Preached on Sunday, May 22, at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Lectionary Year A:
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
I woke up this morning. Pity, because I was rather counting on the prophecy of Harold Camping and so didn’t write a sermon for this Sunday. I refer to the octogenarian fulminator of fire and brimstone who predicted that the rapture would occur on 21 May, 2011, at or around 6pm local time, a degree of specificity that I found rather mysterious. Mr. Camping has been wrong before, and may revise his forecast for some time to come. Or he may just be a few days off, in which case the joke is on us.
Actually the joke has been on people of faith for some time since Mr. Camping joined the company of the Koran-burning self-styled pastor of Florida to be the public face of Christianity and grist for the mill of late night monologuists, stand up comics, and urbane atheists. That’s fine. St. Paul said that it would be so when he warned the early Christians in Corinth that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” [1 Cor. 1:18.
However, Harold Camping and his followers have managed to distort the message of the cross in a way that is particularly lamentable and unfortunate. First there is a very particular statistic they have put out, that only 3% of those living and who ever lived will be caught up in the rapture, leaving the remaining 97% to some very grim final months before the end of days. I am not sure where the statistic of 3% came from, but it seems representative of sects and cults which use a theology of the small and elect remnant as a selling point to prospective recruits, who can presumably feel quite chuffed that they have made it in.
In light of today’s gospel, this 3% claim seems to be an especially niggardly presentation of God’s grace. Jesus tells his disciples that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14.2). That adjective “many” doesn’t sound niggardly to me. It is in keeping with all the parables, such as the wedding feast or the workers in the vineyard, in which Jesus points the generosity of his Father. It is in keeping with the theme of John’s gospel, which speaks of God’s determination to save “the world” rather than an elite few. There is talk of judgement in the gospels to be sure, and talk of consequences for actions and for unbelief, to be sure. But I would argue that any prohecy which represents God as parsimonious should be discounted as unbiblical and unhelpful teaching.
I say “unhelpful teaching” quite deliberately, because I think Mr. Camping portrays an innacurate and even repellent view of Christianity. By way of example, while I was having breakfast with friends on Saturday I overheard a couple at the next tablt talking about the Camping rapture prophecy. “Overheard” really means my being nosy, because I’m always fascinated to hear other people’s ideas of spirituality and religion, and what I heard was dismaying. The couple were saying that no one knew when they would die of cancer or be hit by a car, and so why worry about the end of the world. To them, the faith that Camping was supposedly trying to represent had been reduced to a message of random chaos and death. If that is how his message is being widely understood, then Mr. Camping has a lot to answer for.
Christian doctrine does teach that the world as we know it will end, that there will be a judgement and second coming, and then a new creation. As for the timing of the end of days, any serious biblical scholar I have ever read and any wise pastor I have ever heard would say that the “when” is uncertain and unknowable. In Matthew 24, one of the most famous of the apocalyptic passages in scripture, Jesus says that this will all come at “an unexpected hour”, which means to my mind “unpredictable” (Matt 24:36-44). As for the nature of the end of days, the “how” of it, I am persuaded by biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright, based on Romans 8 and related texts, that the world as we know it will be restored and re-created to be the world that God always intended it to be. TO my mind the popular idea, a la Camping, that the world will be blotted out in fire and destruction is at odds with the doctrine of creation which should be the cornerstone of systematic theology. In other words, a loving God who created us and our world must be so invested in the fate of that creation that he would not wipe it away.
The questions “when” and “how” are asked in today’s gospel by the disciples who sense their own world ending. Today’s gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter takes us back five weeks and change to the upper room, as Jesus warns his friends that he is about to be taken from them, and says “Where I am going, you cannot follow” (Jn 13:26). To his fearful and uncertain friends, all Jesus can offer them is the reassurance of his faithfulness. “Believe in God, believe also in me” (14:1). I love the point made by Sara Heinrich in her online commentary on this gospel that “believe in me” could easily be translated from the Greek as “keep on trusting me”. Whereas “believe” in the life of the church often means assent to a set of creedal or abstract propositions, “keep on believing in me” is, as Heinrich notes, music to our ears in an all-too cynical age. It is a call from the faithful shepherd who, as we saw in last week’s gospel (John 10:1-10)knows us by name and has promised to watch over us, guard us, and to die for us. That is a call to be trusted.
So this week we go back to life as usual, and to the same questions. For some it be “when”, as in “when will my prayers be answered”, or “why” as in “why did this happen” or “how” as “how can I get out of this”. We will still hear promises and calls for our trust. I note today (May 24) that Mr. Camping, who was “flabbergasted” that the world did not end on 21 May, is now saying the world will really end on 21 October of this year. I can’t answer your “how”, “why” or “when” questions but I can answer your “who” question. If you are wondering who to believe or who to trust, I would say that the shepherd who calls you to keep on trusting and believing in him is faithful and worthy to be trusted. Faithful to the word he gave to his disciples in the upper room, he died for them, went before them to prepare the way, and returned. He does this work of preparation for all of us, out of the infinite capaciousness and grace of the father’s love. None of us know the “how” or “when” or “why” of our ends. We only know who will be there for us, and who is with us now. So let us not live in fear, as some would have us live, but let us live, and live abundantly (Jn 10:10), as Christ has called us to live.