Last week, I noted that the Revelation of John is very rarely preached on in Episcopal congregations. As it is with evangelism, the call to repentance, and discipleship, the lack of attention we Episcopalians give to the eschaton is to our detriment. Rather that offering a positive glimpse into what God might have to say about sin, salvation, and the end times, we instead focus on not being “like them.” We castigate the bad theology of rapture preachers, while offering little, if any, in the way of a coherent theology of the final judgment. This Sunday, as our congregations hear Paul’s description of the final hours from 1 Thessalonians, their minds will immediately gravitate toward that bumper sticker they might have seen on their way to work last week, and we will have nothing to offer them.
What if preachers did take some time to carefully consider the final days? What if, instead of laughing at those who read the Left Behind series and take is seriously, we presented an alternative vision of the triumphant return of Christ? What if, instead of simply lamenting the clothesline theology of apocalyptic preachers, we offered a glimpse into the hope we confess at least once, and often twice, each Sunday, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?
Remember that Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have. In this first generation after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus would be coming back, like, tomorrow. When he didn’t, and when people of the Way began dying, their fellow Christians weren’t quite sure what to do. These words from Paul are a pastoral response. Unlike Daniel or John, Paul is not writing from visions, but is offering, as best he can understand it, an idea of how God might handle the problem of “the quick and the dead.” As William Barclay notes in his commentary, “It is not the details which are important. What is important is that in life and in death Christians are in Christ – and that is a union which nothing can break.” (p. 235)
Two thousand years later, our people still wonder about these things. As I noted above, we say we believe that Christ will come again every Sunday (and at least twice a day if we follow the Daily Office), but what does that mean in a world where some say we might we swept up into heaven with no warning? It means that God’s grace covers us. It means that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. It means that when Jesus does return, whether today or a million years from now, we who call on his name have nothing to worry about. So don’t get caught up in the rapture hype, but certainly, get caught up in the salvation that belongs to our God.