Sermon: The Real Meaning and Practice of The Apocalypse

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repentLast Sunday I preached a sermon on the question of 2012, the apocalypse, and the impulse to evolve. Watch for zombies and the utterly genius Charles Eisenstein

You can listen to the audio of the sermon. The text of the sermon is posted below.  

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"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Gospel of Mark, Chapter 1, verse 15.  

These are the first words of Jesus' public ministry. 19 short words in our translation. It is one sentence that consists of 2 sections. The first part is a declaration: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near." The second part is in the imperative: "Repent and believe in the good news." In other words, the second half is a set of twin commands about what to do in response to the declaration of part one ("repent and believe in the good news because the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near").

These are the first words of Jesus' public ministry. They are therefore arguably the most important words for understanding his entire teaching. Their importance cannot be overstated.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.

What time is fulfilled? What does it mean to talk of time being fulfilled?

And here, right from the beginning, we come smack up against a rather inconvenient fact (for many), one that has embarrassed our liberal churches, for some time now. Namely: Jesus was an apocalypticist. He was an apocalyptic dude.

Notice the line in Mark's Gospel that introduces Jesus' first words: "After John was arrested, Jesus went about proclaiming the good news saying..."

Jesus started out as a disciple of John the Baptist. John the Baptist proclaimed that an era of tribulation was soon to come, a judgment that would purify the land of injustice.

Jesus then comes along and says "The time is fulfilled and the reign of God is at hand."

In other words, Jesus is saying the vision that John laid out of a coming age of judgment was fulfilled, it was now. The countdown on the divine clock had just begun.

Now this is an embarrassing thing I suppose for at least a few reasons. First, well where's the kingdom? The Kingdom didn't fully manifest in Jesus' lifetime nor has it yet done so since. Or if you like he was too early by 2000 plus years and counting. Second in our day we associate apocalypticism with nutbars predicting the end of the world on specific days and years. And in case you're wondering, nutbar is a precise theological term.

Nevertheless, a great 20th century theologian once said that "apocalypse is the mother of all Christian theology." The apocalyptic worldview is the seedbed of all Christian theology. If you don't believe me, read the New Testament. It's on every page of it.

But we are haunted by this apocalyptic heritage for it has certainly been misused and abused both historically and in our own time. We have disowned our apocalyptic heritage. As such the intensity and fire that drove Christ Jesus in his public ministry has largely gone out. It has flared forth for a time in various pockets, at unique moments over the last 2,000 years to be sure. But it certainly hasn't sustained.

If apocalypse is the seedbed of all Christian theology, then a non-apocalyptic Christianity is one that has no roots. It has no connection to the soil. It will die out, in fact is dying out.

It seems to me what is needed is a way to re-embrace the energy and intensity of apocalypse but placed in a different and more appropriate vessel for our contemporary age.

I believe this is the perfect time to be talking about apocalypse. It's 2012 after all--if nothing else it's on people's minds...if not always in a very constructive or intelligent manner admittedly. But at least it's around in the zeitgeist. Here, of all places, the church might actually have something to say to our culture. But it's a space that largely we have vacated and lost our voice on--leaving only the loudest and most ignorant to take the floor.

The word apocalypse means an uncovering, a revealing of something hidden. An apocalypse overturns and destroys the world as known. An apocalypse is a world-destroyer and a world-birther. One world has to die and a new and radically different one comes into being. This is why Jesus said the first would be last and the last would be first.

The apocalypse we need is not one that is set on some predetermined time schedule with an external deity imposing its forceful and vengeful will on a grand scale. The apocalypse we need is one in which the Holy Spirit comes up from below, through us, transforms us, and brings about a different possible reality now. God's Spirit needs to call us into a different future in the present.

And if ever a time called an apocalypse, now would be it. Not because of supposed Mayan calendar predictions but because of the state of affairs: ecological destruction, economic destruction, war, revolutions, on and on. We are living in the breakdown of one age and the hope of a breakthrough to another.

"The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand."

Jesus was an apocalypticist. But notice he didn't say the end was near and then go build a cabin in the woods and stock up on weapons and canned beans. His vision of the apocalypse drew him into the world not out of it.

Last Saturday I had the blessing of attending a day long workshop with the author and activist Charles Eisenstein. Eisenstein speaks of the "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible." This more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible is like unto the kingdom of God.

Eisenstein lead us through an activity where everyone wrote and then some shared their own versions of the more beautiful world. His I found particularly striking.

"In the more beautiful world my heart tells me is possible the loudest sounds are those of birds singing and children playing."

It strikes a chord immediately. It is a deceptively simple but extremely powerful framework. It's apocalypse in the best sense--it's uncovering the truth that's been lying behind the veils of our delusion.

Because it effects literally every area of life. Culture would be different in a more beautiful world. Education would be different. Economics, the focus of Eisenstein's most recent book, would have to be completely rethought. Even religion needs to be massively overhauled.

Our hearts tell us this more beautiful world is possible because God is speaking through our hearts. God is the one calling this more beautiful world into being.

