My pastor was on fire yesterday morning. He nearly had steam coming from his body, that's how fired up he was about his topic. I find passion in any form to be inspiring. When people feel strongly about something, they get me instantly engaged if their argument is compelling. Whether I agree or not is immaterial; I am moved to consider ideas from a new perspective, and that's very valuable.
He was speaking on a passage at the end of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, which many Christians would say is about "the end times" or "the rapture". Both ideas have always been foreign to me, much like the concepts of heaven and hell, where there are passages in the Bible about them but they have never been sufficiently explained to the point where they make any sense to me.
My pastor, in his precise care and study, explained that in the Jewish mindset, heaven was simply defined as "another dimension", with nothing ethereal and mystical about it. Over the years, heaven theology has developed into this mysterious space in the clouds, where we float as spirits, happy all day long, and my mind can't seem to wrap around this vague concept.
He said that the term "rapture", used by Christians to explain this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, is not found in the Bible. It is a creation of mankind over the centuries of church history, and in recent years has been used to create fear and anxiety about what will happen at the end of time.
Books and movies have made millions from this "end times theology." As a kid, I saw one of those movies at my church and it traumatized me for most of my Christian life, until recently when I realized it was mostly bunk and I could let it go. I'm thrilled that my kids won't grow up with this panic and fear that I could disappear at any time, float up to the sky and leave them alone with the earth falling to ruins all around them. These ideas developed over time, and have been taught as the absolute truth in most churches and Christian schools, and they always sat uneasily in my mind and spirit.
My pastor read the passage over twice, and had us discuss where our mind stopped as we heard it. What questions could we raise? What did it seem like Paul was really saying? He encouraged us all to put what we've learned before out of our minds and just focus on the words in their context. This is such a helpful exercise when reading Scripture. The basic point of the passage is a reassurance that whether you are alive or dead, you are in God's hands. The rest doesn't really matter. We don't have to be afraid. It's very comforting to put your faith in the goodness of God, in his infinite love and care, and believe that he will take care of us.
This one 45 minute message about death and heaven made more sense to me than 30 years of teaching in other places. It had the effect of control-alt-delete to reset my mind to be able to have new ideas seed and grow. During my pastor's teaching, he engaged in a small rant on some of our "friends to the south" and their interest in spreading fear about what is coming at the end of time, all in an effort to encourage us to open our wallets and give to them. At the end, when he was wrapping up, he apologized for his attitude and asked us to forgive him for his cynicism. He recognized that blaming others isn't going to help in the road to unity as believers and people who live peacefully with one another.
That example of humility, following such a powerful message of hope and encouragement, was a first-rate example for me to follow. I love my community of faith. I love my pastor and the ideas he offers for consideration. He was clear that he doesn't know what is going to happen after we die, simply because he is still alive. No one knows. But I can rest on the confidence that God knows, and that he loves me and is in control of what will happen, and that's enough for me.