Jesus, Paris, and the Prophecy of Justice

For a number of years, in the scholarship about Jesus, it was popular to regard him as a “prophet of the end times.” Passages like our Gospel today from Mark chapter 13, and the verses that follow are Mark’s “Apocalypse.” Jesus describes the end times in detail.

We’re not unfamiliar with this kind of prophecy in our day. Before I moved to St. Louis, I worked at a church just across Lafayette Park from the White House. Boy, we saw and heard a lot of prophecy in downtown Washington. We had our own prophets of doom. There was a homeless man who walked around in nothing but short cut off jeans. He had dreadlocks down to his waist and varied a big knotty walking stick. We called him Moses. Sometimes Moses and his friends held signs about the end times pointing to a specific Bible verse, like our reading from Mark. Prophets don’t just prophecy in Washington DC. I’ve seen would-be prophets here in St. Louis, on the Arch grounds. The end is always near.

As I said, there was a move in Christian theology to see Jesus like the guys at the Arch. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, it was fashionable to talk about Jesus as primarily an apocalyptic prophet. Johannes Weiss was the most influential of these scholars, but the influence stretched to Albert Schweitzer and more recently to the Jesus seminar: scholars like John Dominic Crossan, and popular writers like Bishop Spong. Thinkers who focus on the end-times prophecy can even wonder whether Jesus and his followers were disappointed when the end time they predicted didn’t come about.

I don’t think Jesus was a disappointed prophet. While I agree that Jesus talked about the end of the world, that the Bible as a whole can be pretty apocalyptic, I think this argument misses the point. Yes, Jesus imagined the end times. But for Jesus, the apocalypse wasn’t the end. Jesus central message is not “the end is near.”

Jesus is interested in what happens next.

In today’s Gospel, one of the disciples turns to Jesus and marvels at the Temple. The stones are huge. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, and seen the wall that remains of the temple complex, you know this disciple is right. The stones are HUGE. The buildings were massive, bigger than anything these country bumpkins from Nazareth had ever seen.

The theologian James Alison is surprised by Jesus’ indifference toward the temple. In Jesus day, the building was a source of pride and of meaning for Jews. Faced with the power of the Roman occupying force, the temple stood for God’s continuing presence with the people Israel. Those huge stones, the giant buildings, they were reminders that God was bigger than Rome. But Jesus doesn’t care. They’ll tear it down, he says. Don’t be fascinated by this place, by this stuff. The temple isn’t what lasts.

This would have shocked his contemporaries. Jesus’ words could be seen as blasphemy. God was thought to dwell physically in the temple. Jesus’ words could be seen as treason. As I said, the temple was a source of national pride. But Jesus didn’t worry about the temple. He didn’t want his disciples to spend energy on the building, on the debates. He didn’t want them to go through angst if it was destroyed (as it turned out, about 40 years after Jesus’ departure, the temple would be razed by the Romans in response to a Jewish revolt). Jesus doesn’t want them to dwell on the destruction, he wants them focused on what’s next.

My favorite telling of the end times comes in the Gospel of Luke. We’ll actually read Luke’s “little apocalypse” in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Advent. In Luke’s version, Jesus tells his disciples. When you see the signs, when you see the signs in the moon, in the sky, when you see the signs: LIFT UP YOUR HEADS. Lift up your heads. You might expect Jesus to say something else. The end is coming! Duck!

But no, Jesus says, “Lift up your heads.” Or, as Mark has it, these signs are just “the birth pangs.” Jesus doesn’t want us to dwell on the destruction. Jesus doesn’t want us to marvel at the stones. Look for what is next Jesus says. Destruction is commonplace. It was true in Jesus time. It’s too true in ours. Disciples of Jesus focus on what is next.

This “lifting up” of our heads. This stance of expectation and hope, it’s not easy to come by in our world. Our a world that puts a lot of energy into the stones. You can probably tell, I’m reading the stones as figurative, more than literal. We put a lot of love into stones. One of the best explanations of sin that I know comes from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine talked about sin as dis-ordered love. Sin arises when we get our loves out of order.

