Will Christ come again?
Ordinary Sunday 19: 8th August, 2010
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
From this morning's gospel: 'You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.' (Luke 12.40)
This is one of many passages in the New Testament looking to the return of Christ, with which various events are associated: resurrection, judgement, a new creation, and so on. It's clear that in New Testament times all this was expected to happen very soon; hence the call to be alert, to stay awake, to be ready for his coming, as in today's gospel. Clearly, however, these expectations of an imminent, literal return of Christ were plain wrong. Nearly two millennia have passed and Christ has not returned as they hoped he would.
Despite this, a recent survey showed that 40% of Americans believe that the second coming of Christ will happen in the next forty years. A similar proportion of Americans believe that the world was created in six days, and that humans are descended from Adam and Eve. I suspect that these two groups largely coincide. These are people who believe that the biblical accounts about both the beginning of the world and its end are literally true.
Nowadays most Christians have no difficulty in accepting that the creation accounts in the bible are not literal, historical or scientific accounts of our beginnings. But they are true in that they tell us, not that God created the universe in six days some 6000 years ago, but that God is the reason why anything exists at all. And the Adam and Eve stories are not about our remote ancestors: they're about us. Adam and Eve are ourselves, created in God's love, and intended for loving relationship with him and each other, though at the same time created with freedom to choose not to love, and so free fall away from the high ideal for which God created us. That is to say, the creation stories are not about the past; they're about the present.
And I suggest that we need to interpret the accounts of Christ's future return and the associated events in a similar way. I suggest that we should see the accounts of the end of the world, not as literal descriptions of what's actually going to happen at some time in the future, but as telling us certain things about God, about human beings and the world, that are true now. That is to say, the biblical accounts of the end of the world are concerned with the present rather than with the future.
So is the New Testament wrong in saying that Christ will come again? Personally I don't believe that Christ will come again in the sense that at least some of the New Testament writers believed this, and I rather doubt whether many of us do. But this isn't the end of the story. I'd like to look at two parables which we heard in today's gospel reading. Both of them are about servants waiting for their master to return, and as such they're parables about the return of Christ.
The parable at the end of the gospel reading (Luke 12.41-48) emphasises one of the themes associated with Christ's return: the theme of judgement. Those servants who haven't carried out their responsibilities in the absence of their master are judged, and they're punished with various degrees of beatings. The parable concludes by pointing out that although all are responsible some are more responsible than others: 'To everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.'
I suggest that this parable of judgement applies to us, not in the future, but now. God's judgement means that we are accountable, we are responsible. The way we live now, the way we behave, matters in the sight of God. And we need also to listen to the concluding words of the parable: 'To everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.' It's probably true to say that most of us in this church, not all perhaps, but most of us, are those to whom much has been given, and those therefore from whom much will be required. And we're told very clearly what is required of us; by the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example. The parable of the last judgement in chapter 25 of St Matthew's gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats, is also very specific about our responsibilities as Christians. This parable emphasises that we're judged on the extent to which we have, or have not, cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick or those in prison. Just as we did, or did not, do it to one of the least of these, we did, or did not do it, to Christ himself. 'To everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required'. This does apply to us, especially if we ourselves are not hungry or lonely or ill; if we're not homeless or refugees or asylum seekers. We have a responsibility not to pass them by on the other side, not to ignore them as we drive past them in our air-conditioned cars, not to hide from them in our comfortable and secure suburban homes. And we need to be aware of our responsibilities in this regard as we decide whom to vote for in the elections, federal and state, and not to look solely to our own interests.
The other parable earlier in the gospel (Luke 12.35-38) tells of a rich master whose slaves are ready and waiting for him to return from an evening wedding banquet. What happens when he eventually arrives is extraordinary. The servants have been waiting loyally to serve their master. Then when he comes he immediately 'fastens his belt'; that is, he ties up his long wedding garment. What's he doing? This is a preparation for doing some lowly job, like scrubbing the floor; only lower class servants and slaves gird up their robes. He isn't going to scrub the floor; he's going to become a servant himself. The master has the slaves sit down, and he serves them. This is an astonishing reversal of roles. It was naturally the custom for slaves to serve their masters, but for the master to serve his slaves is astounding. And what's he going to give them to eat? What food will the master serve his slaves? He wouldn't have been expected to come home hungry after a wedding banquet, so there wouldn't have been food already prepared. We can only assume that the master himself brought food with him from the banquet specially for his servants, which he then proceeded to serve them. He didn't ask a servant to serve the food to his slaves; he did this himself.
There are a number of echoes in this parable. The parable echoes the incarnation. In the fullness of time, God sent, not an angel, but his beloved Son to draw us back to his love. There are echoes of the Last Supper, both the foot-washing and the institution of the Eucharist. On the night before he died the Lord served his disciples. He girded himself and washed their feet, and then he offered them his body and his blood.
And at every Eucharist, day by day, Sunday by Sunday, the Lord and master is our host at the banquet. We who are loved sit at the table and are served by the one who loves us. At every Eucharist, Christ returns to us who stay awake and alert, ready for his coming. At every Eucharist, the Lord comes and shares with us his joy and his glory. He wipes away every tear and lets us taste his love. So every Eucharist is both a promise and a fulfilment of the new creation: 'See, I am making all things new', says the risen Christ (Rev. 21.5). At every Eucharist we are caught up into the worship of heaven, with saints and angels, and the whole company of the elect. We don't have to look to the future for all this; it's happening now. And so this parable about the servants who are waiting for their master is a parable of hope for the one who is to come, and also a parable of fulfilment of this hope, as our Lord comes to us day by day, moment by moment.
We may wish that the biblical promises about the future would be fulfilled, that Christ would return in glory to judge the wicked, destroy evil, and reign as king in a renewed creation; that is, we wish he'd come again to put everything right in our world. But I don't believe this is going to happen. And rather than seeing these accounts of the end-times as applying only to the future, we need to see that they apply now. Christ is present as judge: we are accountable, responsible; how we live our lives, how we relate to others, especially the needy — this matters. Christ comes as king to reign in our own lives now as we acknowledge him as our Lord and seek to live our lives for him. And he comes to us in Word and sacrament; he fastens his belt, has us sit down, and gives us heavenly food: the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.