Monday, May 23, 2011

After the rapture, what now?

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
5 Easter - Year A - May 22, 2011 (Sunday after the Rapture!)
Acts 7:55 - 60; Ps. 31:1-5, 15 - 16; John 14:1-14
Preacher: The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself...John 14: 3

            Well, it didn’t happen!  There was no earthquake and 200 million people have not mysteriously been taken into heaven as Harold Camping, a former civil engineer turned radio preacher promised would happen.  Based on a weird and distorted formula of his own creation, Harold Camping predicted that the so-called “Rapture” would take place on May 21st marking the beginning of the end.[1] It would all commence with an earthquake on Christmas Island in New Zealand at 6:00 PM their time.  Beginning with that, the faithful would be taken up into heaven and the unbelievers would be left on earth, as the cataclysm, having begun with the Christmas Island earthquake, snow-balled through a host of natural and human disasters, culminating on October 21st with the annihilation of the world.
            But there was no earthquake on Christmas Island and it’s all ridiculous nonsense.  Mr. Camping should just retire into the sunset which will, by the way, take place in Oakland, California today at precisely 8:17 PM.  You can count on that!  I hope the buildings or bridges or whatever it was Mr. Camping constructed as a civil engineer were more solidly built than his predictions about the rapture.  This is the second time he’s been wrong.  He first predicted that the end of the world would come in 1994.  Mr. Camping’s predictions have not been for naught though.   
            A Wall Street Journal article appeared Friday with the title, “End-time Talk Unleashes Entrepreneurial Flood.”[2]  The Journal reported that Bart Centre, described as a “New Hampshire atheist, author and entrepreneur,” viewed Mr. Camping’s prediction for the rapture and the end of the world “as advertising for his business.”[3]   According to the article, two years ago Mr. Centre started selling insurance to Fundamentalist Christian pet owners “who believe they'll be ‘raptured’ into heaven ahead of the apocalypse.”  “For those worried about what might happen to their dogs, cats, goldfish and parakeets when they're gone,” the article declared, “Mr. Centre has a solution. For a 10-year policy that costs $135, he and his band of atheists promise to come to their homes after the Rapture, collect their pets and care for them. He says his 259 clients tend to be devout believers over the age of 40 ‘who love their pets and are sincerely concerned for what will happen to them.’”[4]  Mr. Centre has given them peace of mind.  He’s also made a pretty penny himself.  Do the math - He’s made just under $35,000 on that insurance program.
            Harold Camping’s organization, Family Radio, hasn’t done badly through all of this either...According to CNN, Family Radio received $80 million in contributions between 2005 and 2009, receiving $18 million in 2009 alone![5] 
            Some of this is amusing; some of it is not amusing at all…For one thing, too many people lump all Christians together and don’t have the capacity to understand that many of us feel as they do, that Mr. Camping’s predictions are idiocy.  Christianity and Christians are made to look foolish by this stuff, and the news media have had a field day with it. That makes the work of ministry harder for all of us.  We should also recognize that some people are being hurt by false expectations of the Rapture.
            On Friday an article appeared in The New York Times titled, “Make My Bed?  But You Say the World Is Ending” under the by-line of Ashley Parker.[6]  Parker told about the Haddad children of Middletown, Md.  [They] “have a lot on their minds, she wrote: “school projects, SATs, weekend parties. And parents who believe the earth will begin to self-destruct on Saturday.”[7]  Parker continued, “The three teenagers have been struggling to make sense of their shifting world, which started changing nearly two years ago when their mother, Abby Haddad Carson, left her job as a nurse to ‘sound the trumpet’ on mission trips with her husband, Robert, handing out tracts. They stopped working on their house and saving for college.  Last weekend, the family traveled to New York, the parents dragging their reluctant children through a Manhattan street fair in a final effort to spread the word.  ‘My mom has told me directly that I'm not going to get into heaven,’ Grace Haddad, 16, said. ‘At first it was really upsetting, but it's what she honestly believes.’”[8]  Isn’t that sad?
            Predictions about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ have been a periodic occurrence in the past 2000 years.  “Rapture” obsession has been especially popular in this country as a result of the rise of Fundamentalism which is, truthfully, a product of the 19th and 20th century British and American Protestantism.[9]  There is no doubt that the Bible itself invites some of this, especially the New Testament.  It is clear from the texts that Jesus, the Apostles and St. Paul expected the Eschaton, the Last Days, and expected it imminently.[10]  When it didn’t come in the New Testament period, some began to adjust to a different way of thinking, with a longer view of what Jesus and his ministry meant for the world.  Others began to try to estimate the time when the Second Coming and the End-time would come; using all kinds of strange calculations and twisted readings of Scripture, just as Harold Camping had done.  They invariably have been wrong. 
            There is a key passage of Scripture that Mr. Camping should have paid attention to, and that all Christians should be aware of, when considering “end-time” issues and questions.  It’s in Mark 13, which is often labeled “the little apocalypse.”  In chapter 13 of Mark, as well as in its parallel in Matthew 24, Jesus speaks about the end-times and its signs, but concludes in verse 32, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).  Now if the Son of God claims not to know the day or hours, how does Mr. Camping in Oakland, California have the presumption to know?  And why do people listen to him? 
            It’s pretty clear that there are some who need to feel that they are among a very exclusive few whom God loves.   Too often, these same persons find some perverse satisfaction in thinking God rejects and condemns most others.  Their theology and their view of God’s love are limited and very narrow.  They have a difficult time accepting the idea that God’s love extends to all; that God’s desire is for all persons to know and to love him; to come into a relationship with a living and loving God; into that God’s saving embrace; and to participate with God in God’s redeeming purposes which are for the sake of this world and not just some other!. 
