The Rev’d Scott Elliott, Deacon
Nov. 12, 2023 • Proper 27, Year A
From the Collect of the Day: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as [Jesus] is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…. In the Name of the One who loves, who is Love, and through whom we love.
Every year, near the end of the three-year eucharistic lectionary cycle, we spend a Sunday or two on the Olivet Discourse, which is a presentation of a conversation Jesus had with some of his followers on the Mount of Olives (hence the name), shortly before his arrest and crucifixion.
This year, since we’re in Year A, we’re on the Matthew version of it, and it’s the last of the five discourses which organize that Gospel. It’s also called “the Little Apocalypse,” because in it, Jesus is talking about The End Times.
It anticipates some of the work we will do in Advent, which is nearly upon us, in which we contemplate and prepare ourselves for Jesus’s First and Second Comings, in reverse order: first, his Return, in glory, at the end of the age, and second, his birth in humility as a baby in Bethlehem.
The Big Apocalypse, of course, is the Book of Revelation, that hallucinatory collection of visions given to and by John of Patmos, itself based largely on the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel.
There is an idea—widely held in many Evangelical Protestant circles—that what is envisioned in John’s visions, the End Of The World, is upon us: that the climax of human history is Right Around the Corner.
Consequently, it is a Christian duty to help that process along by embracing and enhancing those historical events which presage Jesus’s return. Among those historical events is the restoration of the Nation of Israel to the Holy Land, which was accomplished by the United Nations in 1948. There is SO much wrong with this position that I can’t hope to address it all. I’ll just mention in passing the fact that the State of Israel, created by the United Nations 75 years ago, and the Nation of Israel, established by God as described in the Book of Genesis, are not in any sense the same thing. Conflating the two, or speaking of them as though they were interchangeable terms, does no good either to Israel, or to Israel.
And deeply embedded within it is a notion called “supersessionism,” which is the idea that Christianity has replaced - superseded - the Jews as God’s chosen people. That position was embraced by quite a few people, as recently as early in the last century or so, including some Anglican theologians, but has since been generally recognized as anathema to Christianity - Catholic and Protestant and Anglican - and an offense to anyone who takes the Hebrew Bible seriously. But the main thing to note is that in the popular imagination, the End of The World will be accompanied by horrors unimaginable; widespread death and destruction and devastation. That is what we Christians are looking forward to with eager anticipation? So, the God we worship is a destroyer and a rapacious killer? No wonder people think we’re crazy!
No wonder it has become commonplace to reject a god like that!
The New Testament portion for today is a little piece from the First Letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica. In it, Paul is speaking of just this very thing: the End of the Age and Christ’s return.
Scholars are pretty much in agreement that this is the earliest-written of all the works in the New Testament, and that it was written around the year 52 or so: that is, only about twenty years after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
At the time it seems to have been a standard expectation that Jesus would return, just as he had left in the Ascension, pretty much Any Minute Now.
One of the reasons Paul was tearing around the Eastern Mediterranean as fast as he could was that he, like pretty much all other Christians, thought that time was short, and was too precious to be wasted: Jesus would be back at any moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
That is one of the big reasons that the very early church was pretty much unconcerned about what we today would call “social justice” theology or issues: slavery, second-class citizenship in the polis for women and ethnic minorities, economic hardship and lack of access to wealth for the vast majority of the population, and so on.
The church was unconcerned about that stuff, not because it was unimportant, but because they expected Jesus to be back Any Minute Now—and what matters in the meantime is to introduce our friends and families to Jesus so that they may rejoice with him and with us on that Great Day.
Of course, twenty years later, by the time Paul writes this letter, Any Minute Now has started to ring a bit hollow, and even at that early date, the leaders of the Christian communities in the world needed to do some rethinking. How much more, thirty or forty years later, when Matthew wrote his Gospel? People had started to lose hope, and Paul is writing, even at this very early date, to his friends and followers, in an effort to bolster their flagging hope.
To do so, Paul reminded them—and us—of the true object of their hope, and ours: the end of the world—in both senses of the term “end”: the finality of the world, yes, but moreso, the goal of the world, the purpose.
The Goal of the world is that which was incarnated in Bethlehem: the purpose of the world is Love. The end of the world is not when all things are destroyed, but when all that is wrong is set right. When all the wounds are healed. When all the hurts are forgiven. When justice is established throughout the world. When Love reigns.
Speaking at Washington National Cathedral in 1968, Martin Luther King famously said that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I would go a bit further and say that the existential arc of the universe is very, very long. But it bends toward love.
Go thou and do likewise.