Last weekend the world as we know it was supposed to end. So said Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, a Christian radio station based in the United States. A series of calamities, including another huge earthquake in New Zealand, would herald the Rapture, the moment when the risen Jesus is supposed to take his true believers to live with him in heaven, leaving sinners behind to endure the world’s dreadful fate.
On Monday 23 May, when the Rapture had not happened after all, Mr Camping emerged from his home to declare himself flabbergasted that his predictions had not turned out to be true. He said he would be looking for answers, but that he would not be returning the donations sent to him by people who had believed his message and wanted to help him spread the news.
Of course, when people make silly predictions about the end of the world they bring all believers into disrepute but Mr Camping and his followers have been the object of particular ridicule. One group of detractors have been thinking up wayside pulpits suitable for the build up to the Rapture.
I liked the suggestion that a suitable church car park sign might be: ‘Free parking for the Rapture. Please leave your keys!’ Another suggestion was, ‘If you’re preparing for the Rapture, please remember we accept post-dated cheques!’ Or how about this, suggested by someone who obviously enjoys horror films. ‘After the Rapture, beware of zombies! We have holy water - please enquire within.’ A more down-to-earth idea - so to speak - was, ‘After the Rapture, please leave a message’, presumably because the congregation wouldn’t be there to take messages face to face.
But, of course, most congregations didn’t expect to be raptured and weren’t disappointed. One person noted wryly that if God had ‘raptured’ the Methodists, no one would have been more surprised than the Methodists themselves!
So finally, how about this mission-focused wayside message for congregations still in business after a Rapture event: ‘Jesus loves you if you’re left behind’?
However daft we might think Mr Camping was to announce that the end of the world, and the Rapture of true believers, would begin on Sunday 22 May, Paul certainly tells us that God has fixed the day when the world will be judged. He says that the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that he will also return as the just judge of all the human race, to sort out the sheep from the goats.
Paul got several different reactions to his teaching. Some of his hearers scoffed at him, just like the people who have scoffed at the pronouncements of Mr Camping. Some people took Paul so seriously that, just like some of Mr Camping’s followers, they sold all their possessions in readiness for the day of the Lord’s Return. But - unlike Mr Camping - Paul’s advice is not to concentrate on the future. Instead, he thinks we should focus our attention on the here and now, for God is not just the God of the End-times he is the God of the present moment, the one in whom we live and move and exist every day. And he’s also, of course, the God of the past, who has determined all the eras of history and the limits of every empire and civilisation.
He is a God who cannot be pinned down. He does not live in shrines and churches built by human hands, or conform to human plans and predictions, or limit himself to the scope of human ideas. He is the transcendent Lord of the whole cosmos, past, present and yet to come.
In many ways the culture which Paul addressed in ancient Athens was not unlike our own. His audience was mildly sceptical about religion, and very doubtful about specific doctrines and moral codes, but nonetheless interested in spirituality and ready to consider the possibility that out there somewhere is an unknown force which really does make sense of everything. Paul’s challenge was to channel that vague spiritual awareness into an interest in the God made known in Jesus. That’s pretty much the challenge facing us too. Quite a lot of people are ready to believe that there’s more to life than meets the eye, but they’re not so willing to be told what to do or what to think.
Paul was asking people to have faith that God has shaped the past, that he is shaping the present - our present - and that he is shaping the whole of time. Perhaps it’s easier to talk to people today about hope - the hope that there really is a meaning and a purpose to the whole of life, that there really is a force for good at work. Like Paul we have to meet people where they are.
In John’s Gospel Jesus also talks about coming back to be with his friends, but he doesn’t mean it in the sense that Harold Camping or even Paul use the term. For John the return of Jesus is connected to the indwelling of his Spirit with the believer. It’s more like the idea of living and moving and existing in God. So for John the return of Jesus isn’t a future event.
Harold Camping now feels that he was mistaken about the date. The end of the world will begin in October, not May. But John says that the return of Jesus isn’t connected at all to any future catacylsm. It’s actually about opening our lives to his Spirit all of the time. If we do that, he will not leave us bereft. If we receive and obey his commands, he will disclose himself to us.
Like us, John experienced the cynicism and ridicule of the world beyond the Church. He felt this was inevitable, because there will always be some people - perhaps the majority of people - who will not open themselves to the possibility of God’s presence with them in Jesus. And if people don’t open themselves to Jesus’ Spirit then the idea of his coming to be with us will always seem crazy. And, of course, total weirdos like Harold Camping - who predict the end of the world next week or the week after, only make the real coming of Jesus seem dafter still. And, as a result, they will neither see him nor know him.
One suggestion for a wayside pulpit on the Rapture theme was, ‘Left behind and loving it’. If that’s just about having a laugh at the expense of a bunch of very silly people, it’s not very profound. But if it’s saying that meeting Jesus where we are now is the real way to discover his love and enjoy life in all its fullness then it’s the best answer to Rapture fever.