Sunday, August 16, 2009

Time, Eternity and End Times

Psalm 106: 1-12
Jonah 1
2 Peter 3: 14-18

I was quite excited to hear, in his invitation to me to preach today, that Rev. Hawes is preaching a series of sermons this summer on “questions of faith.” He offered that I did not have to participate in the series and could preach on whatever I liked, but I find that it is always better, as a guest preacher, to fit myself into the ongoing life of the community as much as possible. So, I requested the list of questions that he had compiled from your input. Then I began thinking that attempting to step into the middle of a sermon series might not be such a good idea after all. You all ask tough questions!

At Marsh Chapel, the architectural and spiritual center of Boston University, we are in the midst of our third annual national summer preacher series. This summer we are tackling the theme of Darwin and Faith in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication On the Origin of Species. Many of you probably know that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christian theology have been in significant conflict since that publication. Our hope at Marsh Chapel is to help those who find themselves caught between these ways of understanding life in the world discover ways of being both authentically religious and honest about the truths revealed in the light of modern science. One of the questions on your list of “questions of faith” was about creation and evolution. Given that my contribution to the Marsh Chapel series comes next Sunday, I thought about giving it a trial run this week. But in the end I decided to settle for a slightly lighter topic from your list: time and eternity.

The notion of turning to the front page of a daily newspaper to catch a glimpse of what is going on in the world is fast becoming obsolete. For example, I get my news by following national news outlets like the New York Times and local news sources like Boston News Now on Twitter. However you get your news, it is hard to look at the goings on in the world today with overly much optimism. The war in Iraq seems to be quieting down somewhat, just in time for a resurgent conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan bleeding over into nuclear armed Pakistan. Almost 10% of U.S. citizens are unemployed, and while there are some signs that the recession is slowing, economists suggest that there will be a long road to recovery. The culture wars continue, perhaps in softer tones than in recent years, with debates over gay marriage, abortion rights and gun control continuing to be contentious. Of course, the most pressing issue in the news these days is health care reform and the many problems surrounding its cost and implementation. More on this later.

What are we to make of all of this? How are we to interpret wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and societal change in light of the gospel? One of the ways that religious people the world over have taken these “signs of the times” is to cast them onto a vast cosmic canvas. On this canvas, these mundane events are signs of evil ascendant in the world. We have seen in the past decade how some fundamentalist Muslims have taken this ascendancy as a call to resist modernizing forces through violent resistance and militant offensive actions. Christians have also been all too keen to read divine intent into such events, seeing the interpreted ascent of evil as a precursor to the final destruction of evil by God followed by the reign of Christ. Just read Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind novels. In other words, religious people have a tendency to interpret events in the world as signs of the coming end of that world.

One of the interesting things about people who make such predictions is that they seem to think that the confluence of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change are novel; that they have never happened before. A cursory review of history will tell us that this is simply not the case. Take the New Testament for example. The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, was written right around 70 A.D. when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. In fact, the purpose of the gospel of Mark seems to have been to convince people to repent and follow Jesus ευθυς, immediately. Mark understood the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as a cosmic sign that Jesus’ return was immanent. From our vantage almost 2000 years later, it would seem that Mark was wrong. Paul, whose letters were written before any of the gospels and are the earliest literature in the New Testament, encouraged Christ believers in Corinth to “remain as you are,” i.e. single, because of the “impending crisis,” i.e. Jesus’ return. This is why Peter, in our reading from his second letter today, written after the destruction of the temple, says that some of the things Paul said are “hard to understand.” Peter was writing at a time when Christians were struggling to come to terms with the fact that Jesus had not returned as soon as they had hoped. Suddenly, a lot of things early Christians had claimed made less sense. This is also one of the reasons the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, based on Mark but addressing the particular needs of later communities.

Living in the early centuries of the Common Era, the understanding of the biblical writers of the way the world works was distinctly disparate from the modern worldview. The earth was flat. The sky was a vast dome, above which were the several realms of heaven. Below the earth were the several levels of hell. The end of the world was when hell was defeated and the earthly and heavenly realms would be merged. Of course, today we know that the earth is round and that the sky is not a dome but a series of levels of atmosphere beyond which is a vast universe of stars and galaxies. If the atmospheric levels were to break down, as some of them are because of human produced pollution, we would not find earth merged with heaven but an entirely unlivable planet with no air to breathe.

In fact, Christian history is riddled with claims that the world is going to end. Still, here we are in 2009. Empirically, none of these claims has ever come to pass. Nevertheless, the fact that the world has never ended does not necessarily mean that the world never will end. One of these days, the prediction just may turn out to be right.

Actually, any claim that the world will end is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of time and eternity. Claims that the world will end, be they claims in the Bible or claims made by modern Christians, are based on the idea that some sort of cataclysmic set of events will bring time to a close and then we will be in eternity with God. Unfortunately, this conception gets both time and eternity wrong. It gets time wrong because it assumes that time is made up of individual moments, like water dripping from a dropper, one after another. But this is not time as we experience it. We experience time as a flow, like a river in which no one drop can be distinguished from the whole movement of the water. Being in the flow of time, in the river as it were, we experience some events as past, some as present, and some as future. Furthermore, as we move along, the flow of time moves some events into the past and other events from the future become actualized in the present. Present events limit some of our future possibilities.

