The sun peeks out behind the gray clouds of dawn, a soft pink ball, sending long streaks across the morning skies. In the city, horns honk, traffic crawls, people sit at desks and turn on computers in Banglore and Boston. The dew shimmers, jewel-like on the grass. Song birds fill the trees with the chorus they have sung for millenia. As the sun reaches towards its zenith, the atmosphere grows suddenly thick, then thin, then thick again, as if the earth is choking on its breath. The universe shudders and twists, the sky seems to split into pieces, and all heaven breaks lose.
Planes are suddenly pilotless, careening towards the ground, cars, the drivers suddenly missing, lurch through intersections and crash inton light poles; tractors, smash into trees and classrooms of children are looking at the blank spot where their teachers stood a moment before. Across the earth, where people were standing, or sitting or making love there are human-shaped holes in the space and time. Pulpits are emptied of preachers and pews of parishioners. In an instant, or less than an instant, millions of people, all evangelical Christians disappear, leaving their loved ones behind to remember their warnings, to discern which way to turn, to deal with a world devoid of goodness and light and truth. They will battle for seven years with the forces of the Anti-Christ, an European-born Jew, who is bent on enslaving the tattered remnants of humankind. Finally, riding a white horse, the Lamb of God bursts onto the plain of Megiddo, and slays the greatest army ever assembled, tossing their faithless bodies around like so much chaff. The blood runs like a river, like an ocean, washing over everyone in its path.
It would make a really compelling story and indeed it has: the Left Behind series of novels and movies and a television series called Revelations, tell of this not-too-future world, where evil rules and goodness holds its breath for the vengeance of the Lord. Compelling, yes. True— no.
The modern doctrine of the Rapture has no basis in scripture, no warrant in tradition, no quarter in reason, no basis in reality. It is a fantasy, a warping of Christian hope and faith, a denial of Incarnate Grace and a heresy of monstrous proportions.
The doctrine of the Rapture first appeared in the early nineteenth century in Scotland, where a Presbyterian revivalist named Edward Irving, took a vision of a fifteen year old spirit medium, mixed it with some cockeyed Jesuit theology and produced a potent cocktail of end-times theology which declared the Church of England, and all other manifestations of Christianity to be hopelessly apostate. Irving thought that God would soon come to take faithful Christians to heaven before the beginning of a period of great tribulation upon the earth. In Ireland, an Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby heard Irving’s message and it resonated with him. English evangelicalism, Nelson’s preferred branch of the Church, was busy denouncing the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and all their attendant evils. Darby thought that this social gospel (a term which had yet to be invented) had abandoned God. God had, in judgement, abandoned Anglicanism and called Darby to set up a pure Christianity, rooted in his own version of apostolic teaching and practice. He might have passed off the religious scene as a crank, a curmudgeon and a con-man, had it not been for a Texas Baptist preacher named Cyrus Scofield who, after reading Irving’s and Darby’s rants, published the most influential study Bible ever compiled, using their rather suspect methods of Biblical interpretation. It hit the pulpits of Southern American evangelical churches around the turn of the 20th century and nothing in Christianity would ever be the same. Suddenly, Christians, particularly American conservative Christians, were no longer interested in learning to as St. Peter said, “suffer as a Christian,” they longed to be sucked up out of this world, right into the arms of Jesus.
But on this, our celebration of the Ascension, we have an opportunity to once again remember what the early Church believed about Jesus, his resurrection and the mission of the Church. Luke’s words, the opening of the second movement of a two-part grand opera that might properly be called the Acts of Jesus and the Acts of Peter, Paul and the rest of the Gang, begins on a hill near the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. There, the resurrected Jesus, who has spent forty days popping into locked rooms and promptly vanishing like the Cheshire cat, tells his disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Holy Spirit which would empower them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
Then, as he done for the past forty days, he disappears, this time into a cloud. They would never see him again. They stood, transfixed on the sky, waiting for him to call them home. Then they notice two mysterious men, who ask them, “Why are you looking up into the sky? You’ve got work to do—get on with it.”
The early Church understood that being a Christian involved risk: it was to be unpopular, persecuted, martyred. But it was also to be clothed with a strange sort of power—to cast out demons, to heal the sick, raise the dead, wrestle with serpents and conquer the poisonous lies of power structure that rules the world. They believed with all their hearts that the had seen Jesus alive and that he was coming back in power and great glory to settle the score once and for all with those who oppressed the poor, made war on the weak, and jailed those called by Jesus’ name.
