Handcrafted items are big these days, especially in the north country of New Hampshire, where we spend our summer vacations. There you will find handcrafted furniture, handcrafted house furnishings--rugs, quilts, favors, other bric-a-brac--handcrafted fly-casting rods, canoes, and kayaks. The sign that got my eye this summer as I was contemplating today's lessons was hanging outside a quaint New England house on Main Street that had been turned into a boutique luncheon and snack shop. It announced: "Handcrafted Ice Cream." Handcrafted ice cream; I was accustomed to home made ice cream, but not "handcrafted."
Handcrafted. The value of things made by hand. But it hit me! That's it! Soul crafting--these lessons are about soul crafting. Now remember when the Bible uses the word "soul," it is talking about the psychosomatic unity we call ourselves, the reality we contemplate when we think about ourselves--our sense of self. These lessons say that how you and I live out our lives shapes us, not only for this life but for the life of the world to come--soul crafting!
Now, cut away from that sign on Main Street this summer in New Hampshire to another I saw last week. Driving on a super highway in one of our country's major cities that will remain nameless for the sake of the innocent, a beautiful luxury car-itself looking largely handcrafted-sped by me. On the bumper of that magnificent machine was a sticker proclaiming, "Warning! This car will be driverless at the rapture." At the speed the car was moving and the way its driver wantonly cut in and out of traffic, it appeared driverless now! In fact, we all would have been safer had it been! Paul's warning to the Thessalonians to shun such disorderly (1) people immediately came to mind.
Paul was talking about a group in the church at Thessalonica who thought their faith exempted them from responsible living within and to the community. They thought they were free to do as they pleased, come and go as they pleased, participate as they pleased with no responsibility to contribute to it. After all, Jesus was coming soon to whisk them away from this world and its cares.
Such is the kind of thinking that frequently emerges in faith communities during moments of great stress, be that persecution from the emperor or a local community. Living with the tension of code orange or code red status for long periods of time, as we do in many of our major cities in the U.S., hearing the ever ubiquitous sound of helicopters hovering overhead as we do in New York City, watching the carnage and absorbing the seeming futility that bombards us nightly as news comes in from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, absorbing the tragedies we witness as people starve or bear the ravages of feuding war lords or politicians in Africa.
Meeting with fellow Christians in Zimbabwe this last February, we asked them what we could do to help them in their suffering as they and their people struggle to live in and with the ravages of Robert Mugabe's corrupt and repressive government. They said, "Pray for us." Nothing more? "No. Just pray for us that we can be faithful until God brings us deliverance."
In the days when the Bible was being written, such circumstances gave birth to a special kind of literature scholars called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic, which means "to reveal," uses vivid language, the portrayal of cosmic portents, natural disasters, wars, plagues, and other events to reveal what it is God is about to do to preserve the world and God's people within it. It is intended to give the faithful hope, to assure that God is still God, still in control and has not forgotten the world or God's people. But during times of severe stress, as people lose their nerve, such literature can be misread and distorted. Folks begin to scan Scripture searching for any fragment that might hint at signs of divine rescue, as though faith were a cosmic "hall pass" that allows God's people to avoid hardship or suffering by being whisked away from it all. This is the bumper sticker theology that went whizzing by me on the freeway not long ago. It is also the theology that is frequently expressed by those who put so much stock in the so called rapture.
I said "so-called" because the notion and presumptions of this 20th-century heresy emerged from a distorted 19th-century reading of a passage in Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica--the 4th chapter, verses 16 and 17--where Paul talks about being caught up in the victorious presence of the Lord at his final return (2). By the way, the word "rapture" does not even appear there--or elsewhere in Scripture--and is a concept the church knew nothing about for the first 1800 years of its life. It is an idea that emerges when texts that speak of the ultimate triumph of God are read through spectacles looking for some sign that the faithful will not have to go through the trials and tribulations of a world convulsed by the power of sin and death. Add that to a second heresy--dispensationalism--and you have a distorted theology which supports the modern nation of Israel as if it were the descendant of the biblical Israel and co-opts them for its own very distorted apocalyptic doomsday purpose(3).
Jesus has a very different view of reality. And he says so most clearly in the 21st chapter of Luke's Gospel(4). Jesus is in Jerusalem teaching about the coming of the kingdom of God. He is standing in the courtyard of the temple with its lavishly adorned and bejeweled inner wall, the outer face of which was so completely covered with gold that, we are told, when the sun rose and shined upon it, it was as if one were looking directly at the sun(5). Someone in the crowd has just drawn Jesus' attention to all this glory. In response, Jesus warns that the day is coming when not one stone of the temple will be left standing upon another. To those standing there, the notion of the destruction of the temple could only mean that Jesus was speaking about the end of the age(6). And so they asked him, "Teacher, when will this be and what will be the signs that this is about to take place?" But, notice, read the text carefully. Jesus does not answer their question. Rather, he issues three imperatives:
Do not be led astray.
Do not go after them.
Do not be terrified.
"Do not be led astray, for many will come in my name saying, 'I am he, and the time is near.'" In our own day we have seen the Jim Joneses and the David Koreshes of life. Heaven only knows how many other false prophets will come to lead their people to such doom. Jesus warns, "Do not go after them(7)." He is telling his followers not to be misled by false prophets who come claiming messianic authority proclaiming that the time is near. These are not God's messengers. They're religious charlatans, false prophets who prey upon the religiously naïve and gullible, serving up a faithless form of Christianity that is more interested in serving self than serving our Lord(8).