Now what such a vision of the more beautiful world/the kingdom of God needs are disciples--that is students of its way. Those who are converted fundamentally to its vision. While Jesus certainly performed acts of healing, shared meals with outsiders, and taught publicly--all as ways to reveal and enact the kingdom he spoke of. His laser focus is always on the question of conversion.

And in his opening statement it's no different.

"The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."

Here we get the two action statements: repent and believe in the good news.

When we spend time feeling into the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible we have to die. We have to turn away--that is repent--from the old way. For the old way, is kinda like a zombie within us, its programs, habits, and patterns keep playing themselves out within us in a kind of undead fashion. They're dead but they're not dead.

Repentance, in this context, is not some God-awful thing only religious people do to make people feel guilty or to control them, but a simple recognition that none of us is ever fully converted to the vision of the kingdom of God, much less fully embodies it in all moments and in all ways.

Repentance is unburdening--it's the realization that intrinsic to this entire process is unending forgiveness. As well as the confirmation that none of us are asked to do everything--only the part that we are asked to play and to support others in the parts they are asked to play. And to gratefully receive their help in supporting us in our role to play.

Apocalypse inherently creates community. For good and for ill to be sure, but it does regardless.

Believing in the good news is the flip-side of repentance: it is to more and more put ourselves in service to the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible, the more beautiful kingdom of God that our spirits know is possible.

But that last piece is the key: "is possible". Possible does not automatic. And here I think is the way that we can recover apocalypse for our day--preserving its wisdom and negating its potential shadows. The more beautiful world is possible, not automatic.

God urges, cajoles, seduces, attracts, pleads, begs, even took on human flesh and enacted the entire drama but cannot and will not force it to happen.

It is our choice. Events I believe are conspiring to force us to make this choice I believe, but it's still a choice that has to be made.

The time is definitely ripe. It is no easy calling however. Jesus said it was picking up a cross and carrying it around. Anyone who desires to be a disciple of the kingdom, of a more beautiful world that our hearts tells us is possible must be ready for the joy and the sorrow to come. And that joy and sorrow is unknown.

The whole thing is unknown. Our hearts tell us it is possible but our hearts cannot figure out how it will look or in what order it will all happen.

Jesus preached that the kingdom was both present and yet to come. In the present, the kingdom is Peace, the sense that all is Well. In the yet to come, however, the kingdom is Creative, it is Unknown, it is Attractive, Hopeful, Impulsive.

It is crucial that we spend time in both: The Kingdom as present and The Kingdom yet to come. Our lives exist between those two poles. In that space is a creative tension that can guide and energize us.

"The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."

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8 comments

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Wednesday, 25 January 2012 02:28 posted by Philip Corkill

    Chris,

    You've literally answered my prayers here. I can't wait to read this and listen in to the sermon. I need to connect with you behind the scenes too. this JC intensity is too strong!

    I'm studying the NT hard at: http://biffnet.org/author/philcorkill/

    Soon!

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Wednesday, 25 January 2012 05:27 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Bravo Chris,

    I wish I was present to hear your sermon. Feels like gospel to me.
    Sign me up.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Wednesday, 25 January 2012 06:10 posted by Philip Corkill

    I would like to hear the sermon every week!

    I have different intuitions about this aspect of JC's teaching. There's too much Final Day talk in the NT for there not to be somekind of end game or signal there about a real big "event" in the "near" future (with evolutionary time scale)

    I see a parallel to Padma Sambhava hiding texts for future generations in tough times but with sufficiently mature beings to understand them. Part of me says JC is talking about our time because from his cosmic address he could intuit (like PS could see) that once one man has completed the story it is only a matter of time before enough men complete the story for it to mean a final transition or exclusion (maybe) on a whole of humanity scale.

    Parts of me see other stuff. More another time. It's about using the bible as a kind of creators manual for rearing a "Generation Jesus" of sorts. One that simply walks into the Vatican or Wall Street, kicks over the tables and throws the thieves out with its bare hands. finished! And maybe get themselves killed. Osho was tortured by the American government too. Same game IMO.

    There is also something about the Revelation that I'm seeing with the way we can all see everything in real time on the internet and from space more and more. Not only God can see all but all can see all now too. Taken to its logical conclusion, your only chance not to be exposed as a hypocrite then is to repent and live a truly honest and authentic life, where all are welcome to see all and will actually grant you privacy voluntarily out of healthy shame.

    Something like that.

    Perhaps JC and others with their outlandish calibre and intelligence could follow the trajectory of the unfolding of the existence that sent them and see that one day all the observable tendencies put together would lead to a radical inclusion of what is in-line with the one who sent us and a radical exclusion of what is not. Even perhaps at a very particular and definite point.

    Put bluntly I don't think he's talking about virtually eternal qualities of being and becoming of the kingdom. I think he's talking about the point where the whole family completes it's maturation (or is fucked because they weren't ready in time). “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later…” That he was the first of many to complete the process that would inevitable lead to a whole family completion or destruction. Or a bit of both...

    "Add up God’s Law, the Prophets (and the Messiah of the NT) and this is what you get.” IMO;-)

    It's the mathematical conclusion to the unfolding wholeness and there may well be a "due date" that he could intuit by being so outlandishly gifted and aligned with the one who sent him and with the body of Man he had too. Jesus as master mathematician how does that grab you?

    We can only find out really by becoming a Messiah of equal calibre or else how will we be sure we're looking from that address?

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 26 January 2012 04:56 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Phil,

    Well done. That really takes it up a notch.

    The background to this piece was that it was aimed very squarely at liberal Christians who have denied the apocalyptic nature of Jesus for a long time. The large sweep of the historical Jesus tradition is to de-apocalypticize Jesus (by and large).

    e.g. In the 19th century Jesus was a teacher of universal (Western) Enlightenment values of love of God and love of humanity. In the 1960-70s, people like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg most of whom were living in California described an egalitarian, anti-establishment Jesus who went around including the marginalized and offering authority-free teaching. A hippie in other words.

    And now we have Wisdom Jesus, an Eastern guru-like figure for the 21st century globalized world.

    I think Jesus did teach universal ethics, included the marginalized and opposed pathological hierarchy, and did initiate people into transcendental wisdom For that matter he also taught Jewish law and religious matters.

    But he did so within an apocalyptic framework.

    I think one area that needs much more thought--that includes both apocalypse and spirituality--is the way in which Jesus was a shaman. Jesus is often taught under the guise of saint (love, sacrifice) as well as sage (Wisdom Jesus).

    But the shamanistic element is very intriguing: exorcism, healing by laying on of hands, folk medicine cures. The shamanic path often includes a lot of visionary scenes of apocalyptic death and destruction as well as messages of hope. They aren't necessarily in conflict in that worldview--as they too much are for us I think.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 26 January 2012 18:25 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Chris, this is great stuff man, really resonated with me. Whatever spigot you've opened here, keep it open. wide open. it is properly "untimely", in the positive Nietzschean sense.

    thought you might find it interesting that the filmmaker Ian Mackenzie, who was behind us in the Eisenstein workshop, also just posted a post-workshop piece that involves a take on apocalypticism. Worth checking out.

    http://occupylove.org/we-come-from-the-future/

  • Comment Link Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera Thursday, 02 February 2012 01:22 posted by Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera

    The "repent" word is more accurately read as "change mind" in the (1999) Word Study Greek-English New Testament. This is the more accurate LEXICAL MEANING given to the original Greek text by professor Paul R. McReynolds. It is not the contextual meaning which can be slanted. It is a literal, interlineal study version to which the New Revised Standard Version and the Word Study Concordance has been added.

    In my view, if the "repent" word is thus corrected, the more "fire and brimstone-compatible interpretation becomes a bit more amenable, tolerant and moderate. Yes, Jesus was an apocaliptic teacher. He claimed that the Empire (yes 'empire')of God was at hand but, nevertheless, if during his first alleged words, Jesus meant "change mind," he was expressing himself in a less divisive and accusative style.

    A similar concept to "change mind" would be "convert."

    I think that an INTEGRAL study of the New Testament texts have to use their lexical meaning and the particular historical-cultural interests of each Gospel writer or editor-interpreter of the oral memories pertaining to Jesus' original words and teachings.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Tuesday, 26 June 2012 04:36 posted by David MacLeod

    Well done, Chris! This really resonates.

    I'm wondering if you're familiar with a couple of books. "The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate" featuring Dale Allison, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen Patterson, and edited by Robert Miller.

    I have it on my bookshelf, but sadly haven't read it yet. The debate is around which apocalyptic sayings of Jesus are deemed to have come from the historic Jesus; and the varying interpretations around 1) the present kingdom sayings, 2) the ambiguous sayings, 3) the ambiguous deeds, and 4) Jesus' place within his religious environment.

    Also, on a somewhat different track, Matthew Fox, in "The Coming of the Cosmic Christ," references the work of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and her commentaries on the Book of Revelation.

    Quoting Fox: "Schussler Fiorenza notes, the key question in the book of Revelation is a deeply political one: 'Who is the true Lord of this world?' Is it the emperors of Rome as the Roman Empire would want its dcitizens to believe? ...Is the true Lord to be found in powers and institutions including the merchants and shipbuilders of the empire? The entire book is an argument that Jesus Christ is "Lord and God and King of the world, not human emperors or empire-builders. The word 'Lord,' when used in an anthropocentric context as it often is today, connotes lord/serf relationships of the feudal era...Yet it had no anthropocentric meaning for the early Christian writers. The word 'Lord' meant ruler of the universe, governor of the universe. It was a thoroughly cosmic title."

    After reading passages like this from Fox, I've wanted to acquire Schussler-Fiorenza's commentary on Revelation, but haven't yet done so. Have you read any of her work?

  • Comment Link zombie apocalypse Tuesday, 21 August 2012 21:27 posted by zombie apocalypse

    You can definitely see your skills in the article you write.
    The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like
    you who aren't afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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