Examining Politics in America on our 231st Birthday

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 July 2007 0 Comments
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I have sung in church choirs all my life and still enjoy it.

However, in some of the music, especially Scandinavian music and

often at Christmas time, the lyrics frequently include this

comment, "Christ is coming soon." Can you tell me where this

idea has arisen? It seems to be a rather peculiar tenet.


The season of Advent that the Church observes as a

time of preparation for the birth of Jesus has always had two

themes: first, to celebrate his birth and to welcome the Christ

Child anew into our world and into our lives; and second, to

prepare for what has been called his "second coming" at the end

of time to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. The chant

"Christ is coming soon" is related to that second theme.

In the earliest moments of Christian history, Jesus'

followers identified him as the messianic figure who had been

sent by God, according to Jewish expectations, to establish the

Kingdom of God on earth. The sub-theme was that he would also

re-establish the Jews as the "chosen of God" and re-establish

the rule of the House of David. In fact, however, the Kingdom

did not come with the life of Jesus and now more than 2000 years

later the Kingdom of God still has not arrived. The second

coming, however, still is discussed in evangelical circles. The

early Christians described Jesus as "the first fruits of the

Kingdom of God," which encouraged them to postulate his second

coming at the end of history. Many parts of the New Testament

reflect this mentality, such as I Thessalonians and I

Corinthians 15 in the Pauline corpus and the apocalyptic

chapters in Mark (13), Matthew (24) and Luke (21) in the

gospels. In the book of Acts at the time of the ascension

(chapter 1) two angels announce to the assembled disciples that

"as you have seen him depart, so you will see him come again."

The idea of the second coming is thus writ large in the early

expectations of the first Christians. Among the earliest prayers

of Christian people were the words, "Come, Lord Jesus." In some

sense the entire Lord's Prayer is a prayer for the Kingdom to

come and with it the arrival of a world in which God's name

would be hallowed and God's will would be done on earth as it

was in heaven. It was only for that brief interval between the

first and the second coming of the Christ figure that Christians

prayed for daily bread, for forgiveness and for being capable of

enduring every temptation. I suspect that most people

interpreted this to be a time bound symbol and a specific event

that would take place in history. That is how such ideas as the

"end of the world" and the "rapture" came to be literalized in

fundamentalist and evangelical circles.

When Jesus did not come the emphasis shifted to the

task of the church to convert the world or to be the embodiment

in the world of a sign of that kingdom. The institutional

church, however, was more eager to build its worldly power than

it was to be the sign of the world's transformation and so that

idea also faded, leaving unfulfilled hopes for a perfection that

was never achieved.

What these things meant, I believe, was an expression of the

human view of ourselves and our reality. Christians have been

endowed with a vision of what human life was created to be and

what a perfect world would be like. We compare that with what

we see that human life is and what our world has come to be. We

see the plight of the world's poor and the raging forces of war,

persecution, violence and injustice. Those realities cause us to

dream, work, pray and hope anew for the reign of God to come on

earth and soon. If we could change these references from being

time oriented to seeing them as our constant prayer that we

might become all that we were meant to be, living fully, loving

wastefully and having the courage to be our deepest, most real

selves, then I think we would understand what the prayer for

Christ to come soon was originally meant to communicate.

So often the language of our inner life is

literalized into becoming the language of our outer lives. That

is when it loses its meaning and becomes a burden to our souls.

John Shelby Spong




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