Human history is nothing if not a long list of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change. These are normal parts of human life, not signs that the world is about to end. Casting the events of our daily lives onto the vast cosmic canvas of divine purpose says a lot more about our own sense of our importance than it does about what God is actually doing in the world. It is also a way of escaping from our responsibility for doing anything about it. Human predictions of the end of the world are a lot like Jonah fleeing God’s work for him in Nineveh. Why should Jonah go to Nineveh if God is just going to destroy the city anyway? Why should we worry about all of these things that are happening if the world is going to end shortly anyway?

Claims that the world will end also get eternity wrong. For those predicting the end of the world, eternity is a continuation of the drops from the dropper forever and ever. The only difference is that in eternity God is in charge and so there are no more wars or recessions, no more cultural upheaval or social change. In other words, eternity is time without change. It is as if time is frozen in one drop of water forever. The inadequacy of this conception is apparent when we consider the resurrection. At what age will you be frozen in that drop of water? Will you be an infant, with all of your future possibilities ahead of you, but not knowing your children or having grown up and learned the skills of a profession? Or will you be elderly, when life has been lived fully but the body may not work as well as you may want if it is going to be forever? Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that we will be resurrected at age 33, the age Jesus was when he was crucified. But is this not just as arbitrary? And what about the people who do not live to the age of 33?

No, time is not drips of water from a dropper and eternity is not the continuation of a single drop forever. The river of time flows, and time is our conception of the river from within it, understood as the three modes of past, present and future. Eternity, on the other hand, is all the modes of time together, the God’s eye view from outside the river. It is not even the case that God sits on the bank of the river at a particular point, a particular present, judging our pasts and knowing our futures. God sees all of time together as fixed pasts and as open possibilities in the future realized in present moments. This is what it means to say that God is not in time; time is in God. Visions of the end of the world assume that eternity is something that intercepts and interrupts the flow of time. But that misses the point of eternity. Eternity is all of the modes of time – past, present and future – together. Time as we know it is our view of time from within the flow. Eternity is God’s view of time from outside the flow from past into present into future. Eternity does not interrupt time; it suffuses time with life and meaning.

There is a very practical implication to all of this: time has no beginning and no end. There is no end of the world. There is no cataclysmic moment when the world as we know it falls apart. And while we are searching the future for signs of the end of the world, we are missing eternity all around us. After all, we are in eternity just as much as we are in time and our present actions have eternal consequences. A choice, once made, is fixed and is past but also limits future possibilities. Choices, actions in the present, have eternal consequences.

The upshot is that we should worry about wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and social change. Our choices about how we handle these events in human life have eternal consequences, not at some point in the future, but from the eternal perspective of God in which our choice, once made, is past and fixed and our future is a kaleidoscope of possibilities.

Now we can get back to the health care debate. More than any issue since the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the present debate about health care reform is being cast onto a cosmic canvas, claiming that change in the health care system signals the end of the world, replete with the four horsemen of the apocalypse schematized as death panels. We do this because in a culture thoroughly inculcated with the idea that time is like individual drops of water, there is enormous pressure to escape the incessant dripping. We seek to escape from embarrassments of our past and from terror in the face of the future. Like Jonah, we seek to escape from the eternal vision of God. Stuck within the narrow vision of our present drop of water, we fear death and so we cast discussions of end-of-life issues with our doctors onto the cosmic canvas and they become death panels, deciding our fate for us. We are embarrassed by the past failures of our healthcare system to treat patients equally and effectively and so we cast the past onto the cosmic canvas such that any change signals the end of the world. From the perspective of eternity, however, the need for health care reform is about facing the fact that we live in Nineveh. Our wickedness is denying care to those who need it most who God calls us to serve. Our wickedness is our own selfishness causing us to fear conversations with loved ones and doctors about end of life issues. From the eternal perspective of God, this sort of behavior is going to land us in the belly of a very large fish.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we do not live in a world of dripping present moments but in the eternal flow of the river of time. We need not fear death, because faithful people trust that God holds us in the eternal divine embrace, and so we should welcome conversations with our loved ones and doctors about end-of-life issues. We are indeed responsible for our past failings, but that does not mean that we can neglect the present obligation to improve on past decisions into the future. We are responsible for wars undertaken in our name and we are obligated to do everything we can to avoid them in the future. We are responsible for living beyond our means, setting the stage for the present recession, and we are obligated to live within our means into the future. We are responsible for those neglected by and mistreated under the present health care system and we are obligated to improve it. When we see life from the perspective of eternity, the glimpse of which is a sure sign that we are made in the image of God, then we can step out in confidence without embarrassment or fear. We should catch a glimpse of eternity in our midst, accept responsibility for the sins of our past in our society, and walk out in hope that the future we live is the future God eternally creates. The most profound theological statement thus far in the 21st century was spoken from the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2009: “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Amen.

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