So, too, for those who look at the signs of the times and predict the rapture and the end of the world. Don't be led astray. Do not follow them. Jesus says the signs of the time are nothing more than that, signs of the confusion of our day, of our own doing, not portents of God's designated day for a new heaven and a new earth. The chaos of nation against nation, earthquakes, various famines, plagues, dreadful portents and great signs of heaven, the dreadful AIDS pandemic in Africa, the extraordinary hardships of the people of Zimbabwe-when you hear of these, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but...." Now let us listen to Jesus' words very carefully: "The end will not follow immediately(9)." Jesus is not forecasting the end. He is describing what faithfulness requires of us, what it looks like until the end, as Jesus lays before his listeners a description of what is to come to his disciples.
More than one commentator has noted that what follows is a precise description of what in fact actually did happen to Jesus' disciples after his resurrection: arrests, trials, exclusions from synagogues, betrayal by family members, persecution and imprisonment, and, for some, even death--all reported in Luke's compendium volume to this gospel, the Book of Acts(10). But notice what Jesus says about these hardships. His disciples are not to be whisked away from them because of their faith. Rather, they are to be led through them in order to give witness to their faith! The hardships, the tribulations, the moments of suffering are but opportunities to testify to the power and ultimate triumph of God. Those who patiently endure, who faithfully engage the powers and principalities of their day with Jesus' words and power, will find that in doing so, they have gained their life.
By the time this gospel is being read for the first time, Jesus' predictions had already taken place. And those reading Jesus' words not only knew him to be a true prophet, they also knew that much of what he was saying could be in store for them as well. They heard Jesus telling them that the new they were looking for-the new heaven and a new earth, the new Jerusalem of Isaiah's prophecy-was not to come without turmoil and testing, without their bearing witness to God's power to transform life at precisely those moments when it seems most improbable. That is the way God works. The message here is: remain faithful to God as God's people and God will remain faithful to you.
That word has not changed. Jesus' word to us is the same as it was to those first disciples who heard him. The new heaven and the new earth will not come without turmoil, without testing, and our bearing witness to it at precisely those moments when it seems most improbable. How you and I deal with this world, its ups and downs, its triumphs and defeats, its dictators and false prophets, is the surest attestation of our faith--a faith that leads to God's vision of life or a faith that is only self-serving. The person who patiently endures, who faithfully engages the powers and principalities of our day, finds that in doing so she is not only bearing witness, she is also soul crafting, shaping a life fit for the life of the world to come. This is what Christians in Zimbabwe know when they ask for our prayers. They are not asking that they be whisked away from their nation's turmoils and suffering, but rather that they be given the grace and the endurance to live through it faithfully until the day God does bring deliverance. They are asking us to pray for them in their ordeal of soul crafting.
For soul crafting is not withdrawing from the world in spiritual idleness, as some in the church of Thessalonica were doing. Soul crafting engages the turmoil in God's name and endures, trusting that God does not abandon God's beloved. It is not withdrawal into the so-called spiritual endeavors, dutifully reading and studying our Bible, praying as we await the coming of the Lord so that God will lift us out of this turmoil. Soul crafting engages the weightier spiritual matters of life--the political and the economic issues that bring the chaos, injustice, sufferings and other upheavals we live alongside of in this world. Soul crafting digs into the day-to-day challenges of our lives, recognizing that God is at work in them and through us in these places in ways that no one of us can accomplish on our own. Soul crafting "plunges us into the reality of everyday life even as it also insists that this life is not the whole story," so writes Beverly Gaventa. There is no room here for a theology in which we are divinely whisked away from the scene leaving our cars driverless. That is the theology of false prophets, "spiritual busybodies" out of step with the faith. Jesus says we are to ignore such false prophets and their best-selling novels, and instead engage this world in faith, bearing witness to God's sovereignty and Christ's lordship, trusting in them in and out of season.
Persevere. Patiently endure, and you will begin to craft your life, your soul in such a way that even in death not a hair of your head will be lost.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, give us the gift of yourself, the gift of your spirit to empower us in good times and in bad, to trust in you and bear witness to you. We ask in Jesus' name and for his sake. Amen.
1) The Greek word here, atakos, is hard to translate and has to do with disorder, often among soldiers walking out of rank; of immoderate or inordinate behavior that differs from what is prescribed.
2) 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.
3) See, Bill Moyers, "Truth Out," The Star Tribune, Sunday, January 30, 2005, StarTribune.com, Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN.
4) Luke 21:5-19.
5) Josephus, The Jewish War, 5:207-208, trans. H. St. J Thackeray, LCL (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1928), p. 269
6) Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year--Year C, (Valley Forge, PA, Trinity International Press, 1994), p. 474.
7) Luke 21:8.
8) Alan R. Culpepper, "Luke," The New Interpretor's Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 402.
9) Luke 21:9.
10) Beverly R. Gaventa, et. al. Texts for PReaching, A Lectionary Based on the NRSV--Year B, (Louisville, KY:Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 400-401.