The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Trinity XIV 2005

by Fr. Carl
Cathedral of the Annunication Ottawa

How many of us here are afraid to die? I suspect that most of us would not be entirely honest if we didn’t admit to at least some fear of death, not least because there is the component of the unknown. Fear of the unknown. I was reminded of this in today’s Collect by the phrase, “that we may obtain that which Thou dost promise.” And what does Almighty and everlasting God promise to us? Everlasting life. Insofar as any of us is able to completely trust God – and of course all of us should – then we should also take Him at His word – which means that we should not be afraid of death, rather we should live in “hope of everlasting life.”

I was further reminded of this as I was reading something that Bishop Wilkinson forwarded me for light reading. It is the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II on “The Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.” Very early in the over 50 page long document is a subsection entitled, “A hope founded on Christ,” and it states in part, “It is in fact the task of every Bishop to proclaim hope to the world, hope based on the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: a hope ‘which…. awaits the riches of the glory of God (Eph. 1:18), which surpasses anything that the human heart has ever conceived (1 Cor. 2:9), and to which the sufferings of the present cannot be compared’ (Rom. 8:18)….The Bishop is the prophet, witness and servant of this hope, especially where a culture of ‘the here and now’ leaves no room for openness to transcendence. Where hope is absent, faith itself is called into question….the Bishop stands in the midst of the Church as a vigilant sentinel, a courageous prophet, a credible witness and a faithful servant of Christ, ‘our hope and glory’ (Col. 1:27), thanks to Whom ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain any more’ (Rev. 21:4).”

End of sermon? Well, it certainly could be, and I suspect it would leave each of us something about which to think. However, two related things mitigate against my just taking the easy way out:
• earlier this year, prior to summer break, we completed a study of 1 and 2 Thessalonians in which the issue of the death of believers figures prominently, including one passage that presents a rather significant diversion for a large number of western Christians of the past century and a half;
• I overheard one of our parishioners waxing eloquently about that very passage just a few weeks ago, but not in the orthodox understanding that we reviewed at Bible study.

Therefore, it is topical in the sense that any of us might be confronted with this by other Christians, where it would be helpful if we had some idea of the subject. This happens to be one of those recent inventions of part of the western Church that has pushed opposing factions even further apart. Indeed it bears mentioning here that the both the original and current proponents of these innovations are frankly vicious in their attitude towards particularly the Roman Catholic Church, but also any other denomination that holds to the tradition of the Church as we do. Therefore, although our practice here is to attempt to avoid criticizing other denominations, this particular issue is not exclusively denominational, and it digresses seriously enough from orthodox teaching that it is my duty to reveal it to you as objectively as possible.

“What are you speaking about Fr. Carl?” Well, the term bandied about, and as described in 1 Thess. 4: 16-17, which reads (RSV), “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord,” the term is the Rapture. Perhaps you’ve heard of the enormously popular (some 60 million copies sold) “Left Behind” series of books? They are about the Rapture.

Is this episode as described in 1 Thessalonians not to be believed? No, not at all. But that’s not the problem that has arisen around the whole Rapture phenomenon. It is no longer just a relatively simple insertion by St. Paul into one of his letters to a group in Thessalonica who were under a mistaken understanding of his teaching that he had done among them just weeks or months before. Their misunderstanding, by the way, being that they thought that none of them was going to die before the Lord’s return – which had led to various problems in a very short period of time: thus St. Paul’s letters to them. His first letter to them served three primary purposes: to commend their faithfulness while providing much encouragement; to exhort them to holy living, including not ignoring their daily chores while waiting for the imminent return of the Lord; and, related to that, to correct misunderstandings about the Second Coming, including a clarification that yes, some of them would in fact die before Jesus’ return, but not to fret, whether alive or dead, all would receive the reward of everlasting life – the hope with which we began today’s musings, and that which God promises. The vision of some who were alive being carried up into the clouds was not the basis for any doctrine in the early or medieval or even the reformed part of the Church, perhaps because in the very next verses, St. Paul reminds his readers that nobody knows when this will happen, so we should spend our time focused on praying, building up each other, doing good and so on – in other words, just what Jesus Himself taught.

