I don’t know about you, but I remember exactly where I was at 6 PM on Saturday, May 21st. Does anyone else here remember where they were – does anyone even remember the reason for remembering that date?
Six PM on May 21st, 2011 was the supposed moment of “the Rapture.” The moment in time when the world would come to an end and we would all be swept up into heaven to meet God. At least those us who were worthy would have been swept to heaven. No one was quite sure what would happen to the unworthy – whatever that means – but, certainly it seemed as if that group could not look forward to a positive outcome.
At exactly 6 PM on Saturday, May 21st, I was at an altitude of about 32,000 feet in a Southwest jet flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas. I was supposed to have been on this plane about five hours earlier – but that is a different story altogether. Suffice it to say that all 120 of the passengers, myself included, were frustrated, exhausted, and definitely numb – very, very numb.
As we dozed, or gazed at words on a page of some magazine or book we had retrieved from the crowded space where our feet were supposed to be comfortably resting, but were instead crammed sideways on top of the luggage that our reading material was in, a man cried out – “It’s 6 ‘o clock – it’s time for the Rapture!”
A few people turned to look at this informative gentleman. A few people chuckled, without even turning their heads. However, the majority of the passengers continued to stare into space or at their reading material – who knows what their thoughts might have been.
I thought to myself, if anyone is going to get “carried up” certainly it will be us. After all, we are already at 32,000 feet. We are already half-way there!
Well, as we all know, there was no rapture on May 21st. Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio, a main spokesperson for the Rapture occurring in our day and age, was absolutely sure it would happen on May 21st, 2011 at 6 PM – but, it didn’t.
Unfazed by his miscalculation, the very next day Mr. Camping quickly announced that due to a mathematical miscalculation, he had been wrong. He stated that the date for the Rapture now had been extended – the new date: October 2011.
Of course, Mr. Camping first predicted that this momentous event would occur way back in 1994, so if you’re looking for a solid date here, Mr. Camping may not be your best resource at this point in time.
Where did the concept of the rapture come from anyway? What is the Rapture really all about?
The concept of the Rapture comes from something called Christian Eschatology. Christian eschatology is the study of the end of things - the end of an individual life, the end of an age, or the end of the present world and the beginning of the World to Come.
Christian eschatology is concerned with the return of Jesus – the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead. The Rapture, or the Last Judgment, signals a new heaven and a new earth, and the ultimate consummation of all of God's purposes.
Eschatological passages are found in many places throughout Scripture, especially in Isaiah, Daniel, the Gospel of Matthew, the Pauline epistles, and the Book of Revelation.
One rapture passage that we are all quite familiar with is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. “(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
In this very graphic passage Paul describes the essence – the very concrete essence - of the Rapture as envisioned by Harold Camping. “Then we who are alive…will be caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
But did Paul actually mean to be so concrete? Will we really be caught up in the air and fly to heaven accompanied by archangels?
And what does the Rapture have to do with today’s Gospel passage from John – a passage frequently referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer?
With regard to Paul and the Rapture, a thorough study of Paul’s writings indicates that he probably was not speaking concretely when he wrote this passage to his community in Thessalonica. (By the way this particular letter was probably written sometime between 50 and 52. Just 20 years after the crucifixion and well before any of the Gospels.) Paul’s intention in this letter, as in his other letters, was most probably to have his words interpreted spiritually and metaphorically.
In fact, Paul actually instructs us in how to interpret his writings in 1 Corinthians when he says, “we (meaning Paul himself) speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
So, in speaking of those who “sleep” or are “dead,” Paul is actually referring to people who are spiritually dead.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul explained that some of these “dead” people were raised from their spiritual deadness when they awoke to the fact that the promises contained in their scriptures had indeed been fulfilled and that Jesus was truly the Messiah. He told the Christians of Rome to start acting like they were alive. He wrote: “yield yourselves unto God, as those who are alive from the dead.” (Romans 13:11)
In the same way Paul tells us that when he woke up to the fact that Jesus truly was from God - that Jesus truly was the Messiah, he – Paul - awoke spiritually. At this moment of conversion, Paul was “raptured.” However, Paul’s being “raptured,” or his being “caught up” into heaven while he was still physically alive was a spiritual and not a literal event. Paul’s rapture symbolized his awakening to the inner spiritual realities of what it means to have faith in the resurrection - in Christ.
In his letters, Paul is telling us that it is time to “wake up,” to join the living who already live and move and have their being through God in that reality.
Now, to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. The prayer is offered by Jesus at the conclusion of his farewell dinner. Jesus is preparing to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He is also offering prayers of intercession for his disciples and for future believers. Jesus begins his prayer with:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:1-2)
He concludes with the petition:
“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours…And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:9-11)
Jesus is praying for all who have been given to him by the Father – all of his followers. He prays that they may have eternal life…that they may be one with God just as Jesus is one with God, both on earth and in Heaven.
He prays that his disciples will have the strength and the courage to continue his work after he has died. He prays that his disciples will serve as witnesses of God’s saving grace to those in this the chaotic world who have no faith. He prays that through this witness, through this “disciple-work,” the world might be saved and experience eternal life.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Jesus, like Paul, is not speaking concretely – he is speaking metaphorically. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he is not referring to the length of one’s lifespan; he is referring one’s relationship with God.
Jesus is telling us that eternal life does not begin when we go to heaven – it is not the rapture envisioned by Harold Camping. Eternal life is the spiritual awakening that comes when we enter – in this life, not the next -into relationship with God through our belief in Christ’s resurrection – when we participate in the Easter glory - when we acknowledge our salvation through God’s grace in the gift of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Eternal life as Jesus understood it – and, as Paul understood it – is living at peace (shalom) with one’s self and one’s neighbor. A peace solidly rooted in our relationship with God and in our work as God’s witness in bringing that peace to our neighbor.
It is for that eternal life – that peace at the very core of our being, and through our work, at the very core of the world – that Jesus prays.
No, Mr. Camping – no rapture needed here – not in October 2011, or at any other time. No, thank you. We have Easter and we have eternal life right here, right now, and for ever and evermore. AMEN.