This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.
One thing our church gets right is eschatology.
A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.” Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.
Our church gets this right.
Consider our church calendar.
Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized. Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?
Next week we’ll start over, with Advent. For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.
Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.
All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”
Our church gets this right.
Also, consider today’s Gospel.
At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).
In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.
But where does this passage end? Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?
One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.
Our church gets this right.
But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year? What if we miss it? What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today? Especially the ones with legitimate excuses? Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year? Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?
Other churches do.
Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth? A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.
He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.
The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.
Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.
By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.
Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray. Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.
Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.
And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?
So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.
Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not? The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.
What about the so-called Great Tribulation? The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?
And the Millennium! C’mon! A literal thousand years! Really?
Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand. Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask? Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial? Do you believe in the Rapture?
To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”
But it’s all quite pessimistic.
For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up. So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?
My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest. After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”
For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works). In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.
And where is God’s love in that?
Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters. The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too. Yeah! Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.
There are variations on apocalypse, sure. Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property. And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.
Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.
But not with the Episcopal Church.
And, I maintain, our church gets it right.
Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things. We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.
The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized. In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial. Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.
Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.
Our church gets it right.
So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.
We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.
But there’s a tension.
For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission. And we feel the need to do it—keenly!
But it’s overwhelming.
It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals. And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.
And these things go against our American grain. We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.
So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.
And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.
Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.
And today our church gets it right.
Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted. Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied. Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.
Today, none of this matters!
For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.