Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting.

The funny thing about that is that this is before there was what the experts call an economic crisis, this was going on when things were supposedly going well! At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a highly complicated issue, basically as revenues and profits and acquisitions and Gross Domestic Product were skyrocketing, the number of people in poverty, increasingly unable to meet even the most basic needs, was also increasing by leaps and bounds.

We live in a world where insecurity and homelessness are among the defining traits of our time. And it isn’t just this literal homelessness, the kind you can walk out your door and see most days even around here, that is rampant. In their astonishing book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, astonishing both because of it’s lucid and depressingly comprehensive diagnosis of the problems and because of its amazingly Biblically-charged call to hope-infused action, Brian Walsh and Stephen Bouma-Prediger identify three types of homelessness that pervade Western late-modern society. The first is what I’ve just described, the literal kind of homelessness where you don’t have a stable roof over your head, which they call socioeconomic homelessness. The second is what they call “postmodern” homelessness, the type of homelessness, metaphorically speaking, brought on by the onset of the cultural condition of postmodernity. Now, postmodernity is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot and is notoriously difficult to define, so here’s my definition: postmodernity is the cultural consequence of the widespread recognition that there is no “boundary-fixing” that cannot be questioned, challenged, redrawn, that all the criteria we employ to draw boundaries and articulate identities are contingent, and therefore deconstructible and able to be re-created for any or no reason. While there are certainly positive ways to read this cultural condition and the philosophical and social ideas that relate to it, it is also the case that one of the practical results is a widespread inability to develop a stable identity, leaving one’s self open to the whims of the market to constantly re-create one’s self-conception. Interestingly, while socioeconomic homelessness is a condition more often experienced by people lower on the ladder of economic status, it may in fact be the case that so-called postmodern homelessness is more a phenomenon of the affluent – though certainly not entirely so.

The third type of homelessness Brian and Steven identify is what they call ecological homelessness, which takes place on a somewhat larger scale than either of the two previously mentioned – which is to say, the whole planet. I think everyone here is at least somewhat aware of the extent to which humankind is apparently doing its darndest to trash the world, in some cases literally, such as when you consider that in the oceans plastic now outnumbers monocellular plankton by a ratio of as much as 10:1. We are eating ourselves out of a planet – industrial agriculture is the most polluting force in the world. We are buying ourselves out of a planet – the manufacture and discarding of consumer products depletes resources and creates waste on a staggering scale. And say what you want about capitalism and ending poverty and the potential of economic growth to create a better world for all, the truth is our industrial and consumer-based economic system may bring some people out of poverty but if it is not checked, if our collective economic life is not brought to some kind of equilibrium, we will destroy the entire basis upon which all human life and community is build on the planet Earth. And it really isn’t too much to say that a kind of love of money is at the root of all this evil. The Apostle Paul was right about that one, eh? And all three of these types of homelessness are related in at least that way – they are all connected to the industrial and consumer-based economic system. Wealth is generated in such a way that people are displaced and dispossessed of their homes, causing socioeconomic homelessness, the generation of wealth is driven by a spirit of continual superficial change that denies us the ability to build depth, causing postmodern homelessness, and the means by which objects that produce or represent wealth are made is destroying the planet, causing ecological homelessness.

So at this point you’ve all got to be sitting there wondering, “Jason, what does any of this have to do with either of those Scripture readings we heard earlier?” Well, I’m glad you asked. I don’t know about you, but for the most part when I was growing up and even into my college years, when I was supposed to be getting an idea of what it was like to move from the faith of childhood to more mature expressions, what I heard about religion in general and specifically Christianity was something like this: “well, it’s all going to burn anyway, so what’s the use? Let the world go to hell, we’re going to heaven!” Christianity, I was taught, is less about where we are than about where we are going – and where we are going is to heaven, away from here, abandoning this “vale of tears” to go to a happier place. No doubt most of you have encountered this idea yourselves. But this is not what the Jews who lived in Jesus’ time expected to happen, nor was it the orthodox teaching of the church in the first century, when the New Testament was written. The snippet from Isaiah 40 represents just a small part of the hope of Israel, which was not that God would take them out of the world to go live in the magic happy place, but rather that God would return to rescue the people from exile and oppression, in a new Exodus-like event, similar to but surpassing the old. What they were expecting was not for God to make a new home somewhere else, but that God would come home to be with them and bring healing and wholeness to what is broken. Now, there were about eleventy-gazillion different Jewish groups at the time who had different ideas of exactly how that would work, but with the notable exception of the Sadducees, who were top dogs and pretty much liked things the way they were, this hope was common to most Jewish groups in the 1st century, including the Jewish group that would later come to be called Christians.

