August 26, 2012
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
What are we to do? This week's biblical text is "brought to life" as much by the number it bears as by what it says. Read this text of rejection, John 6:66, one more time: "After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him."
The devastating nature of this message, coupled with the doomsday number it is assigned -- 666, the number of the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, -- has made this text a flash point favorite for those trying to figure out Armageddon mathematics. At the doorstep of December 21st, the end of the Mayan calendar (and the world for those who believe the scare) there is an increased frenzy and fervor over anything smacking of an apocalyptic message or a secret numerological code.
It is time to ask the question: Is all this "Armageddon fever" really bringing us any closer to the presence of the Christ we profess to long for?
Let’s suppose you were driving and you noticed that the odometer on your car had just clicked over to 70,000 miles. The sense of accomplishment in this milestone, however, might be overshadowed by the fact that immediately, the vehicle's "needs maintenance" button on the dash also lights up. Undoubtedly, this was the manufacturer's way of getting the automobile's owner to bring the vehicle in for its regularly scheduled tune-up. But the glaring red beacon on the dash is genuinely disconcerting.
What if you didn't have the money or the time to put the car in the shop for a full day's inspection just then? What if the light coming on really had nothing to do with the odometer count? If the red light were just a programmed-in reminder, you could ignore it. Except for the fact that now that the "needs maintenance" light was already lit, how would you know if something else happened to the engine that really did require immediate attention and repair?
The apocalyptic odometer also comes with a warning light -- a recommendation for "maintenance." As one milestone closes and another begins to unfold, it is only fitting and wise that we examine our culture, our faith and the unique spirit that we are taking with us into the second millennium.
Our "maintenance needed" light also alerts us to the lurking reality of an environmental Armageddon. Ever-present AIDS, Ebola, flesh-eating bacteria, infectious microbes, global warming, ozone depletion, radioactive fallout, air pollution --form only a short list of the plagues that threaten us and the plethora of Armageddon scenarios. Is our end-time anxiety justified?
The majority of us think it is. According to a U.S. News & World Report poll a few years ago, nearly six in 10 Americans believe the world will end or be destroyed, and a third of those think it will happen within a few years or decades. In addition, this same poll found that 44 percent believe the world will face the Apocalypse, with true believers whisked off the planet and called into heaven. Almost half -- 49 percent -- said they believe there will be an antichrist. As the universe's odometer prepares to turn over, the increasing outbreaks of Armageddon anxiety demand that people of faith respond with messages of hope like never before.
But when there are as many doctrines of "last things" as there are people on this planet with opinions, how can we hope to offer any kind of a coherent voice of hope and wholeness to this world?
As stunningly widespread as the polls reveal our apocalyptic anxieties to be, they still reflect that for every naysayer, every doom-and-gloomer, there is another individual who is not so sure. Paradoxically, there is also a great deal of cultural optimism, a conviction that the dawn of a new insight, productivity and peace.
So what is it? Disaster and the end of everything? Or opportunity and a fresh start? Do Christians buy into the doomsday mentality and its accompanying spirit of apathy and inevitability? Or do we see all our problems solved by some new wisdom or insight that will greet us on the other side of the year when we have passed not only December 21st, but into the new year?
A New Yorker cartoon portrays a scene from hell. "We see several pudgy, furry devils, with their three-pronged forks and pointed tails, driving throngs of hapless human sinners through the licking flames of the Inferno. Sitting on a hot rock observing the scene is a rather reflective gentleman, hand on his chin. He has been down under for some time and knows the scene. Obviously, he has just been quizzed by a rather dazed, innocent looking gentleman, about what it is like farther down into the scorching caverns. As a frowning devil looks over his shoulder at them, the long-term human resident of Hades tells the expectant, hopeful arrival, "No, it's not going to be okay."
The world is desperate for "It's-going-to-be-okay" assurances. The politically correct thing to do is to say, "It's going to be okay." But it's not going to be okay. And sometimes it's the church's job to say to the culture, "Nope, there's bad news before there's good news: the bad news is, things are not going to be okay. The good news is, things can be okay.
The choice is yours. The choice is ours. The genuine biblical witness offers words of comfort and words of judgment with composure. Throughout the Bible, no matter how many particular eschatological (final or end-time) scenarios we may pick out, one message remains clear.
What the Bible does teach is that history is moving somewhere; that the one who brings justice will fulfill God's saving purpose in history.
"The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15).
"Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father ... so that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:24, 28).
In this week's gospel text, Jesus is deserted by "many of his disciples" because of his refusal to tell the people what they wanted to hear. His flesh and blood imagery was both too gutsy and too graphic, too fantastic and too unreal for a large portion of his Jewish audience. The great irony of this text is that the very message that reveals how we may personally experience the intimacy of God in our lives is the message that leads us to turn our backs on Jesus -- the one who is the divine gift of life.
For many, the mounting eschatological enthusiasm as December 21st or any other end-time scenario approaches, has done exactly the same thing. Intoxicated by Satan's triple-six speculations and calculations, heady over the "what ifs" and "whens" that await us in the next day, week or year, we are beguiled by numbers, strategies and predictions. Instead of following Jesus, we follow the "last-times" headlines of world disasters, weather disasters, alien abductions, etc.
We can become so fixated on the Jesus who is to come that we do not see or hear the Jesus who is in the midst. Thus, doom-and-gloomers use the approaching end-times as an excuse to withdraw from this world, abandoning it to the powers of evil. Satan's triple-six gives us the greatest excuse not to know Christ and make Christ known for the times that God has given us. Is it really this number? Is this number really something to fear? Or is it that we simply must have some fascination of what the end will be like, if it even happens in our life-time or the next. I am not making light of the number or the belief in the existence of the Devil; only making the point that if we live our life looking over our shoulder or over the next hill in continuity, we are not really living life as Jesus was teaching.
A bishop was presiding over the Mass in a large cathedral. He sensed that the microphone wasn't working properly, and he was ready to begin the traditional "The Lord be with you," after which the congregation routinely responded, "And also with you."
He tapped the mike several times, but heard nothing. Then, as he thought he was speaking into a dead mike, he said, "There's something wrong with this blasted microphone." And the people responded, "And also with you."
Is there something wrong with us? What's our excuse for failing to be good Catholics and to make Christ alive today, in our family, our church, our community, our country, our world? In the history of the faith, we have never lacked for excuses.
What's our excuse? What will be our excuse in the year 2013? And then what will be our excuse in the year 2014? Will our apocalyptic anxieties cause us to "turn away," as some did in John 6:66?
Or will we remain standing with Peter? Will we continue to confess "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God". Will it be that belief and that message that take us into the new day, week or year?
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.