“Faith puts us on the path of life, but hope enables us to keep ourselves on the path.”
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
– Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians’, chapter 4, verses 13 – 18, English Standard Version.
We have all seen the bumper stickers asking us, “Are you ready for the Rapture?” The uninitiated are left to wonder what the car’s owner means by “the Rapture”? For the uninitiated the word suggests a state of ecstasy, ex-stasis, feeling completely outside oneself, lost in the stars with joy, delight, bliss, carried away by overwhelming emotion. But what does the word mean when it’s, “Are you ready for the Rapture?”, on the bumper of a fundamentalist’s auto?
The word rapture comes from the same Latin root as rape. Which means the forcible taking away of a person or thing, or even the sexual violation of someone. We speak also of the Rape of Nanking, the violent devastation of a city and the rape and murder of its people; but there’s also the “Rape of the Lock“, Alexander Pope’s poem only about the theft of a wisp of a maiden’s tresses. But “rapture” in the sense that fundamentalists use it means that all True Believers are to be seized at a certain moment and whisked off to their pie in the sky, and everyone else left stranded on the damned earth as they watch their neighbors disappear into the heavens. This nonsense has entered into the soul of fundamentalism and is now treated as an absolute essential of their brand of faith. It comes from misreading the text.
It seems as though every couple of years we see stories in the news media about groups of people from different faith communities who have reached the conclusion that the time of the second coming of Christ is at hand. They will have reached this decision on the basis of their biblical research and study, and believe that on a date in the next few weeks or months they will hear the blast of the angel’s trumpet that will inaugurate the unfolding of the scrolls that will dictate the return of our Lord. Usually they sell all that they possess and take their families to hide in a cave or on the top of a mountain in some isolated region. There they wait for a length of time and then re- emerge slightly embarrassed, ready to return to their biblical drawing boards, prepared to re-figure the time and place of the Second Coming.
Those of us who witness these doings have different sorts of reactions to these doings and often wonder how groups of relatively intelligent people can let their good sense to overwhelmed by such theological flimflam.
This is not a modern phenomenon though. This desire to know the time and date of the Day of the Lord has always fascinated Christians. Many greeted the end of the first millennium following Christ’s birth with a widespread feeling that the end was at hand. Whole villages and communities emptied themselves, many other areas suffered from terrible famines and because farmers saw no point in plowing and sowing crops for the next season if the world was to end that winter.
This is a pattern that has occurred again and again in the history of the Christian world. Even now there are televangelists who are trying to decide how to fit current events into the schemes and schedules that they have derived from the books of Daniel and the Revelation to John. Consider for a moment the number of books that authors such as Hal Lindsey have sold over the last few decades. These writers have used various biblical passages in a piecemeal fashion to put forth the proposition that we are living at the end of the age, and that we should expect the imminent return of the Christ in the next few years.
Part of Paul’s reason for writing to the church in Thessalonica was because of the concern among members about the fate of people who died before the coming of the Lord. Thessalonians were trying to figure out the how and why and when of the coming of the kingdom.
There are passages in other of his letters in which the apostle had to address sections of Christian communities which had given themselves over to passive resignation or even debauchery, in expectation of the end of the age. Finally he told the Thessalonians, “About dates and times, my friends, we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
In the Gospel according to Matthew (24:36), Jesus said that all you could do was to stay alert because you never know the day or the hour. Why is it that people persist in trying to know something that Jesus said that He did not know? I think it is because we want time to get ready; we want to be like those maidens who had kept their lamps trimmed and burning. We want to be ready to join those elect from every tribe, people and nation who sit around the throne of God and serve Him day and night.
At the root of this type of expectation there is a kind of healthy hope that looks for the Advent of the One that is to Come. It directs some to look for Christ’s presence in the face of everyone that they meet. And yet so often in our study and predictions, we have drained this expectation of any sense hope; and we have replaced hope with fear and dread, and pushed this time to a place beyond history, beyond life and given it over to the hands of fanatics who have turned the Lord’s Advent against time, counter posing it against life itself.
Paul wrote that whatever we have to suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory as yet unrevealed, which awaits us. Paul yearned for God’s future because of the promise it contained. He knew that God’s future promised a time in which all things “which were cast down would be raised up, and things which had grown old would be made new, and that all things would be brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made…”
This is the promise in Christ’s coming, and the hope for what is promised is like the driving wheel of our faith. We don’t need to peer toward the farther edges of history for the fulfillment of that promise, we see it in the light that fills the sky at the break of each new day. We are waiting for something that is unlike anything which we have experienced and is unshaped by the moments of time that have preceded it. Paul wrote to the people of Rome, “We are save by hope…but hope that is seen is not hope;…for what someone sees, why does he yet hope for? But if we hope for that which we do not see, then we do with patience wait for it. What we expect springs from the foot of the cross and begins its growth in the garden Gethsemane.”
This is what we wait; this is what we are called to prepare for; this is what the maidens saved their oil for. But if you look at what most people do, and how we think; we often find that this is not how we get ready. Most of reckoning of this day is done with the sort of joy you see reflected in the face of an IRS auditor. We weigh this and that imperfection. We jot down each and every misdeed or miscalculation in our lives. We resolve that we will undergo a reshaping of our souls and through a rigorous course of spiritual aerobics we will prepare ourselves for the day of His coming.
This does not sound like hope to me; it sounds more like dread. The maidens we read of in the Gospel according to Matthew greeted the arrival of the groom with joy and song, not tears and lamentations. When hope is robbed of joy, when expectation is replaced by anxiety, the very nature of our faith is changed, we become creatures who live in fear. We become people whose faith involves rigid adherence to spiritual laws and precepts which enslave us in the same way that they had bound St. Paul. When our hope is replaced with dread and anxiety, we stick to the familiar: we hoard and save, we fear to risk, and we walk our life’s path with a timorous step.
Jurgen Moltman wrote, “Faith puts us on the path of life, but hope enables us to keep ourselves on the path.” Our expectation of the coming of the Lord should be that which urges us to move forward to step out across all of the boundaries and barricades that seek to halt our journey. This is what enables us to step out toward the future for which all creation has been prepared.
It is the hope bubbling up in our lives that enables us to face the injustice and inequity that deform human existence and distort our lives. It is the promise of His coming that enables us to hear the trickle of the waters of justice as the beginning of a flood tide which will wash away all our sins. It is this expectation, this “passion for what is possible” that enables us to imagine the roar of a mighty river in which we will cleanse ourselves and make ready for the wedding feast. It is this hope that enables us to see the clear light of God’s promise reflected in the glow of the bridesmaids’ candles.
Our faith in Christ and our hope for His entry into our lives in power and great glory should be something that causes us to sing in the streets — not to hide ourselves in caves. Our expectation should be marked with hope not anxiety. We need to make only one preparation and that is to greet the day with joy because of the promise that it brings. Our prayer for His coming should be shouted with joy, not whispered in fear.