Friday, October 17, 2008

Starting with the Ending

Okay, the results are in and the verdict is clear! I invited you, on Wednesday, to let me know whether you'd like to move on to Luke or stay and roll around in Matthew for a little longer. I even gave out my email address! And what an effective survey; I think everyone who reads this blog must have responded. Both of you! (By the way, thanks Mom and Dad. You're the greatest!)

Incidentally, Joe the Plummer did not vote, but Joe Six-pack alleges that his absentee ballot is "in the mail." (That excuse doesn't really work any more with email, but he doesn't know that.)

At any rate, the people have spoken and they say that we should stay with Matthew just a bit longer. So, here's the recap:
- Mark writes c.13 of his gospel around the time of the destruction of the temple.
- C.13 is Mark's "little apocalypse" which, technically, means 'little revelation,' but in many people's minds means, "Lots of scary stuff that reminds me of the book of Revelation, so I don't like to read it!" However, it is, as you might expect, a popular chapter among the Left Behind crowd.
- Matthew includes much of Mark's 13th chapter in his 24th chapter.
- However, Matthew is writing way after the destruction of the temple, so he uses slightly different language to signify that he interprets Jesus talking about future catastrophes.
- One thing Matthew and his community are dealing with is the fact that Jesus didn't come back when the temple was destroyed, as many of them expected. Hmm...
- I had a friend in college who was convinced that Jesus would come back when Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David accords. Jesus didn't come back then, either. Darn!

Put all that together, except maybe that last irrelevant part about my friend in college, and you can see that Matthew is using Mark's apocalyptic language, but not in the same way that Mark used it. In fact, Matthew is facing a fairly familiar problem for the early church which scholars call the delay of the 'parousia,' and you and I call 'the fact that Jesus didn't return soon, like they expected.'

I think the fact that Jesus did not return immediately (like 34 CE), or even a few years after immediately (50ish CE), or even during an awful religious/human catastrophe such as when the temple was destroyed (70 CE), was one of the most vexing problem that the early church faced. In time, though, they had to move on and consider things like, "the apostles are dying, who will replace them?" Or, "All of our language presumes that adults are turning to Jesus as our Christ. How do we describe children who have been born into this way of believing?" And so forth.

Then, once the church starts to arrange and comport itself with regard to the fact that Jesus has not returned immediately, the other challenge is: "How do we keep ourselves 'alert' and 'expecting' the second coming, while planning our future?"

Do you see the challenge? Planning for the second and third generation leads inevitably to what we call with disdain- institutionalism, bureaucracy, tradition, and so forth. It is not intentional, it just happens whenever a movement has been around long enough and tries to sustain itself. What gets lost in that development is the edge of the original expectation.

I'm wondering if this the the point at which preachers' veins started poking out of their necks a little bit when they spoke about the second coming. If people have ceased living with the original urgency, it feels like you have to preach up that urgency a little more.

Whether early church preachers had big neck veins or not, you understand that the fact that Jesus didn't return immediately was a challenge. Then, the longer Jesus didn't return and the more the church arranged its life, language, and expectations about the future around dealing with that delay, the more challenging it became to remember things like Jesus' admonition to 'watch and be ready.'

What Matthew's last story- the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46- suggests, is that all of the 'watch' language of chapters 24-25 is not "watch for the big show, the one time final event!" but, rather, "watch for how Christ returns in the guise of the naked, the hungry, the thirsty," and so forth. THAT'S the effect that this final story in this one big, long discourse has on the earlier stories. It re-focuses them away from 'the final catastrophe' to 'every instance of catastrophe.' It re-focuses the reference to "the days of Noah" as a time when people ignored God's judgment to "and how are you treating Christ now, as you ignore the hungry, the imprisoned," etc.

IF we read Matthew's chapters 24 and 25 backwards, through the concluding story of Matthew 25:31-46, then everything changes. What we need is not another big-haired television preacher barking on and on about how a presidential candidate is the anti-Christ, or another book about how Iran is Gog, Iraq is Magog, and Bokslaviana Trianjinadab is the beast. "SAVE IT, PEOPLE!" says Matthew, "IF YOU AREN'T GIVING YOUR FULL ATTENTION TO THE POOR- WHICH ARE YOUR FIG TREES- OR THE NEGLECTED PRISONERS- WHICH IS YOUR SUN LOSING ITS LIGHT- THEN YOU ARE MISSING CHRIST'S RETURN."

That's what happens when we take Matthew seriously. All of the 'end time' urgency becomes 'our time' urgency. That's where Christ's return is found. Don't you think?

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