            In today’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1 -3). 
            This address to the disciples is set in the context of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.  At first blush, it seems to consonant with the kind of rapture thinking espoused by Harold Camping.  After all, Jesus says, “I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”  (John 14:3) 
            As Lutheran New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing observes in her book The Rapture Exposed (which we read at St. Paul’s for one of our summer book discussion sessions several years ago), “Rapture proponents like to point to Jesus’ farewell words in John 14: 1-2 as the ‘first teaching about the rapture in the Bible.’”[11] Rossing continues, “They argue that Jesus’ statement that he is going ‘to prepare a place for you’ means that he is going away to heaven to get a place ready for those who will be Raptured.  ‘In my Father’s house are many dwellings,” Jesus says, using a Greek word that means ‘resting place’ or ‘way station’: mone, from the verb ‘abide’ or ‘remain.’”[12]   “But the problem is,” Rossing points out, “that Jesus does not specify where the Father’s house is located.  Is it in heaven, as Rapture proponents argue?  Not necessarily, or at least not exclusively in the Gospel of John, because later in the same chapter [14] Jesus says that he and the Father are will come and make their “dwelling” - using the very same word [mone] - in the believing person: ‘We will come and make our dwelling (mone) with that one (John 14:23).  “Here, “Rossing states quite rightly, “the image surely means God’s mystical indwelling in the believer.”[13] 
            Rossing cites the work of a conservative evangelical scholar, Robert Gundry, who, she states, “cautions against assuming that Jesus’ ‘many dwellings’ or ‘many mansions’ are rooms in heaven.”[14]  “For Gundry,” she explains, “the crucial clue is that Jesus’ never promises that, upon his return, he will take the disciples away to the ‘dwellings’ or the ‘mansions’ in the Father’s house as one would expect in the dispensationalists’ literalist approach.  Rather, what Jesus promised to the disciples is that, ‘where I am, there you will be also.’”[15]  According to Rossing, “Gundry views the key to chapter 14 as the two parallel occurrences of mone  - verses 2 and 23.  These verses provide a ‘reciprocal relationship:  As believers have an abiding place in Christ, so Jesus and the Father have an abiding place in each believer.”[16]
            Anglicans and Episcopalians have always placed a great deal of emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation; that is on the understanding the in Jesus Christ, God decided to become flesh, to become one of us - to live as one of us.  We also understand that this was done for the sake of the world; and again, this world, not some other. 
            “I am the way the truth and the life,”Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading (John 14:6).  I take that as Jesus’ call to each one of us to live our lives rooted and grounded in him in this life and to imitate him in how he lived – a life of love, and service and sacrifice for the sake of others in this world today. I’m always challenged by those Christians who are so focused on heaven and the afterlife that they ignore, or even reject living life fully in this world.  As Episcopal priest Dennis Maynard said so well, and as I like to quote so often, “Some people are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.”[17]  We should have significant questions about this.  In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we pray to God “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”[18]  God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ was a sign of love for this world.                
            Rossing’s summary of Gundry is helpful: “In Gundry’s view the ‘father’s house’ in John’s Gospel is not so much heaven, as God’s household or God’s people on earth...In a strong and mystical sense, John wants to underscore that we are already, in some sense living in the mystical ‘dwelling places’ in the Father’s household that Jesus says he wants to prepare for us.”  “The passage,” Gundry concludes, “is about not mansions in the sky, but spiritual positions in Christ.”[19]   
            I have to confess, I don’t know what to make of the Second Coming...It’s not a part of the Christian teaching that I find myself terribly concerned about....I am okay with believing in it and even asserting, as I do every time I say the Creed, that Christ will “come again…to judge the living and the dead.”[20]  But Mark 13 is my definitive guide about this, “About that time, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).  What are the implications of this for me?  I find our “Outline of Faith” in the back of the Book of Common Prayer very helpful here:  Beginning on page 861, in response to the question, “What is the Christian Hope?” it states, “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God’s purposes for the world.”[21]  I like this....I like the idea of living each day with “confidence in newness and fullness of life....”  You can’t live with confidence and newness of life standing on a beach waiting for the Eschaton!
            I choose not to focus my anxiety and my attention on what will happen to me after I die...I believe God is love (1 John 4:8,16) and because I believe that, I can leave what will happen to me up after I die to God.  I also recognize that the word “eternal” means just that, “eternal” - no beginning, no end....We’re part of “eternity” already.  When I am most faithful, most present to God, most open to God’s presence in me, I have a sense and glimmer of that ‘eternity.”  I am also aware that God calls me to live with him in Christ in the moment, in this world in the here and follow Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, by living a life in as close an imitation of his as I can....
            The call to lead this life is both my challenge and my joy....and it will be, until that day comes when I am taken into heaven, whatever that means.  I hope you too know that same joy and that same challenge and that you are living your lives with joyful confidence, in newness and fullness of life, as you await the coming of Christ in glory…

