I have a neighbor who has invited me to many lovely Christmas open houses, where I met her father. Mr. C. was always pleasant, though he had a disconcerting way of making conversation. “Hi Mr. C.! Merry Christmas!” I’d say. And he would respond, “I hope I don’t see another one!” When I asked my friend about it, she replied, “He’s really hoping for the rapture.” At his funeral a couple of years ago, more than one speaker mentioned what they were sure was his bitter disappointment at meeting Jesus at the pearly gates rather than being taken up in the clouds.
How do we read the Bible? It sounds like such a simple question, really, and I’ve heard all sorts of answers to it in my lifetime, as I’m sure you have. And this week we’ve gotten to watch, along with the entire world, an example of someone reading the Bible in a very particular way, and then making some very bold claims based on that reading, which, in turn, has inspired people to watch closely to see whether that claim had any basis. Well, to be more accurate, I’m afraid many people watched in order to be able to pat themselves on the back when those claims turned out to be false. Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network read the Bible this way: he worked out a very complicated system of numerology and mathematical equations, based on what he believed were the dates of the great flood and the crucifixion of Jesus, and with the help of those calculations, concluded that the end of days would commence May 21, last night, at 6 PM, with earthquakes rolling through the time zones. At that hour, according to Mr. Camping, the righteous would be taken directly into heaven, and five months of tribulations—war, famine, disease, and the revealing of the anti-Christ—would commence.
Reaction to Mr. Camping’s claims about the end of the world as we know it has been mixed. The New York Times reported this week on families that were divided by the belief—the ones that stood out to me were Abby and Robert Carson and their three children. Abby and Robert believed Mr. Camping’s claims (perhaps they still do), and so Abby left her work as a nurse to become a full time missionary on behalf of Mr. Camping’s prophecy. The children do not believe the claims, and are dismayed, for example, to see that their parents have stopped saving for their college educations. They are even more dismayed to be told by their mother that they will not be getting into heaven. Their fourteen-year-old son Joseph said, “I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore, because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”[i]
There was a lot of merriment at the Camping followers’ expense this week. People threw post-rapture parties, and played pranks involving piles of clothing left in conspicuous places, and, I am assuming, playfully speculated at which Christian neighbors’ cars or houses they might like to move into after those Christians were snatched up by the spirit in the sky.
And I am assuming as I write this that as we gather on Sunday May 22, none of it will have happened. Why am I assuming this? Well, it’s not because I simply can’t believe that the world will end. I can believe it, even apart from the proclamation of our faith. I think such a thing is not only possible; given the choices we make as individuals and as nations, I think it’s entirely likely that our planet could cease to be the hospitable home God created it to be. I am assuming that no rapture will have occurred on May 21 because I believe Mr. Camping and his followers employed a flawed method of reading scripture. I believe there are good principles we can employ in reading the Bible that will help us to be guided by it, and be enriched by it, and deepen our relationships to God through it, and that Mr. Camping, at least in his vision of the end times, did not employ these principles.
The latest edition of “Horizons,” the magazine for Presbyterian women, is devoted to the Bible, and among the very good articles there is one called “How Do I Read the Bible?” This article shares seven simple guidelines adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) nearly thirty years ago. Take this one, for example: “Seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of all the Bible.” This guideline could have helped Mr. Camping. It could have reminded him of Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel, “…about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Mark 13:32] Another of the guidelines: “Let the focus be on the plain text of Scripture, to the grammatical and historical context, rather than to allegory or subjective fantasy.”
Look, for example, at our passage from John’s gospel. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins. Do not let your hearts be troubled! “Believe in God; believe also in me.” At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has all but completed his earthly ministry. He has changed water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. He has talked to Nicodemus at night about life, the universe, and God’s plan for salvation. He has verbally sparred with the Samaritan woman at the well, and explained that he is the Living Water. He has fed the crowd of more than five thousand and explained that he is the Bread of Life. He has healed the man born blind, and explained that he is the Good Shepherd and the gate for the sheep, and that he has other flocks that are not of this particular fold. In other words—Jesus has gone about a program of inviting, welcoming, challenging, feeding, teaching, and healing people—all the people. Jesus has been in the process of giving away his life so that others might live. And now, in this moment of the story, he is looking ahead, and what he sees there is the cross, where his program of giving away his life will be complete.
Naturally, his friends and followers are frightened. They do not fully—or perhaps even partially—understand. And so he seeks to reassure them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins. “Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” The Greek word for ‘house’ can also be translated as ‘household.’ And ‘household’ implies extended family, friends, those who normally gather in a place. Even more interesting is the word translated ‘dwelling places.’ The Greek word means ‘tent,’ or ‘temporary dwelling’—a far cry from the familiar “mansions” that still resonates in many of our brains. So how about this for an alternative translation of that whole sentence: In God’s extended family there are many places to rest on your journey. Jesus is not making promises here about eternal real estate, as if we can put a down-payment on some kind of condo in the clouds; a quick look at the work he has been about would seem to make that clear. Rather, he is assuring his friends and followers about eternal relationships, about the eternal welcome and hospitality of God.
“You know,” Jesus says to those who have been following him around and watching him heal and eating the bread he’s blessed. “You know the way. You know the road I am on.” And Thomas, the one who is forever saddled with the unfortunate nickname ‘Doubting,’ says something he is not well-known for saying: he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” You want to know the way to God? It is the way I am on. It is the way I have been showing you all along. It is the way of inviting, welcoming, challenging, feeding, teaching, and healing people—all the people.
Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story that is very much on point for those of us who are hoping to see Jesus face to face one day. He speaks of a devout follower of the Buddha who rushed to see him—and ignored a fellow human being who was in dire need along the way. When he came to the Buddha’s monastery, he was unable to see him. His eyes could not perceive him. The one who can see the Buddha is the one who seeks him in the needy and suffering.
It is a remarkable parallel to Jesus’ words in another gospel. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:35-36, 40]. Those of us who want to see Jesus have already been shown the way, and the truth and the life. We know the way. It is the way of spending our lives for others. We don’t need strange calculations, though we do need scripture—the full witness of scripture. We don’t need to leave our jobs, though we do need to follow Jesus’ way while we are in those jobs. We don’t need to ignore our families; we do need to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
How do we read the Bible? What, for example, does scripture suggest to us today, in the aftermath of the rapture that wasn’t? Today I am thinking about those Christians who have been so concerned about the emotional aftermath for Mr. Camping’s followers that they have made it their mission to minister to the May 21st crowd. They camped out around Mr. Camping’s headquarters to bring a message of hope to the possibly devastated believers, and to help them to begin to put their lives back together. There it is: the way of Jesus in that compassion and hope.
Today is a day for recognizing that we have to take scripture seriously enough to approach it with humility. It is a day to keep in our prayers those who awoke this morning devastated or confused or desperately disappointed, and if we know them personally to reach out with compassion. And it is a day to recommit ourselves as servants of our servant Lord, who poured out his life for everyone, and who invites us to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Juliet Linderman, “Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending,” New York Times, May 20, 2011.
* Image: Rapture Cupcakes, Courtesy Unvirtuous Abbey