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Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,Thursday, June 2 or Sunday June 5, 2011 – Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53


Prayer of the Day
O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 (4)
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

This week I woke up from a strange dream. I was sitting in a strange room with two people I couldn’t identify, and suddenly an earthquake began. It shook long and hard, and I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be a hoot if it was the end of the world?” Then the earthquake stopped and I woke up feeling foolish. In that moment I realized this apocalyptic stuff had clearly worked its way deep into my psyche. And now I’m left to wonder: Why?

My current theory is that there’s a part of me that has breathed this apocalyptic, post-millennial tribulation air that we breathe in the revival-religion atmosphere of American Christianity. Part of me wonders if it could be true. Then the intellect kicks in and says, “Really? You’ve studied Revelation. Do you really think that’s what’s going on in John’s Vision? Do you really think those numbers are to be taken literally? Do you see the Bible as a numerological calendar? Do you think some guy on radio has divined the date of the end of the world?” of course not. But apparently something in my psyche is bothered by the whole thing.

Perhaps the corporate psyche of Christendom is also hyped up on it. After all, it crops up a couple of times in the New Testament, including, a little bit in our Ascension texts this week. I always moved the Ascension texts to Sunday, because I wanted to deal with them, and I knew no one would come to church on Thursday, even though Ascension used to be one of the six highest Christian festivals of the year. The Ascension texts leave the disciples gazing longingly into heaven, and the angels scolding them. Given some of Jesus’ statements, it’s natural that his followers would be looking for the eschaton. But maybe Jesus meant something more.

Paul thought the end of the world was coming in his lifetime. His end-times ideas are hard to read clearly. It depends on what you decide about 2 Thessalonians. As a refresher, scholars list the undisputed epistles (those letters everyone agrees Paul wrote) as: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The Pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are considered non-Pauline. The three left, Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are considered “disputed.” scholars are considerably divided over whether Paul wrote these.

Eschatology (ideas about the end of things) in the undisputed epistles of Paul is an interesting topic. The undisputed Paul never uses the word hell. You can’t conclude definitively that Paul didn’t believe in hell, by an argument from silence, but we can conclude that a belief in hell, if he held it, did not play prominently into his theology or preaching. Even the disputed Paul places Satan and the demons in the world, calling him the “prince of power of the air” or some such in Ephesians 2:2. Paul has heaven and earth, and then celestial beings good and bad in between. As a Greek-raised Jew, it’s hard for us to tease out Paul’s eschatology.

Still hear 1 Thessalonians 4:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (2 Thessalonians 4:15-18)

“We who are alive” when the Lord comes. Paul, undisputed Paul, believes the Lord is coming in his lifetime. But 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest canonical letter (51 A.D?). By the time we get to Romans there is little talk of Christ’s immanent return. In Romans Paul says he preached the gospel in Illyricum (north of Macedonia), so we know this to be a late letter. Paul seems to be wanting to move his base of operations from Antioch to Rome, which would date this letter near the end of his 3rd missionary journey, before his arrest in Jerusalem. I’d say 58 A.D.

So somewhere in those seven years, it seems to have dawned upon Paul, that the church had better gear up for the long haul. Paul’s letter to Philemon, perhaps his last undisputed (61 A.D?) seems to have implications for Onesimus and Philemon living into a very earthly future.

2 Thessalonians sounds decidedly non-Pauline. Listen to this eschatological statement:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)

This sounds unlike anything in Romans, Corinthians, Philippians or even 1 Thessalonians. There’s still no hell in the sense of eternal torture. Rather we have a fire that destroys those who have afflicted Christians, probably in the persecution. (Note John’s eschatology in one of the most memorized passages: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all those who believe in him might not… perish…” Apolumi means to destroy, abolish, lose. Rob Bell seems to be getting into hot water with Evangelical Christians for pointing out the diverse eschatological models presented in the New Testament. Read his book “Love Wins.” I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but applaud his courage for opening up the conversation.

I’ve often thought Paul died in Nero’s funeral pyres when he blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians, sparking a full-scale Empire-wide persecution. This would make 2 Thessalonians post-Pauline.

Even so, this book, inspired by the Holy Spirit reflects a significant trend in early Christian thought. It was included in the canon for a reason. Clearly some were worried the Day of the Lord had already come, as reflected in 2 Thessalonians 2:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2)

So, some thought it was coming soon, some not so soon, and some thought it might have already come. Sigh.

So we come to our Ascension story, which Luke records twice. We get to read both:

Luke 24: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

Acts 1: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

In Acts we have this interesting conversation:

Disciples: When will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Ah, they still don’t get it. This is not about restoring Israel’s earthly power and glory.)

Jesus: “It is not for you to know the times and periods the father has set. More importantly, you’re going to receive power from the Holy Spirit, and then you are going on (for quite some time) to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, then all Judea, then Samaria (yes, even the Samaritans) and then on to the ends (sic) of the earth.”

Disciples: “Whoa.”

Then he’s taken up into heaven and they are staring into the heavens. This can be taken both literally and allegorically. Whether you’re navel-gazing or star-gazing, you’re not engaging the world. Both navel-gazing and star-gazing are important predecessors to active engagement in the suffering of the world, but it’s all too easy for the church to get stuck there. We go to church, hear our Scriptures, sing our songs and pray our prayers, then go back to life as usual. It’s like we don’t remember what we heard. We are like people who see our reflection in a mirror and then, walking away, forget what we look like. Time to roll up our sleeves.

So, as they’re gawking and drooling, transfixed by the ascension, two white-robed figures appear next to them. Luke likes angels. He uses them to tell the reader what the main characters don’t yet understand. “Ahem.”

“Why are you staring up into heaven?”

This seems like a moment not unlike the Transfiguration. You’ve got cloud, voice, and disciples wanting to build booths to bask in the glory. But Jesus’ ministry was not navel-gazing or star-gazing. It was earthly healing and preaching ministry among the poor and suffering. My comment at synod assembly after the supposed rapture date had passed was that we can respond with compassion to those who are taken in by religious predators, “Let me tell you about my Jesus, who calls us to engage the world, not escape it.”

Apparently this tendency to go up the mountain, disengage from the world and wait for the Second Coming was a problem in the church. Paul has to address idleness in 2 Thesslonians:

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are* living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they* received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

This is not a critique of poor blind beggars who had no visible means of income or the mentally ill or demon-possessed who depended on public support. This is a critique of apocalyptic Christians who used their flimsy end-times theology as an excuse to loiter, not bear fruit (something Jesus would not tolerate) and disengage from ministry to a suffering world.

My struggle with this theology is as stated in Saturday’s sermon: If the end of the world is coming tomorrow, why bother serving the poor? Why bother caring for the earth? Why bother feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or welcoming the stranger.

This theology is foreign to the Jesus I follow. We will have to teach people that Jesus’ apocalyptic language (not one stone of this Temple will be left upon another… These things will come to pass in your lifetime…) he was predicting the destruction of the Temple. And in any case it never stopped him from a tireless ministry among the people.

The ascension sets the stage for Pentecost: a huge church launch. Kingdom of God as earthly community. Us as Christ in the world. Church as the body of Christ.

Be at peace with God and with one another,Michael Rinehart, Bishop
Joplin MO 1
Peace Lutheran Church, Joplin, Missouri

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