May 3, 2020
For our reading on this 4th Sunday in the season of Easter we go to John’s gospel. Listen for the Word of God speaking to you from John 10 verses 1-18.
READ John 10:1-18
Since I am a lectionary preacher, that means I work from the same groupings of scripture readings every three years. And often in preparation for a sermon, I do tend to go back to see what I have said before. What I found out this week was that I haven’t given a sermon on this passage from John for more than a decade. I have tended to choose the epistle reading from 1 Peter over John as the passage for my sermon.
Nine years ago, I spent most of that sermon on the fourth day of Easter talking about Harold Camping’s prediction that the world was going to end on May 21st, 2011. Easter must have been later that year because I gave that sermon on the 15th of May. Harold Camping’s end of the world prediction was a pretty big news story at the time… and I think it still has something to say to us especially with how we theologically understand what it is we’re going through today.
You might remember how back in May 2011, there were messages about the coming judgment splashed on billboards all across the country. According to my sermon I had taken a trip to Raleigh and had seen a number of them along I-40. The time of destructive divine judgment was upon us. On May 21st there was supposed to be a humongous earthquake that would have literally shaken open all the graves of the deserved faithful who… along with the living deserved faithful… would then float off into heaven. May 21st was supposed to be just the beginning of the end. The earth itself would have ultimately been destroyed on October 11th of that same year.
Now I don’t know if you remember… but none of that happened. Harold Camping… he revised his calculations and he gave another date for doomsday where again nothing happened. It wasn’t the first time he had done this. He had also said the world was supposed to end with the rapture in 1994. According to one article I read, he actually made 13 different predictions about the end of the world before he died in 2013. You would think that after the first few times of being wrong people would stop listening to him… but there always seems to be those who are attracted to this type of message.
I hope it doesn’t surprise you to know that we Presbyterians don’t give much credibility to the end-times rapture theology. That’s probably the nicest way I can say that. Let me tell you why.
First, let’s begin with Easter and the judgment that is Easter. Isn’t the message of this season one of God saying, “Because of the sin that keeps us apart… and because you cannot bridge this chasm of sin on your own… I will die for you. Out of my steadfast love for you, I will be the sacrifice that ultimately defeats sin. And to show once and for all the powerlessness of sin versus the power of my righteousness, there will be resurrection. Sin and death will not have the last word. I will do this for you. Not because you have earned it. Not because you have believed rightly or subscribed to a certain level of my Law… or what someone has said is one of my favored religions. But I do this unconditionally… because I love you. And because I and I alone am God.” Isn’t this what the good shepherd passage from John says to us?
I’ve never seen the promise of Easter as a limited time offer. Nor have I ever seen the promise of Easter as one that needed conditions and fine print added to it. I’ve never felt that Christians had to somehow retroactively pay for… or qualify for… or even apply for the benefits of Christ crucified and raised. Let me put it this way… take the familiar scene from Luke’s gospel with the two thieves crucified along with Jesus. Now we all know that one thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom to which Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” We take Jesus at his word, but we also… I think… begin to believe that this then becomes a requirement. We have to acknowledge what Jesus has done and then what Jesus has done will have power over us. Without our acknowledgement the cross will have no effect upon us. But, here is where I want to challenge you… if this is how you think… what about that other thief? What about the one who does not ask to be remembered… and not only does he not ask, but he mocks Jesus? What does Christ’s death mean to him? Ask most people and they say he will get what he deserves. He will not be saved through the power of the cross. He did not ask… so Jesus does nothing and leaves him to his fate. But I will argue that it is exactly that other thief for whom Christ died… as much as the one who asked to be remembered. He is what that one sheep looks like from the parable earlier in Luke’s gospel… the one sheep who is lost and will be sought after until… until that sheep is found. What happens when we stop thinking about God’s limitations in human terms and let God be God?
Saints, who was it in scripture that asked Jesus to die for their sins? Can you give me that person’s name? Which of his disciples asked him to go up there on the cross to do this for the salvation of the world? Who gave Jesus permission to do this in the first place? Which one of his followers understood what was happening before the fact and what the cross and the empty tomb would mean?
The good news of Easter is that we are not left to our fate… we are not left to what we deserve… we are all sinners who deserve the fate of sin… that’s the bit that gets left out, but is thankfully a part of our reformed theological tradition. I don’t care who you are… how good you are… what religion you ascribe to… how much you think you have earned God’s special attention… we are all sinners who deserve the fate of sin. And not a one of us can save ourselves… or even a percentage of ourselves. The Law, no matter what form it takes, does not have the power of salvation. The good news is that God in Christ forgives the sinner in their sin. I mean, it’s just a few verses before the scene of the two thieves in Luke’s gospel that Jesus asks forgiveness for those crucifying him… while they are actively in the process of crucifying him… he asks for them to be forgiven. And how much will Christ forgive. “Seven times?” once asked Peter. How many times should we forgive? “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy times seven.” Can we place a limit on God’s forgiveness in Christ so that at some point of time… some day to come God’s patience with the way of resurrection will finally give out and God will decide it best to go back to the ways of mass destruction as the best method for leading people down the path of salvation? As if grace can only hold back God’s true nature so long. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Thousands have died from this virus. Thousands more will die. Is this a plague sent by God as punishment? Does God do plagues after Easter… or does Easter change everything… because how do you reconcile the theologies of resurrection and a plague sent as punishment for sin? God leads the flock through the light of resurrection, not by beating us into submission through the fear of death.
Rapture theology… end of times judgment theology like Mr. Camping and others… says the time for forgiveness is over. The door is shut and sealed. The time of the cross has come to an end. Its effectiveness is limited and it will only save so many (and only those who have properly petitioned)… and God will ultimately have to stop forgiving sinners in their sin… God will ultimately have to let sin have its day and will have to let the hope of redemption go… will have to abandon the idea of the suffering servant… the good shepherd who brings life abundantly… the Christ who suffered for you… the Christ who entrusted himself to the one who judges justly… the Christ who himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds having ourselves been healed… God will ultimately have to abandon all of that… and settle for ultimate destruction of all those found to be wanting and unworthy. Destruction… obliteration is the only real means to conquer sin… not love. Is that really the good news of Christ? There is no hope in rapture theology, only a sense of vindication for a delusional and ego driven form of self-righteousness.
Our righteousness is always the righteousness of the cross. And the cross is not an escape for us. The cross is not a reward for our own self-deluded definitions of what is righteous. The cross is the opening for us… the cross sets us free to die for others as Christ died for us. And right there, is a second betrayal of the cross that is in rapture theology. Christ died for sinners, but we are supposed to look forward to living for ourselves in heaven while sinners suffer the tribulations of earth’s final destructive days. Getting to float off safely to heaven while others suffer is not the way we are to live for righteousness. If we were truly followers of Christ the place where we would be found is not safe in heaven… but we would be with the unredeemed sinner in their suffering. The place we should be is not floating off to heaven, but being always the incarnate word of God with those who are suffering… feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, giving the proper care to the sick. Do we truly believe that the one who lived for righteousness… who suffered the indignity of the cross… who died for the sinner… would want those followers he encouraged to take up their own cross to simply abandon sinners to their sin… that Christ the good shepherd would let any sheep go astray. From what I read in scripture, not even Jesus would be in heaven… but Christ crucified would be here on the suffering earth… he would be with the ones who need him the most.
So again… at what point is Christ crucified no good longer enough… and Christ the destroyer becomes preferable?
We are people of the resurrection. We are Easter people. That is the good news in which we stand. Amen.