Life is full of choices. The choice which lies before me today is whether, having in a moment of lunacy signed up for Advent Book Club 2016, I read the passage and commentary for each day and then
- Look at the comments of other club members and keep my thoughts to myself
- Look at the comments of other people and maybe hit “like” or respond with a short “interesting” or “challenging”
- Write blog posts of my own, being honest about how I respond to the passage
- Is safest
- Is self-protective
- Requires the willingness to be utterly vulnerable with a bunch of people I’ve never met physically (with the exception of one) and only “know” from various online interactions – scary stuff!
Today I choose options c) above.
This passage scared me witless as a child. Gospel? I don’t think so. More Badspel – the worst news ever. Bear with me as I put into context for you just why this was the case.
What is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a child? To be separated for ever from mummy and daddy. I know that blind terror because for a couple of days at the age of 22 months I was separated from them (through no fault of theirs) and thought I’d lost them forever. I remember that… I remember physical details of my homecoming (confirmed since by my mother) which changed forever just a week later. I remember the agony, the blind terror, the utter relief.
So why did this particular passage strike such blind terror into my heart as a child, adolescent and then young adult? Because of the interpretation taught to me at (Free Evangelical for those who like denominational labels) Sunday School from the age of 5. We were taught to take a superficial and very literal approach to the words of the Bible – which was presented to us as the infallible word of God, dictated to men and to be taken very seriously indeed. In the case of this particular passage, we were taught explicitly that the day would come when the clouds would literally part and Jesus would come down from heaven riding on a cloud and judge the people of the world – not on how good or bad they had been but on whether they’d properly believed that Jesus is the Messiah and made the ABC of commitment. Do you all know that one? It works like this:
- Admit you’re a dirty rotten sinner and have never ever done anything good in your entire life and that you deserve to be punished severely by God who has no choice but to send you to burn forever in hell (hell being a literal place of physical torment)
- Believe that God loves you (interesting in the context of A) and wants to save you and therefore has tortured his son to death on the cross so that you don’t have to burn in hell after all
- Confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and ask him into your heart
Unless you do all of that, using the proper words of course, you will never get to heaven. You will instead burn forever in hell.
In that context, let me tell you that my parents were not Christians and had never been baptised even as babies. So they, according to this so-called Gospel, were condemned to hell. When Jesus comes back riding down on a cloud I would be taken and they wouldn’t be. When I asked my Sunday School teacher about this, I was told that regretfully yes, this was the case, and that therefore the responsibility was on me to ensure that my parents didn’t go to hell to burn forever by making sure that they too made the ABC of commitment.
At the time (aged 5 upwards) I didn’t realise the abusive cruelty in such teaching, and of course had no alternative cultural or intellectual framework within which to reframe the teaching and indeed the passage and its interpretation.
So why did I ever stay in the Christian church? Because of something completely other. Because from the earliest age I had a profound sense of Presence. Of Being. Of “alone but not alone”. And somehow, as I read the bible (because of course a daily Quiet Time was essential to salvation and I was terrified of hell), I began to think that that Presence, that Being, was Jesus.
Even now, I’d give almost anything to simply walk away from church of any kind – I’ve tried Baptist, Elim, Methodist, URC, Anglican (evangelical, liberal and catholic but not all at once) over the years). Oh, there have been many good moments and the vast majority of folk I’ve met at church have been decent, loving souls – but there have also been too many experiences of different but equally bad abuse of all kinds. Certainly, for me, church is never my go-to place when under pressure. When the going gets tough in life, I withdraw from church until I’ve regained my equilibrium.
Back to the passage. I should have realised we’d start here (it is, after all, Advent Sunday when traditionally I’m reminded in sermons that I’ll be separated from most of my family for all eternity), but it took me by surprise. I was going to walk away from the Club at that point (sorry, Graham and others) but instead, to my utter amazement, as I sat in silence and allowed Presence and Being to enfold me with my pain I gained a different perspective, helped along by Tom Wright’s commentary where he encourages us to realise that Jesus isn’t speaking of some future spiritual day of judgement in the literal cloud-descending way I was taught, but is actually referring to the near future in a very physical and political way.
Israel at the time was an occupied country. Jesus was a very astute guy. He could see the writing on the wall – the Romans were getting twitchy and sooner or later (probably sooner) they’d come marching in and just as oppressive regimes everywhere do they would grab people to be an example to others. Those taken would be crucified along the roadside in a very public way to act as a deterrent to any others thinking of rebelling. Those left would be the lucky ones – for now. The utter reverse of what I was taught as a child.
Now at last that makes sense. Suddenly a passage that, for me, has always been Badspel has become Gospel.
The global situation at the moment is dire – fascism is on the rise, intolerance and fear of the stranger in our midst is rife, social inequality is increasing, oppressive regimes are flexing their muscles more and more, climate-change is accelerating and we are heading for a cataclysmic change in the way we live. It’s depressing at best and terrifying at worst.
What this passage now says to me is that when this happens it will be no surprise to God. And it is in that moment that we are judged – every time. We need to prepare now – daily – hourly – because we don’t know what the future holds. We never did. Now, though, it is more obvious to us that our future is utterly uncertain. The promise to us – the Gospel, Good News – is that when the shit hits the fan, then Christ is most fully revealed. The more deeply rooted and grounded we are in Him – or if you prefer, rooted and grounded in Light, Love, Presence, Being – the more we will be unshakeable when we are maybe the ones taken.
Fast forward to the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles – the stoning of Stephen. He was one of the ones taken – snatched untimely form a good and wholesome life of service and stoned to be an example and discouragement to other potential Followers of the Way. And in the moment of greatest agony, despair and failure what happens? He sees – full of the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. In that moment, he experienced the Second Coming for himself, the culmination of his own personal journey into Christ – if you prefer, into Light, Love, Presence, Being.
So let us, at the start of this Advent season and beyond, be encouraged as we face dark times ahead. Let us dare to take time to root ourselves ever more deeply into the solid rock which will not fail us when the storm hits. Let us live and love and walk in faith that behind the glowering storm-clouds still the Son shines in glory and will break through those clouds in our moment of darkest need.