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The Unbroken Circle

November 30, 2015

In memory of Andrew T. Fox, 1994-2015

“The Unbroken Circle” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 © 11.29.15 Advent 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Even a kid who might not be the sharpest tool in the shed can get quite creative when making excuses for not doing homework. “I stayed up late waging cyber-war against terrorists for Anonymous, and didn’t have time to do it.” “Aliens abducted me just as I was sitting down at my desk, and their probes wiped my memory of any assignment.” “My flash drive/laptop/tablet got corrupted, and I couldn’t get it fixed in time.” And of course, the ever-popular “the dog ate my homework.”

But the most outrageous reason for not learning has to be this one from Texas. According to reports earlier this month, Laura and Michael McIntyre pulled their five children out of a Christian school in 2004 and began home-schooling them in an office at their El Paso motorcycle dealership. Now they are at the center of a lawsuit with the El Paso Independent School District after the kids’ uncle, Tracy McIntyre, said he never saw the children doing schoolwork. Instead, the kids seemed to spend most of their time singing and playing instruments. He claims he also overheard the children saying “they did not need to do schoolwork because they were going to be raptured.” (See note 1.)

We’ve all heard of it, maybe even believe it will happen. The Rapture. You know, in case of which, this vehicle will be unoccupied. During which, all children under 12, including even fetuses snatched from the womb, will taken to heaven. As a result of which, trains and aircraft will be left pilotless, so they derail or crash, causing massive loss of life. In the aftermath of which, spouses will come home from work to find their families gone without a trace, the husband or wife left behind.

Despite being rejected by a broad spectrum of Christians ranging from Roman Catholics to evangelicals, the Rapture is big business and a favorite tool of fear-mongering evangelists to get converts. From Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in the ‘70s to more recently the Left Behind series by LaHaye and Jenkins, from movies to websites to sermons and “non-fiction” books by various authors, the Rapture has become the accepted notion of the end times and the coming of Christ for many. Belief in the Rapture strongly influences how those born-again believers who accept it regard the world and its problems, the environment and non-human creatures, their unchurched neighbors and even other Christians.

But the Rapture is an invention, a fiction, an innovation that was unheard of in the Church until the nineteenth century. Christians since the New Testament and all over the world, including Presbyterians, have confessed that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” as we say in the part of the Eucharist prayer known as the anamnesis. Our Lord’s coming is part and parcel of the creeds of the Church, whether Nicene and Apostles’ or more modern ones like our own A Brief Statement of Faith., which has us watching for a new heavens and a new earth, praying “Come, Lord Jesus.” Whatever the differences among believers on liturgy, the scriptures or social issues, we have this faith in common, that Jesus will return.

Only a few have been foolish enough to try to predict the day and the hour that will happen. Seventh Day Adventists in the 1800s and fringe prophets in our own day may have had and have timetables and a big “x” on a certain date on the calendar, but not even proponents of the Rapture do that. Jesus said “No one knows,” and we do well to take his word for it.

But even though Rapture Christians take the saying of our Lord from Matthew and Mark seriously and refuse to set up a timetable, they play fast and loose with other parts of Scripture. The word “rapture,” for example, is found nowhere in the Bible. It comes from a Latin translation of the text we heard this morning from 1 Thessalonians. “Caught up” in that language is “raptio.” And the notion of the Rapture and related events has to be cobbled together from unrelated texts from all over. Besides our text, the go-to verses come from Daniel, the gospels of Matthew and John, the epistles to the Corinthians and Titus, and of course, the Apocalypse of John. Apparently, God loves to send people on a treasure hunt or present a puzzle to be solved, rather than just laying out something so important plainly.

Despite what may be claimed or what you have heard, the notion of the Rapture doesn’t come from the Bible and, as I said, was unheard of until the nineteenth century. Its origin was instead a vision in 1830 by a young Scottish girl named Margaret McDonald. At a healing service, she received a revelation about a two-stage return of Christ. A British evangelical preacher named John Nelson Darby adopted the story of Margaret’s vision, expanded on it, and invented a system called “dispensationalism” to make sense of history and the contradictions in the Bible. Darby claimed that the first return of Christ seen by Margaret would be in secret, to rapture his church from the evil world. The second would be after a seven-year global tribulation. That would be his “Glorious Appearing,” from a phrase in Titus, after which Christ would establish a kingdom on Earth, with his capital in a restored Jerusalem. Between 1859 and 1877, Darby made a number of trips to the States, winning many converts to his ideas.

