw that here, the Son is addressing the Father. And that the Holy Spirit is holding them together.

Tonight, we want to hear something else that Jesus uttered from the cross. He cried out in the opening words of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Perhaps you know that feeling.

When I was younger, I was taught that this was the point at which God turn his back on Jesus as Jesus ‘became sin’ for us, as Jesus ‘paid the penalty’ for sin. God could not look on sin, so he turned away from Jesus.

One of the proof tests for this idea comes from the book of the prophet Habakkuk. In 1.13a, we read

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;

That seems to settle it. God cannot look upon sin, so God turns away from Jesus on the cross.

But we need to read the second half of that verse:

[so] why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk is confused by this. He thinks that God cannot look upon evil; but he sees that God does look upon evil.

I feel equally confused when people talk about God turning away from Jesus on the cross. You see, I don’t believe God did turn away from Jesus.

The only way I can get any handle on all this is to look at these words as spoken to God the Father by the eternal Son made flesh. Just as ‘Father, forgive them’ is a conversation between Father and Son, so is ‘Why have you forsaken me?’

When Jesus asks ‘Why have you forsaken me?’, we are still dealing with the Father and Son, held together by the Spirit.

God was not far away from Christ that day, nor having an afternoon catching up with his emails in the office. God was in Christ. According to 2 Corinthians 5.19, ‘God was making the whole human race his friends through Christ. God did not keep an account of their sins…’

Or in perhaps more familiar language, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.’

You may know this song: How deep the Father’s love for us. It starts like this:

How deep the Father’s love for us,
how vast beyond all measure,
that he should give his only Son
to make a wretch his treasure.

And then we go on to sing these words:

How great the pain of searing loss:
the Father turns his face away.
as wounds which mar the Chosen One
bring many sons to glory.

Let’s just leave for another day the exclusive language that uses ‘sons’ to include ‘everyone’. We won’t go there tonight—it’s important, but it’s not the time right now.

But let’s look at the words.

How great the pain of searing loss:

This is the very heart of the Cross. ‘The pain of searing loss’ is such a moving way to describe the godforsaken cry of Jesus.

Yet the Father also shares the pain of searing loss with the Son.

In that cry, not only is the Son fatherless; but the Father is also sonless. The Father freely enters into the pain of the Son. [Note 1]

If the Father and the Son were truly separated at that point, we could ask Does the Trinity then fall apart? [Note 2] No, because the Spirit binds Father and Son as one in a grief-stricken embrace.

Next, we sing

the Father turns his face away

As I said, I don’t believe the Father’s face is turned away at all; but if it were, it would be turned away in heartbroken grief.

It doesn’t help me to say the Father turns away because the sin of the world is placed on Jesus. For heaven’s sake (literally!), the Son has been spending his life embracing sinners. If God is Trinity, then the Father has also been embracing them with the Son. The Father also embraces us with the Son. The Father is the one who looks out every day for the prodigal to return. The Father does not keep account of sins.

The song goes on,

as wounds which mar the Chosen One
bring many ‘sons’ to glory.

Do those wounds ‘mar’ Jesus? Do they make him ugly to the Father? No! If you see your child injured, you run towards them and not away from them. Your child is beautiful to you no matter what happens.

The scars do not ‘mar’ the chosen one; Jesus bore them in his risen body. He took the scars with him as he ascended into heaven.

The wounds may make Jesus ugly to us, but not to the Father.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Because Jesus uttered these words, they have become words of hope for us who are adopted as children of the Father. The triune God will never forsake us: the Spirit binds us firmly to the Father; the Son has accomplished it all for us.

Let us move into the Great Three Days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter itself with confidence and joy!

For the Wednesday of Holy Week, 2017

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Note 1: ‘To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father, and if God has constituted himself as the Father of Jesus Christ, then he also suffers the death of his Fatherhood in the death of the Son.’ (Juergen Moltmann, The Crucified God)

Note 2: This is almost an inevitable question. It also blunders by exceeding the bounds of human language about God, and is guilty of hubris.

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