For the next three hundred years, they were mauled by lions, burned at the stake, crucified and beheaded. The vast conspiracy of the powers and principalities could not vanquish them however. As suddenly and unexpectedly as snow in midsummer, the Roman Empire, led by the pagan Caesar Constantine, became the protector and promoter of the Church. As surely as they were once dispatched by Imperial decree, Christians were placed in positions of power and influence, reaching deep into the Imperial palace. Up until then, Christians had kept one eye on the sky, and another on the world around them. By the middle of the fourth century, their status protected by all the might of the Roman Empire, they had only to exercise their new-found power, and they believed, the kingdom of the world would become the kingdom of God.
But every time their relationship with power became a little shaky, they would rediscover their apocalyptic hope, their desire for release, their yearning for a new heavens and new earth wherein righteousness would dwell. Countless revival movements sprung during medieval times, culminating in the work of a young German priest in Wittenburg, who nailed his 95 theses on the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church on the red door of the great church there. The Protestant Reformation split the church asunder, and like a cold glass filled with hot water, it cracked and crazed and cracked again. There were Protestants who believed that they were setting up the kingdom through political involvement, and Protestants who believed that political involvement was the work of the devil. There were Protestants who believed that the holy Spirit gave them miraculous powers and Protestants who believed that miracles ended with the death of the apostles. Then there were the Anglicans, in whose tradition we now stand this Ascension Sunday. Notwithstanding the occasional John Nelson Darby, most Anglicans believed that Jesus would return, as the Nicene Creed said, to judge the living and the dead, but that there was plenty of work to do in the meantime. In other words, Anglicanism took the long view, that, as Buddhist mystic Jack Kornfield recently wrote, “after the ecstasy comes the laundry.” Or as the men in white put it, “Why do you stand looking up into the sky?”
If you are going to follow Jesus there are a few things you should know. First, to be a Christian is to be identified as counter-cultural. That is to say, the same system which put Jesus to death for declaring that neither religious devotion nor political power nor monetary wealth can transform the world, wants to squeeze us into its mold; and we must resist at all costs. Second, those costs include being able to look the religious, economic and political powers in the eye and tell them that one is not buying their lies about who is really in charge. Third, it means unapologetically aligning oneself with those on the outs with society: the poor, the sick, the homeless, the oppressed. It means proclaiming that our Lord is sitting at the right hand of God, with the earth as a footstool, and all heaven as a throne. But that does not mean that we take all the imagery of divine judgement to be literal, that we long for the rivers of blood to flow from our enemies’ heads. The early Church, living under threat of death, still saw the message of Jesus as good news, not bad, as love embodied, not vengeance unveiled. They went forth to turn the world upside down, not to destroy it, but to see it redeemed. They were entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good before Jesus’ return.
People of faith get in trouble every time we forget the balance between waiting for the Reign of God and working to make its principles manifest. When we write the world off as hopeless we deny the Incarnation. When we make our peace with the world, we become seduced by its tyranny. We live in the great-in-between-time. God reigns, but God’s Reign is not yet. All that is done in heaven is not yet done on earth. The One who disappeared into a cloud has not yet returned the same way and yet–
Yet, Jesus did return and does return. He returned on the day of Pentecost when tongues of fire and a holy wind swept through an upper room and thousands of people believed that Jesus was yet alive. He returned to weep over Jerusalem as the Roman and Muslim and French and German armies burned the Holy City again and again. Even now, the descendants of Abraham slaughter each other in a tragic struggle for its soil, he returns and weeps. He returned to sweep in a great Reformation of the Church and then to reform it ten thousand times over. He returned each time the Great Thanksgiving was prayed and bread and wine became flesh and blood. He returned at every baptism and every hymn of praise. He returned at every sunrise in every new morning. He returned every time any person, any where discovered that there is a reality beyond reality, faith beyond faith, God beyond humanity’s narrow bigoted versions of God. He returned at every birth, but most spectacularly at every death, to declare that this life in only a beginning and death is no ending at all.
We still wait for his final coming, which I can assure you will come in our own short lifetime. For when we draw our final breath, and give over our own spirit, we will be united with him in his death, for we have entrusted ourselves to a faithful Creator who knows the times and periods set by divine authority. Beloved, we will not be raptured out of this world, for this world has been given to us to love in Jesus’ name. I wish that Tim LaHaye was right: that the divine vacuum cleaner was coming to grab us up out of this painful, tiresome mess. But we are no more to stand staring up into the sky than the apostles were on Bethany’s long ago hill. We are to go forth in the power of the Spirit into Jerusalem and beyond, to the ends of the earth. We are to show by word and example what it means to live a life redeemed. If we suffer, and we will, we suffer in the knowledge that Jesus suffers with us and redeems the world in that suffering. I wish I could offer you an easy way out. But the Bible and Christian faith offer us nothing cheap and easy. They offer us a life as a cross and death as the way into true life. Why do you stand looking up into the sky?