Examples of Augustine’s sense of sin are easy to come by. In my own life, I love my family more than I love getting my way, but sometimes when I don’t get my way, I behave as if that is more important than my family. Ask my sister, or my husband. Sometimes I get these loves out of order. I act as if getting my way were more important than family. Indeed, your preacher is a sinner.

I make light, but the consequences can be very dark. What we saw Friday night in the streets of Paris, was dark, was sinful. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explore the events in Paris in the light of Augustine’s “disordered love.”

The American Muslim Scholar Omid Safi likes to point out that The Quran begins differently than the Bible. In the Quran we do not begin with “In the beginning God created.” The Quran doesn’t begin with God’s resume like our Bible. The Quran begins with God’s names: “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” That is where Islam begins. The men who committed these acts of terror professed a love for God who is named All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly tender.

Loves out of order can become terrorism. When people talk about “Fundamentalism” I confess I get confused. The fundamentals of Islam, the fundamentals of Christianity, the fundamentals of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Judaism, the fundamentals are compassion, prayer, tender-heartedness, justice and love. Those are the fundamentals. Human beings sin when they order other loves in religion above compassion. When we elevate our need for power and control, when we artificially lift up a desire for surety in the system, when we put a need to be right over a need to be merciful, God help us.

As our new Presiding Bishop put it a few weeks ago: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” When religious people get our loves get out of order, we find ourselves in a state of sinfulness, missing the point. And we can find ourselves in the midst of tragedy.

“What are you focusing on?” Jesus asks his disciples. Ignore the temple stones. The symbols of power aren’t the point. Don’t get caught up on those buildings, those stones. When you hear them falling, pick up your heads. I think Jesus talked about the end times, because the world around him was ending. The centuries of Jewish rule of Jerusalem was ending. Rome had come to town. Sure, the Romans still allowed the temple to function, for a time, but the world as Jesus’ people had known it was about to change.

It was true in Jesus’ time, and it is true in our own. We know of earthquakes caused by our own exploration for fossil fuels. We see the temperature of the planet changing. We see atrocities carried out in God’s name across our planet. We see signs. The world as we know it ends all the time. But to Jesus, what we might see as the world ending, these signs are birth pangs for something new. Jesus was focused on what was next.

Jesus told his disciples: Seek first the Kingdom of God. Don’t worry about the temple. Don’t worry about it. Seek God’s kingdom. God’s Kingdom is what is next. Seek that place where all the children of God know of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s tenderness. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” Build the Kingdom. In the midst of tragedy, get to work. In the midst of fear, go love your neighbor.

We saw glimpses of that kind of love in Paris. As Friday night went on, Parisians started lighting up Twitter with the hashtag #porteouverte “Open Door.” People who had no where to go after the attacks, people who were stuck out in the cold streets, unable to return home, used the words to ask for a place to shelter. We saw the love in response. For every tweet that asked for help, hundreds and hundreds of Parisians were offering an open door without being asked. In the midst of tragedy, Paris took to Twitter to express loving their neighbors by opening their doors.

Jesus invites his followers to move past a captivation with symbols of power, a captivation that ends in destruction. Jesus isn’t a prophet of doom, but a prophet of hope.

Jesus invites us to lift up our heads, to see what is being born. Another world is possible, is coming. We can learn to treat one another with respect. We can learn to overcome ancient divides based on race, class, skin color, religion. We can right past wrongs. We can learn to see one another as created in the image and likeness of a God who is “All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” Following Jesus invites us to believe in that world, and look for that world, even in tragedy.

In order to see that world, we have to pay attention to the ordering of our loves. Do we live our lives in a way that shows our priorities? Do our actions demonstrate that we Love the Lord our God with all our mind and all our heart and all our soul? and that we Love our Neighbor as ourselves? In response to all that is happening in our world, Jesus invites us to consider what we love first, and to act out of that love.

Jesus wasn’t a disappointed prophet, because Jesus’ end game wasn’t the end times. For Jesus, the end was love, was justice. Even in the midst of tragedy, Jesus says, keep your heads up, look for the Kingdom of God being born. Justice is coming. Mercy is coming. Compassion is coming. Justice, Mercy, Compassion, love, that is the prophecy of Jesus.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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