Beam me up Jesus?
1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
The ‘second coming’ of Jesus has been in the news this year. The American preacher Harold Camping has emphasised the second coming in his teaching. He says that Jesus will come at the ‘Rapture’, when true believers will be whisked away to heaven and those who are ‘Left Behind’ will come under the power of the Beast and face the wrath of God. He has made himself—and, by extension, the rest of us—a laughingstock by making no less than four false prophecies of the End: one in 1988, one in 1994—and two this year, on 21 May and 21 October. I feel terribly sorry for those people who sold everything they had to give to this man and his misguided message. (I hear he’s just retired. Good call Harold, but a little late.)
I mentioned 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’.
Our young people have a great ministry with our church sign; they’re going with a sci-fi theme right now, so this week it’s said ‘Beam me up Jesus’. Star Trek fans will immediately recognise the phrase, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. It’s great fun and I love the sign—but it’s not great theology. A ‘beam me up Jesus’ faith is a faith that fails to hear the call of God.
Is ‘Beam me up Jesus’ really the biblical view? Let’s see. We’ll look at the New Testament passage we heard today, 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 particular times when he is alongside us in particular ways—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.
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. Do we prepare for Jesus to come alongside us through working on very earthly things? That’s a new thought.
If you believe people like Harold Camping, we should prepare for the coming of Jesus by throwing in our jobs, selling our homes, putting up billboards and giving him 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.
We’re going to look at 1 Thessalonians. Chapter 4 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.
This is one of the basic ‘proof texts’ of the ‘beam me up Jesus’ brigade. Jesus will come in the air, believers will join him there and then whoosh!—beam me up Jesus off to heaven.
The problem is that’s a serious distortion of what this passage means.
Paul here is picturing Jesus as a VIP, a special or powerful person coming to our town. It’s as if Caesar himself were coming to town. We’ve just had the Queen in Australia. Wherever she visited, people prepared. They swept the streets, mowed the grass in the parks and flossed their teeth. 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.
So we do 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 or the celebrity culture. We make the world a better place, a place fit for the King of kings.
What happened when the Queen visited Brisbane recently? 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 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 isn’t ready for 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 everyone wants to greet him. His coming is so exciting, so all-transforming, that even the dead can’t keep still! They 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 to transform the earth.
And that’s what he calls us to do with him.
We’re coming to the end of a stewardship renewal campaign. We’ve been invited to join in planned weekly giving, so that we might be able to fulfil the ministry and mission that we have set ourselves to do.
This is how 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. In terms of our mission statement, it’s part of what it means to be
Living God’s mission
as disciples of Jesus
united in the Spirit.
Beam me up Jesus? I don’t think so. There’s too much to do down here.