So, when I read the lessons and found out that I was preaching about the end times, my first thought was to deliver a good old-fashioned fire and brimstone sermon. But I ran into three problems. First, I had to use google just to figure out what brimstone was. (It’s sulfer, so basically volcanic ash). Second, as a white-anglo saxon protestant I grew up among God’s frozen chosen, so I don’t believe in displaying emotion. And third, and most importantly, there’s not actually that much fire and brimstone in the Bible. It came mainly from the imaginations of preachers through the centuries, and of course, the Italian Poet Dante’s famous Inferno.
With so much misinformation about the end times, I thought this week would be the perfect opportunity to present a brief overview of Christian eschatology, the study of the end times. At the risk of causing you to relive painful memories from middle school, I’m going to use the 5 Ws and an H to talk about what we know…or at least think we know, about the end.
Let’s start with when. No one knows the day or the hour. However, that’s not the only ‘when’ we need to concerned with. Think for a moment of communion. It is a foretaste of the feast to come. It is an in-breaking of the Reign of God. Like all Sacraments, it’s a place where the holy is made present in the everyday. The real presence of Christ in the bread and wine.
Other occasions, though not official sacraments of the church, can nonetheless be sacramental – a meeting place of the sacred and the profane. But to discover them we will first have to know what we are looking for. For now, the answer to when can be found in the phrase, ‘already but not yet.’ Already we can see the sacred in the everyday, the beginnings of God’s reign…but it is not yet complete.
Although we usually talk about the end times, and ask when, it’s important to know what the end looks like…it is a question about the end state of the world. The final state of the world has one defining characteristic: God’s will is done. We often refer to the Kingdom of God. But this is slightly misleading, as it makes us think of some specific geographic area. Think instead of the Kingdom of God as the places where God’s will is done. This is why many theologians prefer the term Reign of God.
In the Gospel of Luke (17:20-21) we are told by Jesus that:
‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
This brings us to where. Of all the questions I’m going pose today, this one is probably the most misunderstood. Which is a little surprising, since it’s also the most straightforward. Here. It is already among us. Scripture is rarely unequivocal, but in this case it all points to heaven – the Reign of God – coming to earth.
If heaven is coming here, you may be wondering what happens to people after death…where do they go? Theologians going back to at least St. Thomas Aquinas have argued that there is a two-stage process after death. The first stage is some sort of heavenly waiting room before the resurrection of the body and the start of the after after-life. There’s not much said about this, but when we say the creed and affirm the resurrection of the body, we are referring to a physical existence, here on earth, an end-time when God’s will is done.
We acknowledge this every Sunday when we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The next question we might want to ask is who will be there at the end? I will keep my answer very simple and very Lutheran. All Saints and Sinners. It is easy to accept that each Saint is also a sinner. It is much more difficult to accept that each sinner is also a Saint. Nonetheless, we are all made in God’s image and loved by God. God’s will is that we all wind up reconciled to each other and to God. And let me give you a quick hint: God usually gets what God wants. I do not know all the twists and the turns of the process, but I do know that, in the end, love wins. As we read in Romans (8:38-39):
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God”
The answer to why is simple. God loves us. Seriously, that’s it. Moving on to how.
The question of how has a slightly longer answer. It starts with the Cross. The dominant theory for a long time was that God demanded the suffering of Christ in atonement for our sins. This is deeply disturbing, as it implies a God that requires suffering and so tortures God’s own son in our place.
To understand what went wrong here, we need to consider how the ancients understood sacrifice. Sacrifice was a way of restoring good relations with God using the two basic ways humans have always restored good relationships with each other, through gifts and shared meals. The word sacrifice comes from the Latin words meaning to make sacred.
The basic problem with substitutionary atonement is that it confuses sacrifice, substitution, and suffering. Animal sacrifice was not practiced with the animal suffering horribly, nor was the animal a substitution for the deserved suffering of the human being. It was instead an animal set apart and made sacred by offering it to God.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan offers a modern analogy:
“Think about how we ordinarily use the term ‘sacrifice’ today. A building is on fire, a child is trapped upstairs, and the firefighter who rushes in to save him manages to drop the child safely to the net below. Then the roof collapses and kills the fire fighter. The next day the local paper bears the headline “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” We are not ancients but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving her life up to save the life of another. So far so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that the firefighter had made a sacrifice because she died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution and said that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.”
So if God wasn’t up there watching Jesus suffer in our place, what was going on during the crucifixion? Where was God? God was on the cross.
We know from St. Paul that on the cross God was reconciling the world to Godself through Christ.
Have you ever felt abandoned by God? On the cross, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli, Lema Sabacthani!” My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? In that cry, God has entered into our brokenness. Most of us have felt God-forsaken at some point. And as strange as it may sound, so has God. God was not content to leave us in our brokenness, but instead took on human form, was born into poverty, felt the scorn of others and even abandonment by God during a time of suffering and death. No matter where you are, God has been there and continues to be there, constantly seeking out a way to bridge the distance that we have put between ourselves and God.
This reconciliation through the cross is the means by which God’s reign is brought about. Not through political and economic power or military might, but instead through compassion and suffering. The way of the cross appears foolish to all that we know of the world. It’s unrealistic to think that it could end in any other way than you being killed and your oppressors earning a total victory. And yet we know that it ends in the resurrection.
(As a side note, the past 100 years have shown that nonviolent movements are almost twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent ones. It turns out nonviolence is not only the morally correct thing to do, it is also the most effective means available).
There is one last question we need to answer. Who cares? What does our understanding of Christian eschatology mean for our lives?
To start with, it may change how think about our role as a Church. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez points to the role of the Church in this process, “By preaching the Gospel message, by its sacraments, and by the charity of its members, the Church proclaims and shelters the gift of the Kingdom of God in the heart of human history.”
This is a powerful responsibility. The church is meant to be an example of what God’s Reign looks like. In truth, we have often failed this responsibility.
Our knowledge of what God’s reign actually looks like should also leave us radically upset over the realities of this world. We should be, as Martin Luther King Jr. suggested, “creatively maladjusted.” We refuse to adjust to the horrors of this world, but instead attempt to create something new.
As German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it in his Theology of Hope,
“That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
Finally, understanding eschatology may change the way we think of each other. Wendell Berry describes a beautiful vision of the eternal community in his novel Jayber Crow:
“What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on. … It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. …My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we maybe be perfected by grace.”
A few weeks ago, on All Saints Sunday, pastor Steven talked about the communion rail, and how it extends out through the walls and out the back of the church, so that when we commune we are not only with those gathered here today, but also with those who have come before. Indeed, communion unites us with God and with all of our fellow human beings, living or dead. In communion, we are gathered together in a way that transcends our notions of time and space. We are gathered, strengthened by the body and blood, our time with God and with each other, and then we are sent out into the world to proclaim and shelter the Reign of God in the heart of human history.
Though our community is frayed by inevitable imperfections and arguments, we know that no matter what may have happened during the week, we will meet each other at the communion rail. We shall come together to pray for God’s will to be done on earth. Our task is not an easy one. But we know the ending. And that should give us the hope and the strength to join together and be creatively maladjusted.