Ah, the apocalypse, or an apocalypse. I can remember when I was younger worrying about the great tribulation, the end times. With the loss of my parents-as Lorraine Dierick described it once-the buffer generation-with that loss, I understood better what she was talking about. That last parent dies-the last of the generation above us and we realize, I could be next. Now I have lost my life partner so I am thinking more carefully about how I want to spend my time. And, here in today’s readings, Jesus talks of looking for the signs of the end times.
There has been a whole industry around this concept of a tribulation and apocalypse. And, of course, the latest iteration in secular society is zombies. I guess it’s a way to recognize that there might be some major changes in the way we live-yet, with a crazy, not-gonna-happen twist. I have friends and coworkers who can tell you the best way to kill a zombie, how zombies continue to keep moving around and causing havoc, and how the whole system works. Thank you The Walking Dead.
And, this is where I lean on the end times. For one thing, we (meaning followers of Christ) have been waiting a loooong time for this to happen. Does that mean it won’t happen? Who knows?
I fall on the side of Origen-the third century theologian. He combined Greek philosophy with Christian theology. He was labeled by the church of his time as a heretic for his ideas about the Second Advent.//
What is Jesus talking about in today’s Gospel? He’s being rather vague, for one thing. The 13th chapter of Mark is a collection of things Jesus said about the end times and some of it is material added to meet the needs of the community the writer was addressing. Mark was written soon after Peter’s execution and a few years before the destruction of the temple. And after Paul had written his letters to the churches he had planted. In this story, Jesus is predicting the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
The disciple said, “Teacher, look at the stonework! Those buildings!” It certainly would have been impressive. Tacitus, the Roman historian, described the temple in glowing terms. He described the enormous size of the stones used, the marble columns that stood 37 ½ feet high each carved from a single piece of marble, and the thick gold-plate overlays that dazzled the onlooker when they reflected the sun’s rays. Yet, anything can be destroyed. Especially when the destruction is intentional.
There was pride in this disciple’s voice. “See how awesome we Jews are-we have built this wonderful temple and it will last forever.” Jesus burst his bubble, “There is not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”
The Jews believed in their dreams of the end times. They viewed the world as a corrupt place that could only be improved by total and utter destruction. Out of this destruction would rise a new world incorruptible. Jesus was speaking as Jews had spoken for generations. This sense that things would be destroyed was a historical pattern the Jews could not ignore-even today.
How do we reconcile these statements in Mark 13 with Jesus’ message of grace and hope, with Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God was already here? If Jesus’s message was true, why did everything need to be destroyed?
Jesus’ statement about the temple worried some of the apostles so much that four of them: Peter, James, John and Andrew spoke with him in private. They were sitting on the Mount of Olives in full view of the temple mount. “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get…” And, Jesus told them, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, I’m the one. They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation…over and over. …But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.” [Gospel quotes are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson.] Of the four apostles in this story, John is probably the only one who was alive in the year 70 CE when the temple was razed by the Romans.
All of them were accustomed to using the temple as a place of gathering and worship. Living everyday life without the temple would be radically different. As you know, the destruction of the temple did not bring the second coming nor did it bring the end times. It did change the way a Jew practiced his or her religion. Jesus was vague about the end times because it wasn’t his focus-he didn’t want the apostles to focus there, either. What is really important is that Jesus came. He taught us how to live and how to treat one another.
Looking at Hebrew scriptures, you see time and again that the Jews strayed from God’s ways and became corrupted by evil in the world. In the stories, the people pay for their corruption by being exiled. Jerusalem was destroyed and the people often waited generations before they were allowed to return home. In the Jewish dreams of the end times, the corrupted world is destroyed and a new world, a new Jerusalem comes into being. In this new world all will be well and there will be no more evil. All the world will recognize the Jew’s god as the only god. The Jews will be recognized as the chosen people of God. It sounds much like our own concept of the second coming except we see God as more universal.
What were Origen’s ideas about the second coming? Why were they deemed heresy? Origen saw the second coming as something that happened in the spiritual plane rather than the physical. Origen believed that the second coming happened over and over again when Christ entered the hearts and souls of the pious. The second coming was both individual and universal. Individuals are filled in their souls when Christ comes to them.
Origen believed that hell is experienced when we are separated from God-when we fall into sin. As we experience the despair of sin-that separation from God, our souls are purged of evil. Origen believed that all people would become spiritual when physical existence came to an end. Origen did believe the world as we know it would end and out of that end all people would know Jesus.
One reason Origen was denounced by the church was that so many of the clergy of his time liked the idea of a literal second coming when all those “other people” would have to pay the price for their sins. In other words, they didn’t want to share heaven with everybody-they wanted it all to themselves. If the church endorsed Origen’s ideas, who would be in and who would be out? Also, I suspect, like I often observe, it is a recruiting tool to scare people into thinking that Jesus and the church are the only way to avoid hell and damnation-that one feels sorry and worried about those who are not part of the church. Generally while shaking ones head.
I like this portion from Hebrews 10 that speaks to the old temple practices and how Jesus died once for all and then it states, “The Holy Spirit confirms this: This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; This time I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts. He concludes, I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins. …Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worship together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”
Well, whether the big day is close at hand or not, we can continue in this community described by the writer of Hebrews. A community confident in the sacrifice of Christ, a community confident that Christ has come to each of us, that Christ will always come when we gather when we are at work and when we are alone. What is important is that we encourage one another to exhibit love to the world so that Christ can come again and again into the hearts of all people. That’s how I want to spend the time I have left.