Watch out for the ‘anti brigade’

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 24C, 2016 II Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

Watch out for the ‘anti brigade’

There is a story about a bloke who was always having bad luck. Once he found a magic lamp, rubbed it, and a genie appeared and gave him the Midas touch. For the rest of his life, everything he touched turned into a muffler!  (Bausch 1998:390).

Just in case you missed the joke when hearing Midas hear the name of the car repair franchise called Midas Care. Originally they used to specialize in fitting mufflers and exhausts, and just to explain ones joke the moral of the joke is that when one is consumed with the fear of bad luck all one gets is a muffled idea of the world.

Our biblical story this morning from the pseudo-Pauline letter called ‘ii Thessalonians’, is also one of those similar challenges. Pseudo means, “not actually but having the appearance of; pretended; false or spurious; a sham. But it also means almost, approaching, or trying to be.

There is no reputable biblical scholar who agrees that this so-called Pauline letter, was written by Paul. All the evidence points to someone using Paul’s name to claim authority, while writing sometime after Paul. John Dominic Crossan (Crossan & Reed 2004:105), who is probably the leading biblical scholar of our time, is clear. There are authentic Paul letters and there are pseudo Paul letters. The authentic letters can be named: Romans, 1st & Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians and Philemon.

The inauthentic or post Pauline letters, attributed to Paul but not written by Paul, include: Ephesians, Colossians, Second Thessalonians 1st & Second Timothy and Titus.

This sounds a bit technical but when we know that some people have their favourite Paul bits it is important to consider. Do your favourite bits of Paul belong in the authentic Paul basket or in the pseudo Paul basket? It can make a lot of difference. Even more so when we know that not only are there pseudo Paul letters, but some of those letters are anti Paul letters. The evidence is revealed by much of the content of Ephesians and Timothy, unfortunately relied on by fundamentalists and neo-orthodox these days, for their ‘anti’ causes!

You might now well ask: Why the anti-Paul letters?  And again I turn to Crossan who suggests, they are an “attempt to sanitize a social subversive, to domesticate a dissident apostle, and to make Christianity and Rome safe for one another” (Crossan & Reed 2004:106). Here we have the institution normalizing facts, building doctrine and dogma by controlling the masses. The radical Paul is being domesticated, pulled into line, made comfortable, and sanitizing the challenge of a stirrer. Which kind of brings us back to today’s biblical story. The first thing to remember is that it is Paul who is the target of these writings. The second thing is that of what content is used to make the argument about Paul. Focus of the content is our next path.

We might imagine that some of the author’s hearers are frightened. They seem convinced that the so-called ‘second coming of Jesus’ is about to happen. So they have got themselves all into a lather. And their goings-on have divided their small community. The words, ‘for the sake of unity’ they have to change, ‘in the interests of harmony we need to find a compromise’, ‘making peace amongst ourselves is the primary task’ are phrases that are heard as the concern for orthodoxy is championed.

The author then tries to counter this ‘apocalyptic scenario’, but to no avail. Instead the comments seem to pour oil onto troubled fires. Palpable fear grips the Thessalonians. And here we have the real possibility to manipulate peoples thinking. In the midst of their fear they are vulnerable to ideas that make the disruptions go away. Sounds a bit like the elections in the USA Vote for the one you fear the least. Fear speaks louder than either history or reasoned debate!

Being the progressive Christians that we are we can dismiss all this ‘apocalyptic’, ‘end-of-the- world’, ‘second-coming-of-Jesus’ stuff as fanciful rubbish. And most of it is.  Or if you prefer Bishop Jack Spong’s evaluation: “gobbledygook and complete non-sense”  (Spong eLetter, 31.10.07), or Crossan’s “transcendental snake oil”.

If you are the progressive Christian we all seek to be then it is important to try and go under the apocalyptic veneer so that we can get in touch with the real underlying issue. And that real issue is very likely not about the end of the world or the second coming of Jesus, but rather about the end of evil and injustice and violence… in this world.

So why a second coming? A second coming will mean that what we are experiencing will end. As Crossan says: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  It is also not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  Nor is it an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence”  (Crossan 2007:230-231). Stop projecting away one’s fear and deal with life as it is.