Darby’s system and concepts were popularized in the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, in which a forger and embezzler named Cyrus Scofield incorporated his notes and headings about the dispensations and so on into the text of the King James Bible. It became the lens through which millions of Americans read the scriptures.

Further developments led to Lindsey and LaHaye and others. The typical scenario for the Rapture and related events is that Jesus snatches away born-again believers, who escape what is to come and leave everybody else behind to fight the forces of the Antichrist during a time of great suffering and death, during which Israel will be converted to Christ. Then Jesus comes back, and in the final battle of Armageddon, defeats the Beast. Our Lord then sets up his reign. But, says Lutheran scholar Barbara Rossing, “[t]he Rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war… This theology is not biblical. We are not raptured off the earth, nor is God…. God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!” (The Rapture Exposed: 1,2).

But if Paul isn’t talking about crashing planes, disappearing people, terrible suffering, and global end-time warfare, what is his concern in this text? Something much more down to Earth, and all too common, which touches all of us, and has quite recently. The apostle is helping the Thessalonians with their grief. Specifically, with their anxiety about the fate of their loved ones who have died—or in Paul’s lovely euphemism, “fallen asleep”—and whether they will be reunited with them. They, like us, wondered “Will the circle be unbroken?”

Here was their problem. Paul had taught them that Jesus would return soon. His coming was known as the “parousia,” a word that means both “coming” and “presence.” But some in the community had already passed away, and Jesus hadn’t come back. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Jesus was expected to return during the lifetime of those then living, so everyone would share in its glory. So the congregation was concerned and confused. As the biblical scholar Eugene Boring explains: “This section is pastoral care for a grieving community. Some members of the church have died, and the congregation was apparently distressed about their fate. Would they be excluded from participation in the glory of Christ’s return, or does their death in advance of the parousia indicate that they were not believers at all?” The apostle needed to say something to help them. As Boring further notes: “Paul’s answer is clear: those who have died will not be left out, for God will bring them ‘with’ Jesus on his return” (An Introduction to the New Testament: 215).

To us the concern of those first-century believers seems strange and a little hard to relate to. Millions and millions have died over the centuries and across the globe, and Jesus still has not come back; we no longer worry that somehow they are not included in God’s plan because they passed away before the parousia. But think about the matter this way: the people who had passed on had died an untimely death in the sense of preceding a longed-for, hoped-for event that was foundational for faith. The believers in Thessalonica, as I said, were confused and concerned. They didn’t need a lecture about doctrine or a timetable for the end. They needed a caring pastor to give reassurance and encouragement and most of all, hope. Isn’t that what we need, too, especially when one moment someone is with us; the next, gone? We want to know that God has not abandoned us or them. That the circle will be unbroken. That one day we will be reunited, and right now, Christ is with us, and that somehow he is reigning over our little corner of the world, to make things right, that even now he comes to us in the Spirit just as one day he will return to put an end to death once and for all.

The key to understanding this whole passage is one rare Greek word, the second one you will learn today. It’s apantēsis. It occurs only three times in the New Testament, and each time it means “to go out to meet and bring back with.” Rapture proponents misrepresent and misunderstand this term. They have it mean that Jesus comes and hovers up above, while the raptured faithful are caught up in the clouds to meet him. Then Jesus turns around, and they all go back to Heaven. That’s never how the word is used in the Bible. Instead, it refers to believers going outside the gates to meet Paul and his friends in one case and in another, the bridesmaids going to meet the bridegroom and escort him to the wedding. There is no reason to believe it means anything different here. The believers are caught up to meet Jesus, then escort him with celebration and joy back to Earth where he begins his reign among us. The parousia and the apantēsis complete what Jesus began during his brief physical presence on Earth in the first century, and continued from his resurrected and ascended position wherever Heaven is. He will be with his people, he will rule among us and among all those who have died, but at his coming will be raised. This text is about resurrection and reunion, not rapture, other than the rapture of joy we will feel.

The circle will be unbroken not just bye and bye in the sky, Lord, but incarnate, fleshed-out, lived day by day in a world where disease and war and horror and hatred and prejudice and especially death are no more, for Jesus has returned and ended them. The hope for that day gives us courage for the present struggle against all that deforms and destroys human life, for we believe that “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run, his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

By God’s grace, we will be reunited with our Savior and with each other. Comfort and encourage each other with these words.

Note 1: and

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