The Second Coming? – (R Open minded): Parental guidance required.
Like health warnings on food and tobacco, it could be that sometimes even sermons should require a warning to flag potential discomfort on the part of the consumer.
Because this sermon is bound to upset those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility of the scriptures, it may be more comfortable for readers or listeners who share that view simply to switch off and stop following the sermon at this point. On the other hand, if you like to think your way through key issues, might I suggest you first consider and evaluate the argument of this address, then if you think it appropriate, contribute to the debate by adding an honest reaction.
We start with the lectionary text.
23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you.26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
When I read Jesus’ words encouraging his disciples for what lies ahead, I sometimes wonder if a good proportion of today’s believers have really thought through what we are expected to do with Jesus’ recorded teaching on the second coming.
Having heard a number of street evangelists on the topic, and in particular, some of the more conservative evangelists, I do understand that a reasonable proportion of those who see themselves as Christian, take the imagery of the Book of Revelation together with selected words from Jesus as literal prediction.
As a consequence many appear confident that soon, perhaps even any day now, Jesus will appear from the clouds to gather up the faithful and whisk them up to heaven to enjoy their rightful reward. Because what these followers are asserting is totally outside human experience, I acknowledge there is no certainty they are wrong, (or right for that matter!) and bluntly – no obvious way of testing what they claim. However in today’s reading at least, Jesus seems to be talking about a more accessible idea. There is still the underlying idea that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” , but here, the dwelling places are strictly human.
Perhaps we should start by looking closely at the words from the start of today’s gospel.
23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..
This seems to be saying that in effect Jesus and or God or the Holy Spirit will be taking up residence in the person – or at least “the heart” of the one who takes Jesus seriously enough to follow his teaching. Whatever this is, it is not a one time, and for the whole world event. There are disciples in every generation and given that we sometimes sense in such people the emergence of warmth of nature and signs of essence of compassion, it may not be a second coming miracle in the conventional expected sense of the word, yet in another sense it may even be consistent with Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy. If these people have taken on the characteristic central to Jesus teaching, is this not Jesus entering their heart?
Not everyone would see this as being the second coming. In fact although there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers and then St Paul and some of the other New Testament writers talked and wrote as if Jesus was coming physically at the end time – and specifically within a very short time frame, today’s reading give us a totally different slant.
But there is something we need to face squarely. Even if Jesus and the New Testament writers had intended to say that his disciples were going to experience all that Jesus was interpreted as saying about the second coming in a literal sense and in their lifetime, events proved otherwise. Despite predictions of most dramatic happenings within the lifetime of the readers and hearers of the contemporary audience of the day, there is no indication that these second coming events ever happened for that audience.
For example, if we contrast today’s measured description with the Luke version of the Armageddon which SHOULD have occurred for the generation of first witnesses in Luke 21:25-33, we see predictions which failed to materialize.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” ……..Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:25-33 NAB)
Well if it happened that way, it wasn’t just the disciples who missed it. By all accounts, the stars have remained apparently twinkling in the heavens, the seas did not roar and nor as far as we know, did those of Jesus’ generation, die in fright at those signs.
Even if the New Testament writers themselves got the second coming wrong, should that really surprise us? Like some of our contemporaries, they too were on a faith journey and faith has blind paths, as well as moments of insight. So what if Paul insisted end times were upon his contemporaries? And he did. And why not? He had never heard Jesus speaking in the flesh and was only repeating what others had told him. So for example:
In Philippians 4:5 Paul thought that the end was near and that Jesus would return soon after he wrote those words.
In Hebrews 1:2 Paul ( and remember this is two thousand years ago) Paul says he believes he is living in the “last days.”
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
Paul was in good company. James (James 5: 8) thought that Jesus would return soon.
Peter too believed that he was living in the “last times” and that “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 Peter 1:20 & 4:7
Yet if they did get it wrong on this score let us also admit they did us a huge service in other places. Thus the sublime writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 helps us ground a concept like love in day to day practicalities.
In his account of true religion, James had a practical focus to faith that is just as relevant today as it was then. If the same Peter who led the disciples wrote first Peter, his continued leadership is evident no matter how he may have misinterpreted the end times.
This is not to say that the second coming should therefore be ignored. If for example the picture language was chosen to get our attention and encourage us to deal with some realities, then it starts to make sense.
For example Revelation was written at a time when the Roman Empire had declared itself on collision course with the Christians who were insisting on acknowledging one God – thereby challenging the Roman Emperor’s right to title himself a God. We might note for example that the author of the letter of John thought he was living in end times because he could see so many anti-Christs about (1 John 2:18). John also says the anti-Christ was present at the very time he was writing (1 John 4:3). If we see the Anti-Christ as any major leader who acts against the principles of Christ this then becomes poetic rather than literal, yet it still teaches an important truth.
As persecution increased the Christians needed encouragement and if this might be codified with signs helping those in the know to see the Beast of Revelation as the Roman Emperor – the leader of the current persecution, so much the better. That the Book of Revelation also talks of the eventual triumph of Christianity would have been extremely encouraging to those facing genuine danger.
We can see, if only from the four gospel accounts, in some cases, the same words of Jesus are given different contexts and in some include differences in detail. This establishes that editing was taking place and it is not unreasonable to suspect that in some cases the words being edited were not actually words of Jesus, but rather words written in the mouth of Jesus to support current truths that the gospel writers felt needed sharing.
I also happen to believe that if we were to find that the second coming literature was intended as poetry to draw our attention to key truth, I for one would still find this of value.
If, as mentioned previously, the second coming is at least partly a coming into ourselves as a human dwelling place, this is particularly helpful as we check where we are in our own walk of faith.
For example, notice that to qualify as a human dwelling place, popular labels like born again or Christian become less relevant. As far as Jesus appears to be concerned it follows that calling yourself Christian, a born-again – or even for that matter an atheist is not where it is at. He makes his precondition abundantly clear. “Those who love me will keep my word…..”
Can I suggest taking moment of reflection to consider if we have begun to attempt to follow the principles Jesus enunciates. I believe this would be time well spent. If we follow John’s text for today, it is only when we keep Jesus’ word that our love will be evident. In that sense Jesus may already have come for the lives of others. And perhaps his second coming was always meant to be interpreted that way. Our challenge might then be to consider if, for us, he has already come and is continuing to be found in our own life’s witness.
(Given the above may not represent consensus thinking, reactions would be most welcome. If you happen to think these predictions are for a yet unrealized prophecy I suspect you also need to make up your mind about the significance of 2000 years of failed prophecies: see my post End Times – this time it’s serious… again.)