Sunday, September 25, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Immovable Ladder"

My apologies for the lack of articles the past couple of weeks. C and I are in the process of buying a home, which has proven to be quite time- and energy-intensive (I think I may have inadvertently signed away my own naming rights at some point...) and has left me little time for writing. I hope to return to writing for all of you soon! Onto this week's message. ~E.A.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope. 14 Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus. 15 What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died. 16 This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. 17 Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord. 18 So encourage each other with these words. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Three

In the heart of the old city of Jerusalem stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Overseen jointly—and often acrimoniously—by several different Christian denominations, it marks the traditional spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified on Golgotha, as well as the last several stations of the Via Dolorosa—the way of the Cross. It is one of the holiest of sites in all of Christendom, even as its fa├žade looks out over a land that has for millennia been fought over—to this day—in no small part over religion.

The quarrels take place not just between religions, but within religions—the reason the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is overseen so acrimoniously is that the different traditions that govern the joint overseeing of the church simply do not get along and haven’t for centuries, to the extent that the job of keys-and-gatekeeper is held by a Muslim family that reverently passes the position down from generation to generation, ever since that family was entrusted with the job by the Saracen sultan Saladin in 1187.

That’s how deep this discord goes between the various Christian sects that oversee the church.

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of that division is the immovable ladder—a ladder placed against the outside of the church in 1757 by a construction worker, and which hasn’t been moved since, precisely because the Christians could not agree on anything, not even where to put a spare ladder. It has become a symbol of inflexible, utterly rigid ideology and dogma that segments Christendom into chosen-and-unchosen groups—not unlike the immovable spiritual ladder that we call the Rapture.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We began this series two weeks ago with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. Last week, we moved onto an equally famous pronouncement of Jesus found in John 12: the poor you will always have with you. This week, we move onto a verse that has been used—poorly for decades to justify the existence of the Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The Rapture is one of those things that most of us have heard of, and probably have a passing familiarity with, but don’t really know exactly where it came from, like Sasquatch or jean shorts. The Rapture is the basic belief that before the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad apocalypse, God will whisk away the chosen few to avoid the trials and tribulations of said apocalypse by beaming them up to heaven, and its roots come from a cadre of 19th century American preachers who cobbled together a series of different verses from Scripture, especially this verse from 1 Thessalonians 4: “Then we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air.”

And taken out of context, this probably sounds an awful lot like what you understand the Rapture to be. Which is sort of the point. Taking 1 Thessalonians 4:17 out of context turns it into something easily distilled and imagined when the reality is that Paul, while earnestly expecting the return of Jesus to take place within his lifetime, is writing about a completely different concern than whether the current crop of believers will be saved from any sort of dystopian apocalypse. As New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing writes:

…it is not about Rapture, however, but about resurrection from the dead at Christ’s second coming. The Thessalonians apparently feared that some family members who had already died before Christ’s return would be left behind in their graves when he returned—and they were grieving that separation. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonika to reassure them that those who have died will also be raised to meet Christ, “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” He wrote the letter in order to give comfort and encouragement, using the assurance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to give assurance of resurrection also for us.

What this letter is emphasizing is not that some will be left behind, but rather that we will all be together with our loved ones in our resurrection life. No believer, whether dead or alive, will be separated from Christ or from the community of their love ones when the Lord comes again…Paul’s pastoral concern here is to comfort people by showing that we will all be together in Christ when he comes again. We will not be separated from Christ or from one another.

That is such a different expectation, such a different theology, such a different hope than what we have come to expect from the Rapture. We see the Rapture as a means to divvy up the living, when in reality what Paul is describing to the Thessalonians is the means by which the living are to be reconciled with the dead.

Which is so much of what Jesus’s ministry is about. It’s about Jairus and his daughter. It’s about Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And it’s about Jesus and the rest of us.

Paul gets that. But we, when we try to invent something that isn’t there in the Scriptures in order to fuel our own special snowflake-iness of being a part of God’s crew, we show just how much we don’t get it, and how much further we really do have to go in order to truly understand God’s Word.

The Rapture—the idea that God’s elect are taken up to be spared a divine Armageddon—is Scripturally dubious enough, but predicting when it will happen does even more harm than good. Even Jesus Himself, in Mark’s Gospel, states that even He does not know when God has planned for the End Times, saying that such knowledge is God’s and God’s alone. Peter, in his second letter, says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night—the implication being that we won’t know when it will happen.

And Paul himself uses that exact same language as Peter, just a couple of verses after this passage, in 1 Thessalonians 5: for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Paul and Peter did not always see eye to eye about church matters—but if this they can agree upon, then why must we be so intent on trying to disprove them?

Quite simply, the Rapture has become for us our own immovable ladder—something impregnable to outside reason or logic and immune to appeals to greater good or even to God’s will. We cling to it, like the ladder in Jerusalem, because our faith is too fragile not to.

Which is never how faith was meant to be. Faith was never meant to be fragile, but sturdy, tough enough and durable enough to generously allow room for dialogue and discussion, even doubt.

But the Rapture, a metaphorical ladder to heaven for God’s chosen, has become so immovable a spiritual ladder that it is now a burden rather than a blessing—if it even was a blessing to begin with.

So cast aside such worry and concern about whatever the end of time might look like. I don’t know what it will look like. Neither do you, or Paul, or Peter. Even Jesus may not know entirely.

Instead of worrying, then, about what you know or don’t know, concern yourselves with what you have faith in, for that is what Paul is exhorting us to once we read his gracious words in their entirety: faith enough in God to see us through, and faith enough in the resurrection of Christ to know that it is a resurrection for us as well, and for our loved ones who have predeceased us.

What a tremendous promise that is! It is, and remains, the promise of eternal life.

Let that promise stand, then, on its own merits, in your life and in mine.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 25, 2016

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