Tuesday, June 2, 2009

11-25-2007: Christ the King (C)

2 Samuel 5:1-3/Psalm 122/Colossians 1:12-20/Luke 23:35-43
On this Feast of Christ the King we mark to the end of the church year and, by analogy, we are reminded by the somber tone of the readings that all things will someday come to their end; indeed, this world will someday end as well. Today we hear the Gospel of the Good Thief and how Jesus promises him Paradise as he hangs upon the cross. It is a fitting reading as we contemplate the end times, a subject which captivates the imagination of many and preys upon our personal and collective fears.

Despite the fact that talk of the world’s near end seems to have been with us from the world’s very beginning, the fear of immanent demise has never lost its force of persuasion in religious circles and even carries over into the secular sphere as well. Indeed, it seems to have a universal relevance, almost as if that fear were hard-wired into the human psyche, like an evolutionary hold-over from a prehistoric flight-or-fight mechanism. Every time the Stock Market drops, analysts explain the fears which spurred the sell-off. The fear of Armageddon seems constantly with us as difficulties flair in the Middle East. Evangelicals, in their literal adherence to the Bible, actually pray that Israeli and Palestinian might more hurriedly kill each other because it would be a sign of a more immanent return of Christ. And with all that talk of global warming and its impact on the planet, those who long ago gave up on organized religion have found a suitable substitute. The Green Revolution, quickly becoming a quasi-religion in itself, now incorporates into its world view the fear of immanent destruction, the imposition of personal as well as collective guilt, and the promise of salvation with a zeal that borders on the fanatical (with no need to refer to the supernatural). Ironically, such beliefs demand a lot more faith than any religious creed.

Whether suggesting the near end of the world by insinuation or barefaced bravado, biblical literalist or planetary alarmist (a Pat Robertson or an Al Gore) play on our fear and dread. The reason they’re so successful, the reason they get results, is because they’re right. It is a probability approaching a certainty which holds that this world will indeed one day end – whether God exists or not, whether or not there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. But insisting that the end is going to happen tomorrow, next week, or on March 12th, is a well-tested way to get people to focus on their dread and fear, thereby missing out on the import of their lives right here and now.
I remember a few years back; a Korean boy-preacher mesmerized the Korean-speaking world with his prophecy of a fast-approaching Armageddon, citing day, date, and hour. Fearing the worst, many sold their homes (handing him the cash, of course) and high school seniors didn’t bother taking the SATs. The day came and went, and the prophesied end didn’t happen – though a few sad souls brought their own lives to a quick end by their own hand.

Time, we now know, is a relative matter. The Good Thief used his last moments to offer a word of consolation to a stranger, and Jesus, in turn, offered him Paradise. The way the gospel phrases the promise is interesting to note. Remember the Greek in which the gospel was written didn’t employ punctuation – that was added (arbitrarily) with translations into the modern vernacular. Thus, in English orthography, you can read the promise either of two ways. First possibility: “Jesus replied to him: ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” But if we move just one of those commas, we read Jesus saying: “Amen, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Moving that arbitrary comma throws the immediacy of the promise of Paradise completely out of whack, suggesting perhaps that God’s eternity does not translate well into our time-bound existence; and that attempts to discern the date and time of Armageddon is a foolish diversion. The essence of Christian faith is not fear but love; and love, not fear, is evidence of the presence of Paradise -- here and now.

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