The Rapture phenomenon, which has taken on mammothly, mythical proportions snuck into the Church in the early 1800’s, but really got its first big push from John Nelson Darby in 1830, the very same disaffected Anglican clergyman who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren.

In my reading, I was not able to discern why Mr. Darby found it necessary to take the verses about the vision and create what he did, complete with terms, foreign to many Christians, but buzz words for others. Dispensationalism: the belief that God works in history in various dispensations, or historical eras. We’ve certainly heard of the word millennium; and in this case, there was a belief system with roots in the early church called Millenarianism. This held that there would be a thousand year period preceding the Second Coming of Christ during which He would reign on earth in a kingdom of His saints, and at its conclusion take them with Him into heaven. It was short lived, beginning as largely a Gnostic phenomenon, though interestingly the Gnostics turned their backs on it before a few well-known early Christians. In checking the relevant writings of those well-known names in the early Church, it becomes clear that they were often just musing about it in correspondences or defences against heretics, not as an official doctrine of the Church. Millenarianism was never held in the universal Church as an article of faith based on Apostolic traditions. But it came roaring back with alarmingly different twists in the mind of Mr. Darby. And of course, as with so many other deviations of the past few centuries, these groups have managed to glean these new beliefs or doctrines from the pages of Holy Scripture that were put together by the early Church, who themselves had no inkling of these novel beliefs, or in this case, placed no doctrinal importance on it. To thus turn around and condemn the very Church that put together the books from which these inventors have created such novelties is, for me at least, is just beyond comprehension.

The followers of Darby’s thinking are still with us today, and they all hold to some form of premillenial dispensationalism with a pretribulation rapture - your $20 terms for the day . But before we review them, it does bear mentioning that, on the surface, dispensationalists and traditional Christianity appear to agree about the Second Coming, a future Antichrist, and an impending trial and time of apostasy. And, in fact, common beliefs about aspects of these teachings do exist. But, as noteworthy as these agreements are, the differences between premillennial dispensationalism and traditional doctrine are even more striking:
• The first dispensationalist premise is that Jesus Christ failed to establish the kingdom for the Jews during His first coming. Dispensationalists believe that Christ offered a material and earthly kingdom, but the Jews rejected Him– failing to take into account His own Mother, Peter, John, Andrew, and so on, who were all Jews, not to mention the 3,000 Jewish converts on the Day of Pentecost.
• This supposed failure by our Lord leads to the second premise that the Church is a “parenthetical” insert into history. Put another way, the Church was created out of necessity when the Jews rejected Christ.
• The third premise, so vital to dispensationalism, is the existence of two people of God: the Jews (the “earthly” people) and the Christians (the “heavenly” people).
• Which brings us to something called the pre-tribulation rapture – the very verses in 1 Thess. 4 being the main proof text – no matter how out of context they are taken. This event is necessary because the heavenly people (Christians, and of course only dispensationalist Christians, the over 1 billion Roman Catholics are known as the “Whore of Babylon,” not to mention all of the rest of the orthodox and catholic groups who also are all condemned) must eventually be taken from the earthly stage so that the prophetic timeline can be “restarted” and God’s work with the earthly people (Jews) resumed. That work will involve seven years of tribulation, which dispensationalists believe will be a period of God’s chastisement on the Jewish people, resulting in the vast majority of Jews being killed, but also in the conversion of those remaining.
• This then brings us to the term “premillenial dispensationalism” which teaches that the “Rapture” and the Second Coming are two events separated by a time of tribulation and that there will be a future millennial reign of Christ on earth.