The second reading, from 1 Thessalonians, gives us a good insight as to the particular way this group of people who followed the crucified Jesus, whom they claimed was Messiah of the Jews, worked out this belief. As I’m sure we’re all aware, there has been a lot of interest over the past few decades in the so-called “end times,” as evidenced by the explosive popularity of those Left Behind books, which are poorly-written, permeating our bookstores with bad stories and even worse theology. This passage from 1 Thessalonians is often held up as the signal description of what’s going to happen at this so-called “rapture” event. The rapture, so the story goes, is the time when Jesus will “return”, resulting in the believers, first those dead and then those who are still alive, being “caught up” into the air to be whisked off to heaven where they get to spend eternity living with God. But a close reading of the text ought to tell us that this picture of things actually has the story exactly backwards – it is not that we are taken away to some otherworldly place; rather, it is that Jesus comes down to the earth and we meet him on the way down to escort the king to his domain. Let me explain that a little more fully.

What Paul does in the text here is something he does quite often, which is taking an image from the Hebrew scriptures and applying it to Jesus, fusing it with an image from the Greco-Roman world. This is a particularly brilliant example of Paul’s method, but unless we recognize both the Old Testament reference and the reference from the Greco-Roman world we are apt to miss out on what is going on in the text. First, Paul is drawing upon the son of man figure in Daniel 7, who comes with the clouds of heaven into the presence of God and is given kingly authority over the whole creation – this creation, the one here and now that we live in. Jesus himself referred to this passage in his trial before the Sanhedrin, which resulted in the high priest charging him with blasphemy – which it would have been, except for that fact that it was actually true. Then those who have died, or as Paul literally puts it, “fallen asleep” in Christ will rise up. I have to pause here to mention the fact that the Greek word is from the verb family that means “to be resurrected”. This is another place where knowing the beliefs of ancient Jews comes in handy, because in the Judaisms of the time to speak of resurrection was most emphatically NOT to speak of being raised in some “spiritual” sense, the language of resurrection absolutely rules out the idea that the goal of being raised up is to go away to some otherworldy, non-bodily kind of place. Instead, resurrection language was used specifically to refer to the physical resurrection of all God’s saints at the end of this age to take their place in the age that is to come, which as I said earlier would happen when God returned to this world to redeem and heal it.

Ok, so what’s up with this being caught up in the air and going to the clouds and whatnot? Well, that’s where the image from the Hebrew Bible meets up with the image from Greco-Roman society. You see, in the Roman world, when the king or emperor or a great conquering general, or some big-deal person like that came to visit your city, you didn’t just open up the gates and let him in – it was a big spectacle, with festivities and shouting and music and the like. When the king approached, what would happen is the gates to the city would open and all the leading men of the city, its rulers and social elite and whatnot, would exit the city through the gates to go out and ceremoniously meet the conquering hero. Now what do you think happened when they met him, did they then join his entourage and he took them away in the opposite direction? No! What happened is they went to meet him and his party and escort them into the city, introducing him to his rightful domain. You take that royal greeting ceremony and turn it 90 degrees, from horizontal to vertical, and that is precisely what Paul is depicting. At no point does Christ come halfway down, collect the saints who are flying through the air towards him at breakneck speed, and then turn around and head back from whence he came – no, what happens is the saints rise up to meet him in order to escort him to his kingdom, which is the whole earth. Thus what is somewhat mistakenly called the “end times” is not about us going away, it is about God, in Christ, coming to be at home with the people. It’s not a going-away party, it’s a homecoming.

This, by the way, is the rationale for the Christian mission: not preparing people to go away to a new home in the skies, but rather, preparing the world for the homecoming of God. And I believe that, in light of all the talk about homelessness in its various forms, a potent way to talk about the mission of the church in this day and age would be to use the metaphor of home-making, of hospitality. We welcome the stranger in preparation for welcoming Jesus, as indeed Jesus himself said in Matthew 25 – I was hungry and you fed me. Perhaps today he would say, “I was homeless, and you welcomed me into your home.”

In some ways it is fitting that I talk about home and hospitality on this, which is the last Sunday Gretchen and I will be with you. I hadn’t thought of that when I started planning the service, but it occurred to me as I was writing. I wish we’d had more time, because in more ways than I can recount you all have helped to make this neighborhood a home for us. I know for myself, as I go away to study at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the ways you all have shown the love and hospitality of God have profoundly affected my conception of what it means to be a minister, to welcome friends and strangers, and to prepare those around me for God’s homecoming. Gretchen and I are putting together the final pieces to incorporate as a nonprofit, with the eventual goal being to combine faith and worship with hospitality, ecological responsibility, and social conscience in our new home of South Bend, and the vision for what that might look like has been inspired by Patchwork in a lot of ways. I’m not about to ask you for money, God knows Patchwork needs it here and now, but if any of you would like to be informed of what’s going on, of our prayer and material needs and of the things God is doing around us, we would love it if you could keep in touch with us. I’ll have a notebook where you can leave your information.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: