Thursday, July 25, 2019

Apocalyptic Spirituality

I recently began reading through the New Testament - again – for the umpteenth time – one chapter a day during my morning devotions. Today I came to the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, known to scholars as the Little Apocalypse, also known as the Olivet Discourse, which has parallels in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It is one of several places in scripture – the most famous being the Book of Revelation - that speak of the end of the world as we know it. The Kingdom of God breaks into history with cataclysmic events, ushered in by a heavenly figure known as the Son of Man, which Christians later came to identify as the Second Coming of Christ.

It says in part: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (13:24-31)

There is a lot more to it, and I encourage you to read the whole chapter, but this is the most dramatic part. When this teaching is read in the context of Jesus’ primary message about the coming of the Kingdom of God (“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!), it has led many scholars to think that Jesus was, first and foremost, an apocalyptic prophet.

Some say Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet because the eschatological events he predicted (in particular, a visible coming of the Son of Man in the clouds) did not happen within that generation. According to the parallel passage in Matthew, he made it clear that all these events would happen within the lifetime of his hearers. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

If Jesus got this wrong, that would make him a false prophet according to biblical standards: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, … that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’ — when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)

That would put a whole new perspective on Jesus’ execution. The idea that Jesus’ prophecy was erroneous is unthinkable for Christians. So for two thousand years, Christians have employed clever hermeneutics to explain the apparent failure of Jesus’ prediction.  But today as I read this passage again, it made sense to me. What Jesus said was true.

I have witnessed what Jesus describes. Not literally, of course. I am not prone to revelatory visions, angelic sightings or hallucinations. History seems to go on as it always has. Yet Jesus’ words - when they are reads as symbolic - ring true of my experience. There has been a dramatic shift in seeing. The world (as people normally understand it) is no more. The apocalypse (which means “unveiling”) is a reality now. The unveiling began in Jesus’ day and has been happening for many of his disciples ever since.

When eyes are opened to the One behind this shadow play of time and space, the universe as we know it dissolves. It is more accurate to say that the universe is shown to be all there is. (The word “universe’ breaks down into the Latin words uni=one + versus=turned; universe means “turned into one.”) The universe is seen as a seamless whole because that is what it has always been. Distinctions vanish.

The heavens and the earth pass away. The facade of the universe is rolled back to reveal Reality. The Son of Man appears, and we are one with Him. What Jesus was describing in this dramatic apocalyptic passage is not a cataclysmic end of history or the physical dissolution of the cosmos. Jesus is describing a spiritual awakening to the true nature of the universe.

Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet so much as a visionary and mystic who could see what others do not see. And he invites us to share his vision. That is why he ends his Little Apocalypse by repeatedly saying, “Awake!” and “Stay awake!” (The Greek verb used in Mark 13:35-37 can mean both.) So let’s do what he says. “Wake up! The Kingdom of God is at hand!”

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