So if the Second coming idea is rubbish or at best the literature of the oppressed what is it that the oppressed are seeking? Well; Russell Pregeant, writing of this says we need to get in touch with: “the hope for peace and justice that has led many in our own time, under the influence of liberation theology, to speak of apocalyptic writings as ‘the literature of the oppressed’”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007). Apocalyptic literature then is literature of the oppressed who are seeking justice. The second coming story is the cry of the oppressed.

And he goes on to say: “[this is] a reminder that God is certainly not satisfied with the unjust structure of the present world… [But] we need neither the outrageous fantasies of the so-called ‘rapture’ nor the grotesque images of millions of souls condemned to eternal torture while the blessed shine like the sun, to insure that human life has eternal significance”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

Neither fear mongering, nor desperate fantasizing will change things for the better because it sets up fearful response based in the natural dislike of manipulated approaches to change. Participation in the change makes it a real and helpful event.

So, having said that there is no second coming what next? If there is no second coming and if apocalyptic talk, which wants to claim a basis in divine destruction, is unhelpful, then what value is apocalyptic talk? Why was it of value in the time of the author of our text?

We need to assume that the author thought it had value and that the compliers of the canon thought it did also, so what was that value?

All I can think of is that it had value in that it made the claim that human transformation is possible. This so called second coming, this impossibility made possible is a claim that something is possible and that something is human transformation. Maybe it is that simple. Or is it? If it is that simple then how do we avoid the Midas touch? How do we avoid being nothing more than mufflers?

The Jewish theologian, Dr Abraham J. Heschel once stated that; “Every generation has a definition of man it deserves” (Who is Man? 1965, p. 23). He added: “It is characteristic of the inner situation of contemporary man that the plausible way to identify himself is to see himself in the image of a machine” (Ibid, pp. 23–4). ” Our contemporary dilemma lies in the fact that we usually frame our definition in terms of what rather than who a person is. Our “what-ness” places us in the category of things, but being human is really a process in which we are constantly engaged. It is a journey towards knowing, feeling, and comprehending more; towards a transformation that will carry us beyond ourselves. It is a journey in which the very process of travelling is not distinct from the unfolding awareness of our own mystery—the beautiful and awesome mystery of being human.

This is perhaps where the second coming idea breaks down. Maybe we get caught in the question of what a second Jesus looks like rather than who this returned Jesus might be. This also makes sense when we see that we are to read and study the biblical stories seriously, but not literally, and it also makes sense when we acknowledge that even if only in a small way, we are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world.

Carl Jung is quoted as having said that: “The core of the individual is a mystery of life, which is snuffed out when it is ‘grasped’…. This idea of a returned Jesus of Nazareth is a way of grasping at life to lock it in time and make it dead, whereas who this returned Jesus might be makes it possible for us to participate and thus Jesus lives in every time and in every place. Jung also said that; True understanding seems to be one which does not understand, yet lives and works . . .” In other words; it is by living and working that we ultimately define ourselves as human. It is through the process of living that we come to know ourselves as truly human. Maybe the value of the idea of the second coming is part of the search for human identity that has been the subject of literature, art, and philosophy throughout the ages. It is we know central to every religious tradition and in all cultural systems, sooner or later the human enters on the stage of existence.

Who is this thing we call human. We can work out what it is but the question of who it is always seems to escape us. The focus on what we are is a limited exploration in physiology whereas a focus of who we are opens more doors. Things become different; something not altogether explicable happens. There is a stirring, a shaking, a “never-again-the-same” quality as life takes on purpose and meaning. We have physical bodies with their unique characteristics; we have feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. In times of deep inner reflection, moreover, we have an awareness of something more: something beyond yet near; something neither wholly of ourselves nor wholly other; something indefinable yet real and true.

The value of the second coming story is not about what sort of Jesus returns and more about who this returned Jesus might be? A transformed person, a transformed humanity. Amen.

Notes: Bausch, W. J. 1998.  A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications. Crossan, J. D. 2007.  God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and NowIn Search of Paul. How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York. HarperCollins. Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed. 2004.  . New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

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