Note: Each Thursday, I'll be looking at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. Today, we're looking at Romans 13:8-4.
Romans 13:8-14 starts off with this incredible encouragement to love one another and I thought, "Yes, this is totally what I am going to write about." And then it takes an interesting turn that reminds me that the early church was not expecting someone to be reading these words in 2014.
"Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light..."
-Romans 8:11-12 NRSV
I wonder when Paul began to realize that Jesus might not return in his lifetime. Was it when people in the church began to die? You can see it creep in to his writings. In 1 Corinthians 15, he acknowledges that some have "fallen asleep."
We are now nearly two millennia down the road and that return that seemed around the corner hasn't happened. It could happen before you finish reading this sentence or it could be another 10,000 years ahead of us. Or more. What does it do to a movement that expects something to happen, but it doesn't?
Then I noticed something, the immediacy of Christ's return is tied directly into his message. That is Paul's push to encourage believers to live a life that honor God. They are not encouraged to follow God because that is what God asks or that it will help them better commune with their Creator or because it will make the world a better place or even to draw others to following The Way. The message, which is familiar even in the 21st Century, is this: Jesus is coming, don't get caught.
You know that they're remaking Left Behind with Nicholas Cage and it's coming out this fall, right? Jesus is coming, don't get caught like Nicholas Cage.
The thing that I find...vexing about this particular message from Paul--which I am not sure is the point, but the one that is often drawn from these type of passages--is that it is a message born out of fear and in protecting one's self interest. Follow God because Jesus could come back at any time. Follow God because you could die at any moment. Both of those statements are true, but what do they do for our posture towards our faith and action? Do they not turn us inward: to making sure we don't mess up/making sure we don't miss out on heaven rather than being lights in a world of darkness?
It seems to me that when this is the impulse for following God then you already have one foot out the door. Make sure your ducks are in a row, because this thing is not going to last long. It is easy to see how such an attitude can lead to Christians viewing good works as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and just huddling together in our beatified bubbles (holy huddles has been played out). I can almost assure you that this was not Paul's intention.
It's at this point--like many--where I hear Morgan Freeman in my head: "Get busy living or get busy dying." When we are so focused on the end--on heaven, on Jesus just wiping everything out--we are not much good for this world. We might as well be dead and not the good kind of dead that we Christians love to talk about. I'm talking dead dead. We are not living the life to the full as Jesus came to bring us. We are not living a life that gives life; a life that helps those that are hurting and in need. We are not living a life that brings real, tangible hope to the world.
If there is something to be said for Paul's message that time is short then it is this: live. Do not live in fear of getting caught, but live following God because you were made to be a part of breathing Good News on this earth. Don't waste a breath.