How does this all net out? The Rapture and the "Left Behind" theology of dispensationalism are popular and influential, but seriously flawed. They may make for a fun read or an entertaining flick, but shouldn't be the basis of how we read the Bible, watch the news, or consider the future. The Church has always allowed for some speculation, but also has wisely encouraged us, based on the direct teaching of not only St. Paul in the very verses following the “rapture,” but more importantly, the teaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to pursue holiness and a Christ-like life, not doom-and-gloom scenarios and speculations about escaping impending tribulation. And we do believe that Jesus, God Incarnate did not fail, but rather that He did all that He came to do, that the Old Convenant was in fact fulfilled in the new, not that He has to come back in some sort of Coming 1a prior to the Second Coming so that He can finish establishing the New Covenant, that His Church was not a patch-up response to this supposed failure, but that It was purposely established as His visible witness until His return when all, both living and dead, will be judged Still, when we look at how other materialistic and/or self-centred inventions have captured the imagination of so many western Christians, the appeal of the pretribulational Rapture is understandable. The idea that those living today are “the generation” who will see Christ’s return is attractive and intoxicating. It’s no surprise that many people are prepared to gobble up a theory that tells them that they won’t have to die. Such promises of escape from suffering, illness, pain, and potential martyrdom are tempting, but they aren’t an option for Christians who truly have absorbed the gist of the Bible and our Lord’s teaching. Each of us will endure suffering of some sort, as St. Paul concludes today’s Epistle reading, “for every man shall bear his own burden,” and the Church will, one day, have to endure a final, great trial. The pretribulation Rapture, dispensationalism, and the Left Behind books, in the end, are long on promises but short on biblical, historical, and theological evidence.

Some of us may also be aware of Hal Lindsay, whose book “The Late Great Planet Earth” sold some 40 million copies. He was into the Rapture thing as well; alas his “bet-your-bottom-dollar” prediction was that the Rapture was going to happen in the 1980’s. Tim LaHaye of the “Left Behind” series is similarly convinced that the Rapture is absolutely going to happen in this generation. Fr. Peter just experienced this mindset as he was gathering helpers for one of the charities in which he is involved – one of the prospective helpers backed out because “we are in the end days, so what’s the point.” That mindset, as mentioned, was one of the primary reasons St. Paul wrote his letters to the Church in Thessalonica. “Plus ça change…”

So, when we are asked if we believe in “the Rapture,” how shall we respond? We must keep in mind the aforementioned vicious anti-catholic mindset of these people – among other things they claim that the Church killed “at least 40 million people during the Dark Ages,” that the Rapture is a biblical and orthodox belief, that the early Church fathers believed in the Rapture and the millennial kingdom on earth and such. None of these suppositions is correct – the estimate of “at least 40 million killed during the dark ages” is high by, oh, some 39.9 million, for example.

I suppose that we could tell them the joke that Nicky Gumble does on the current ALPA tapes. I last told this a few years ago on Advent II, Bible Sunday in making the point that sola scriptura in these latter days has really become “sola only the parts of scriptura that I like,” which is extremely topical for our musings today as well. Let me see if I can do this again without stumbling:
“I was standing the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge admiring the view when another tourist walked up beside me to do the same. I heard him say quietly as he took in the view, ‘What an awesome God.’ I turned to him and said, ‘Are you a Christian?’

“He said, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ We shook hands.

“I said, ‘Are you liberal or a fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I;’ and we smiled and nodded at each other.

“I said, ‘Are you a covenant or dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we slapped one another on the back.

“I said, ‘Are you an early Acts, mid Acts or late Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year.

“I said, ‘Are you an Acts 9 or Acts 13, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m an Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we hugged one another, right there on the bridge.

“I said, ‘Are you a pre-trib. or post-trib. Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we agreed to exchange our kids for the summer.

“I said, ‘Are you a 12-in or 12-out, pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a 12-in, pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘You heretic!’ And I pushed him off the bridge.”

While that actually could be considered as a serious answer, in that it points out just how deeply the post-Reformation mindset has fallen into not being able to see the forest for the trees, it may not satisfy. We must also recognize that followers of the current Rapture speculations are not likely to be prepared to discuss the topic with any appeal to the consistent beliefs of the Church throughout history. Therefore, perhaps a better answer would be to respond that we, following the specific exhortation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and St. Paul in that very same letter to the Church in Thessalonica, choose to spend our time differently; rather than fussing about end-time speculations, we are trying to do what Jesus said: to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength; and our neighbours as ourselves, living holy and blameless lives insofar as in us lies. “Tomorrow will take care for itself; sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”

Am I afraid of death? No, but not because I expect to be “raptured,” rather because I trust God to fulfil His promise to all who put their faith in Him.