            When will that be?  God only knows!

[1]   See McKinley, Jess “At Apocalypse Central, Preapring for What Happens, or Doesn’t” – The New York Times – May 20, 2011-
[2]  Belkin, Douglas and Barrett, Joe “End-Times Talk Unleashes Entrepreneurial Flood”  The Wall Street Journal           On-line, Friday, May 20, 2011 -      
[3]   Belkin and Barrett
[4]   Belkin and Barrett
[5]   See Censky, Annalyn “Doomsday church:  Still open for business”  CNN Money, May 19, 2011 at                       camping/?section=money_latest
[6]   Parker, Ashley “Make My Bed? But You Said the World’s Ending”  The New York Times, May 19, 2011
[7]   Parker
[8]   Parker
[9]   See Wikipedia - “The Rapture”  at
[10]   See for example
[11]  Rossing, Barbara R. The Rapture Exposed:  The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York:  Basic        Books – A Member of the Perseus Book Groups, 2004) p. 184
[12]  Rossing, p. 184
[13]  Rossing, p. 184
[14]  Rossing, p. 184
[15]  Rossing, p. 184
[16]  Rossing, p. 184 - 185
[17]  Slightly paraphrased from Dennis R. Maynard’s Those Episkopals (Dionysius Publications:  La Jolla CA, 1994), p. 60
[18]  See The Lord’s Prayer, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 97 
[19]  Rossing, p. 186
[20]   See 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 359
[21]   See 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 861

1 comment:

songui said...

amen to that. During the Jesus movement in the 1970's of which I was a part, there was much teaching and singing about "when He comes to take me out of this wretched mess...."
I prefer to die with my boots on. I didn't hole up in Wyoming with granola bars, I did prepare for marriage ( 32 years now )and parenting best I could, have 4 kids and a grandson-those things are the prosperity the Bible tells of...May your Children be like Olive shoots around your table...