Leaving Rapture Theology Behind

Advent 1C:

Happy New Year! Liturgical, that is. This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church year. As the colors on the altar change from green to purple (or sarum blue, for some), the lectionary changes from readings from Luke to readings from Matthew. The readings do this somewhat seamlessly, taking the first part of one of Jesus’ discourses found in both gospel accounts and connecting to the second part.

Luke, two weeks ago: People describe the beauty of the temple. Jesus says it’ll all come crashing down. They ask when it will happen. Jesus describes all of the bad things that will happen and tells them that by their endurance they will gain their souls.

Matthew, this Sunday: Jesus says only God the Father knows when “that day” will come (the one or ones when all that bad stuff will happen). He reminds them about Noah and his contemporaries, who carried on living and many of whom were washed away. Jesus says they should be ready, as the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

5203186545_05b890e18bI wouldn’t be the first to suppose that Jesus is talking about “The Rapture” here; this is one of the texts often used to support the idea that God will pick some of us up via toy crane come some specific day. The Left Behind book and movie series have been wildly popular, and Nicholas Cage is about to star in a big-budget Hollywood remake.

Because in midrash we look at any possible interpretation, we can look at this one without committing it to our concept of reality. You could conceivably interpret this passage in that way, though “the Rapture” is not ancient and also arguably not biblical; the concept was at least popularized only two hundred years ago.

Some of the shortcomings of Rapture theology, according to Marcus Borg, are that it implies that this world doesn’t matter very much—it’s all about the next. Peace, the environment…none of it really matters because we’re just waiting for God to find enough quarters to save the good ones.

Rapture theology is violent—not that the Bible isn’t, but there is a slight difference. The Bible contains stories, myths, history, poetry, lamentation, etc. written by tons of people over the course of thousands of years as they experienced and reflected on and anticipated and attempted to understand life—communal life in conjunction with belief in God. Rapture theology is a more self-interested look at doing enough to be personally saved by God, violently destroying an anti-Christ, and escaping this world. The Bible is primarily about life in this world—about seeking justice and peace and relationship with God and each other.

If we read this passage from Matthew and avoid placing a rapture theology on Jesus’ words, what do we have?

Since Jesus was just spilling out some anxiety-ridden warnings to some anxiety-ridden people contained within the Gospel According to Matthew, which was written to and by an anxiety-ridden community, maybe we can look at what this passage does to our anxiety levels.

If you’re like me, you get anxious about a lot of things. If I am stressed out about something, my neck gets tight and a headache follows behind. Suddenly my clumsiness is cause for great frustration as I spill food on myself or drop something that I’m carrying or trip on nothing. I’m well acquainted with anxiety…we’re besties. That being said, this passage pulls me in both directions. On one hand, Jesus confirms that “that day” is coming and no one knows when and it will catch everyone by surprise. On the other hand, the inability to know frees me from attempting to try and figure out when.

If I only worried about the rapture, I’d be perpetually anxious. My grandmother, Lily, used to tell me that when she was a child she was worried that if she went to the bathroom, the Lord would come take her family away and leave her behind. Could you imagine living with that kind of fear? That fear is where the thief analogy in the text really breaks down. The point Jesus makes here is that we need not fear all of this bad things that will happen because in our anxiety we lose out on those moments when Jesus comes into our lives.

Jesus calls us out of complacency, but not quite into fear. We need not worry about any rapture, but if we carry on focusing only on ourselves, we will miss those times when Jesus appears in the face of someone on the street or in some other situation. Somewhere between anxiety and complacency is where we can build a home for ourselves—seeking to make this world a more just and lovely place, trusting that God is just and loving.

That is the mystery place of midrash--living between those places. More practically though, what might the significance of this be for us today? Since last weekend, people have been camping out at various stores for tomorrow night's Black Friday sales (yes, "tomorrow night's" because we just can't wait to buy crap we don't need). We can be angry and upset about the consumerist insanity. We can play along and push people to the ground for $2 DVDs. We can do any number of things that either result in our own anxieties or our own complacency with "the way things are." But how can we understand this crazy consumerist culture in a way that doesn't alienate others? How can we participate in this world in a way that witnesses to Jesus and seeks justice?

We are beckoned to walk the middle way, not to be thrown asunder by the challenges of this world, nor to be desensitized by overwhelming trends. How will we do this in the shadow of consumerism, a violent culture, and any number of other cares of this world?

The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo: ©2010 Todd Anderson, Flickr