May 25, 2011

The Close-at-Hand God

by Debra Dean Murphy
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  John 14:20

For several weeks now the doomsday prophecy of one Harold Camping has been on the minds of many. First, it was the shared anticipation as the projected date got closer—and the requisite jokes about being left behind. Then it was the (no-surprise) failure of the prediction which resulted in . . . more jokes about being left behind.

Attempts to counter Camping’s misguided views consisted mostly of pointing to passages in the New Testament which speak to the unknowability of the “day or hour” of the Lord’s return. But such proof-texting did little to challenge the core flaw of rapture theology—its fundamental misreading of biblical eschatology. Within the last few days, thankfully, thoughtful essays have appeared which have noted that “tribulation” is a past and present reality, not a future horror for the damned, and that matter—bodies, earth, the stuff of life—matters deeply to the God who restores and makes all things new. I also penned some thoughts (shameless plug alert) on the connections between eschatological time and the exquisite new French film Of Gods and Men.

Central to rapture theology and even to some of the first responses to it is the belief that God is far removed from Creation—a distant judge whose ways and will are inscrutable; a moody tyrant-king continually disappointed in his subjects; a cosmic hothead always ready to pounce on unsuspecting evildoers. It’s this kind of god who will preside over the rapture’s doom and devastation. No wonder Camping’s predictions boosted the recruitment efforts of atheist and agnostic organizations around the country.

The appointed lessons for this Sunday, the sixth of Eastertide, offer a vision of God and God’s relationship to the world that couldn’t be more different. The gospel reading from St. John, a continuation of last Sunday’s text, has Jesus speaking words of assurance to his anxious disciples who must have surely felt that the end of the world was near. Jesus begins by charging them to keep his commandments but, because this is John’s gospel, we know that he is not so much ordering adherence to a set of moral edicts as he is enjoining his followers to love (John 13:34).

Their task is to bear witness to the love that has been in their midst—not to retreat from the world or to condemn the world to divine wrath but to love it as God loves it, to immerse themselves fully in it, to be a community that mirrors the very life of the Godhead. (This pericope is as Trinitarian as anything in the New Testament). To do this, they will need an advocate—a good lawyer, if we take the Greek literally, the “Spirit of truth” who will abide with and in the disciples. No remote, inscrutable, unpredictable deity here—only the intimacy of human-divine relationship that comes as a gift to the grieving and bewildered.

In 1 Peter, as in many of the epistles, we get on-the-ground advice about how to negotiate the realities we will face when we dare to love as God loves, when we claim the immediacy of our good God over the caprice of the distant sky-god. We will likely suffer, Peter tells us straight-up, for “doing good,” for our “good conduct in Christ.” But we are not to fear since, in Christ, we have been “brought to God” and saved through baptism. And in contrast to the cold exclusiveness of rapture theology, we learn that no one is outside the bounds of God’s intimate embrace: Christ’s salvation reaches even to the dead (3:19).

And, finally, it’s the day’s Psalm that gives us the words of praise for the good gift of God’s faithful, loving presence in our lives—even in the midst of suffering: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried . . . you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (66:10-12).

A “spacious place” in the here and now which is not about the rapture but is, thanks be to God, rapturous indeed.


Jenny W said...

Terrific, Debra. Thoughtful as always. You always go deeper than the surface and engage foundational issues.

Your reflections made me realize that there are two concrete examples in the other lectionary texts that demonstrate the kind of love to which Christ enjoins us. In Acts, Paul demonstrates love by speaking to the Athenians on their terms--using the rhetorical style they were used to, beginning with flattery rather than confrontation.

And in 1 Peter, the author instructs the recipients--the suffering church--to make sure that when they are confronted for doing good, they can give an accounting of their hope with gentleness and reverence. Paired with last week's pericope in 1 Peter and the story of the stoning of Stephen, we see many examples of how to care for our enemies, particularly enemies of the faith.

Thanks for helping me make these connections.

Chris Price said...

We mustn't forget that Jesus message here is eschatological and the very fact that as sojourners on this earth we are to be prepared at all times to meet our maker. Its the transient nature of our lives and the nearness of God's kingdom which means that we are not of this world and groan as we await the final instalment of God's coming.

Just as its easier to be an heroic one minute wonder than to live a long-term sacrificial life, so rapture theology is easier to sell than an appeal to be still and listen to the Spirit of God. Some would nominate God for an Oscar rather than let God be God.

Edward said...

Very nice. And kind. I'm glad you didn't slam Camping or those who bought into his ideas. Thanks for the timely insights.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with "Spoonful" on the point that we are "sojourners" on the earth. That is not to say we have "no connection" with it; on the contrary, Eden's account shows us to be caretakers. But we have fallen from Eden, and we therefore look forward to all things being made new in the creation, which only occurs upon Christ's return (again agreeing with "Spoonful").

The main question I have is as to what this "Second Coming" will be like. Jesus, whose love we are directed to emulate on the one hand, also himself very clearly spoke of an ultimate "distinction" or division--sheep from the goats, good fish from bad fish, wheat from the tares, those who took the narrow path instead of the broad, etc. In my view, God's love is an offer which may be either accepted or rejected, and it is only those who have accepted in the biblical fashion who may look forward to that "Second Coming."

Finally, however, I readily agree that the "pre-trib rapture" theory does not stand up to scriptural analysis or mere logic. There is no reason Christians should escape from any "final" tribulation any more than our forebears escaped their own. In my view, Christ will come with the sound of a trumpet and the shout of the archangel in the twinkling of an eye, at a time we know not when, and then there will be the "Final Judgment" which does the "separation" I noted above. As a result, to the extent we can, we want to bring others onto the "straight and narrow path."

Tom Harkins