Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Being Left Behind

Sunday a few of you asked me about the closing line of my sermon which was, “May we be the faithful who get Left Behind.”  The play on words is of course in reference to the popular Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins series.  The idea for these few words in the sermon came from this article written by Matthew Dickerson printed recently in Christianity Today

Enough of you have asked about the meaning of that statement, leading me to conclude that the logic leading up to that point was not clear enough. 

I’m hoping a bit more explanation here might help.  Here is the pertinent section of the 1 Thessalonians text we looked at Sunday:

15For 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. 16For 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. 17Then 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 forever.

The image of Hierapolis:
On the north side of the city Hierapolis is roughly two kilometer long necropolis that marches into the city.  Those who entered the city would first pass through the lengthy cemetery.  Some like John Crossan in his book God and Empire, have suggested that this archeological find is suggestive that this sort of municipal layout is indicative of many Roman cities, possibly including Thessalonica.

The Greek Words (parousian & eis apantēsin):
Parousian = coming
eis apantēsin = to meet (the word we get rapture from)

Here are those verses with those words.

1 Thessolonians 4:15: For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming (Parousian) of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.


1 Thessolonians 4:17: Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet (eis apantēsin) the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.

Though these two words could occur in the colloquial vernacular of the community in Thessalonica there occurrence together could arguably suggest that Paul has in mind a specific occurrence common in the Roman Empire during the Pax Romana.

A visit (parousian) to a city from the Emperor would demand that local magistrates ask the question about how to meet (eis apantēsin) the Emperor. 

Here is an example from antiquity during Alexander’s expansion in 333 BC.  After defeating Darius in Syria, Alexander the Great turned his attention south.  After the high priest in Jerusalem, Jaddus, expressed his intent to remain loyal to the defeated Darius, Alexander destroyed Tyre and Gaza.  A now fearful Jaddus rethought his position sacrificing an animal and waited for a response form the Almighty.  Josephus picks it up here:

Antiquities (11.327-28) “God spoke oracularly to him in his sleep, telling him to take courage and adorn the city with wreaths and open the gates and go out to meet them [literally, make the hypantēsin], and that the people should be in white garments…. And, after doing all the things that he had been told to do, [he] awaited the coming [parousian] of the king.”

Here we see the pairing together again suggesting that this language refers specifically to the event of a visiting big wig. 

The image and the Greek together:
We might then conclude that Paul is referring the event whereby a visiting kingly figure, in most cases the emperor, would first approach the city and be greeted by it’s dead.  At about this distance from the city the figure would be met by the city’s elite who went out “to meet” him.  The crucial point would be this, they did not then go back to the domain of the visiting figure, but rather return to the city with the visitor.

Ecological Payoff:
By way of analogy (and it is helpful exercise in humility to remember that Paul is reaching for a metaphor to describe eschatological events, which he and us don’t have epistemic ability to properly describe) we can conclude that when the “rapture” comes the living and the dead will meet Christ in the clouds and return to earth in the same way the city’s elite would return to the city. 

This means our eschatology does not promote the abandoning of creation, but rather the renewal of it. 

Ecological behavior in light of eschatological truth:
As I pointed out Sunday, even with our resurrected glorified bodies, we cannot endure forever on this earth if nothing changes.  Romans 8 says that the “creation longs for redemption.”  In the same way our bodies need a glorified makeover so too the cosmos does.  In other words in the same way our bodies, which are sown perishable and come back imperishable … so too the universe needs a cosmic makeover.  Something for example, needs to undo the 2nd law of thermodynamics if we are going to take up residence in God’s good creation forever.  This seems to be one of the theological points of Revelation 21 & 22.

This is why we do not embrace a view of rapture that says the world is going to hell in a hand basket, let’s escape this sinking ship as our souls fly to heaven.  This is a robustly Platonic anthropology, not a Judeo-Christian one, which instead celebrates God’s good creation through creation, incarnation and consummation. 

Still one might object that we can’t ultimately rescue the earth.  That is true, but rescuing the earth is not the point.  The point is being formed as a disciple by practicing now what we will be for eternity.  We are being formed in the image of Jesus.  I would guess that caring for the dying, the work of hospice, is probably one of the most formative moments an individual could have.  We don’t do the work of hospice because we are going to rescue our loved ones now resigned to death.  We do it because until his/her last breath, the only proper response of the disciple is to love. 

So to with our creation, which has something in continuity and discontinuity with the new creation.  The new creation will be different than this one in that “what was sown perishable will be raised imperishable.”   But it will be the same in that everything beautiful and holy about this world is so because it points to the renewal to come.  Thus we practice now with what resembles eternity to become what we will be in eternity. 

Thus my suggestion at the end of the sermon was that some day there will be a general resurrection of the living and the dead.  Those incongruent with God as measured by the person and work of Jesus Christ will be cast out.  Those found in Christ will be kept to enjoy God’s renewal.  And so to all of those who eagerly await the redemption of the new creation I pray that we may be left behind to enjoy it (as opposed to being cast off). 

hope that helps. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this josh. Wish I coulda been there for the whole sermon. I have been considering this exact idea over the last week or so myself. So thanks for bringing a great perspective to it for me. I look forward to the possibility of being left behind with you!

    - Donahue