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I was visiting a friend a little while ago who’s been struggling with cognitive issues. During our time together, she asked me my name several times, then wanted to know where she was and whether or not she was married. What amazed me, and I’ve seen it time and again, was her ability to remember with perfect clarity events from her childhood. She described a favorite dress, recalled the name of her best friend from first grade, then recited the Nicene Creed word for word. Somewhere in her brain, her first memories were safeguarded from the corruption of time and disease.
Her recitation of the Nicene Creed stirred something deep in my own memory. I was 7 years old, preparing for my first communion at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church, and committing to memory those ancient words, which rushed to fill my mind some 50 years later. I’m sure there’s a neurological explanation for the “stickiness” of early memories and our ability to retain them. They are imprinted on us, shaping our lives right up to our deaths.
Last Sunday, I began a sermon series called “Things We’re Supposed to Believe, But Maybe Shouldn’t.” These things often include our first religious experiences and teachings, some still retained deep in our minds, even though they’re no longer helpful and have been disproven by science or experience.
When the woman I was visiting repeated the line from the Nicene Creed about the return of Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…”, I thought to myself, “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.” I’ll admit that as soon as I thought it, it scared me a little bit. I felt as if I were 7 years-old again and Father McLaughlin was shaking his finger at me, telling me I was the first one Jesus was going to judge and it wouldn’t end well. But even that vision of judgement didn’t cause me to change my mind. I don’t believe in the second coming of Jesus. I don’t believe Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Don’t misunderstand, I realize why people wished that were true. I would love for Jesus to come down from heaven, or wherever it is Jesus is now residing, and judge certain people, hold certain people accountable, and mete out a measure of justice to those people who’ve scorned justice. I would love for that to happen. I just don’t think it’s going to.
I bring this up because last week I heard one man telling another that the wildfires in the west, the coronavirus, and our nation’s political and social upheaval were signs of the apocalypse, the end times, the cataclysmic conclusion of this earthly world in order for God’s Reign and Rule to occur. This man believed true Christians would be spared, non-Christians would be destroyed, and Jesus would reign forever and ever, that in the words of the Nicene Creed, “his kingdom will have no end.”
As the man was saying all of this, I thought to myself, “Well, there’s one man who can’t be depended upon to do anything about the wildfires in the west, the coronavirus, and our nation’s political and social upheaval.” He will do nothing, because he has been taught, perhaps since childhood, that Jesus will magically intervene, in a moment of great peril, to save us from ourselves. I suspect he was told he was supposed to believe that, but I say to him he shouldn’t, for it has crippled his capacity to think deeply and act decisively and responsibly, for I have noticed that when God is expected to do everything, men and women do nothing.
This is the grave danger of apocalyptic thinking, the assumption that God will magically do what we should courageously do. Worse, because apocalyptic theology is prevalent in challenging and difficult times, when human courage and action are most needed, apocalyptic theology asks us to stand down when we should stand up. In the Bible, end-times theology is found in the book of Daniel, the 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel, and the book of Revelation. Historically, we know the eras in which those books were written were periods of intense persecution and social upheaval. Remember this, people never long for the end of the world when times are good. That means whenever we read or hear warnings of a second coming, the first thing we must ask ourselves is this: “What social and spiritual stresses are instigating this worldview?” Then we address those challenges, rather than vesting our hope in a magical intervention from the heavens.
Ironically, our own religious tradition, Quakerism, began as an apocalyptic movement on the heels of the English Civil War. The explosive growth of early Quakerism was a direct result of the widespread conviction that the end of the world was near, that Christ was returning, and Christians would be conscripted to serve in what early Friends called “the Lamb’s War.” When that didn’t happen, Friends rather skillfully changed their tune, saying the Lamb’s War would not be an outward war culminating in God’s Reign on earth, but instead would be an inward war, culminating in changed and purified hearts. Significantly, it was only after this theological shift that Quakers became serious about social transformation. Good theology begets good work.
I know a man who was for many decades a Jehovah’s Witness. When the Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, he sold his home, quit his job, gave away his money and sat in the Kingdom Hall awaiting the return of Jesus, who never came. Twenty-five years later, as the year 2000 approached, ever hopeful, he sold his home, quit his job, gave away his money and sat in the Kingdom Hall awaiting the return of Jesus, who again failed to show. He died disillusioned, still waiting for that day.
In this past Wednesday’s edition of the British newspaper The Daily Mail, it was reported that a 41 year-old attorney sued his parents after they stopped supporting him financially. He lost the case after the judge discerned his parents were under no obligation to provide their adult son a living.
Don’t be that man. Don’t live your life thinking God is obligated to step in and save you. Yes, in its creeds and songs and prayers the Church has taught us that Jesus will one day descend upon the clouds and usher in a new world order, but, friends, we will die disillusioned waiting for that day.
My recent visit with a forgetful friend reminded me that we will likely forget many things over the course of our lives, but let us never forget that justice and decency are not achieved through the magical intervention of an omnipotent god. They are the consequences of our intelligence, our compassion, our courage, our resolve.
A better world must not hinge upon theological magic, for when God is expected to do everything, men and women will do nothing. Roll up your sleeves, stand firm, face the world.