In This Generation—the coming of the Son of Man
The Rev. Stephen Smith, November 29, 1015
How many of you have heard of David Wilkerson? Not many hands I see. David Wilkerson was a pastor form the Midwest who had a vision that led him to go preach the Gospel in the inner city of New York. He wound up converting a whole Latino gang led by a young man named Nicky Cruz. The story was told in the book and movie, The Cross and the Switchblade. Ah, so now some of you remember and know the name.
Because of this amazing work Wilkerson become a noted speaker in Christian circles throughout the 1960s and 70s. In the late 1970s he started saying that the world was coming to end. He even predicted when: sometime in the early 1990s Jesus would return and history would come to a close. And . . . we are still here.
A few years back a pastor form California actually declared the day that Jesus would return and the world would end, and . . . we’re still here.
With the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 some predicted Jesus’ return and the end of the world, and . . . we’re still here.
The delay in Jesus’ return, his second coming as it is often called, has been a source of some embarrassment for the Church since, well since our beginning and our earliest writing.
Scholars know that the letters of Paul are the earliest writings of the New Testament. The Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus’ life, where actually compiled much later than Paul’s letters. The stories of Jesus were the early oral preaching of the disciples and early church leaders, and as these leaders (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) began to die off their communities said, “Maybe we’d better write this stuff down.” And they began to assemble the Gospels. But this was later than the letters Paul wrote to those churches he founded.
We know when to date Paul’s letters based on some of the historical events he mentions and we are fairly certain that the earliest letter is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which we read from today. In it Paul talks a lot about the second coming of Jesus. In fact, the idea of the rapture, all the faithful being gathered out of the earth and into heaven at Jesus’ return comes from this letter to the Church in Thessalonica.
When we get to what scholars believe is Paul’s last letter, his letter to the Romans, he doesn’t even mention the second coming at all. The second coming, over the course of Paul’s writings becomes less and less emphasized until it totally drops away.
Yet here in Luke’s Gospel the second coming is proclaimed again, much later than Paul’s writings. And Luke dares to say that his generation will not pass away before they see the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ in glory. This generation will see it.
Maybe it’s because they wanted Jesus to come back and set things right. You see, by the time Luke’s community assembled his Gospel things were bad. You wouldn’t know it by reading Luke and its companion book the book of Acts. Luke tells the story of Jesus and the book Acts tells the story of the early Church, and they are meant to be one piece. Luke’s story begins with the babe in the manger. His Gospel is the only one that tells this story. Jesus was born in a barn in a little town of no account in the Roman Empire, which probably had only 500 people living in it. But his life, death and resurrection had such an impact that finally his story spreads over the entire Roman Empire and Acts ends with Paul going all the way to Rome and hoping for an audience with the Emperor. From a boy born in a barn to an audience with Caesar, what a triumphant story?
But Luke’s community was experiencing nothing like this triumph as they assembled the Gospel and the book of Acts.
Paul was dead, and so was Peter. Rather than having an audience with the emperor they were killed by Nero when he blamed the Christians for the fire in Rome that he started.
What’s more the origins of their story in Jerusalem were laid waste by Vespasian. He sacked Jerusalem and tour down the temple, leaving it in rubble.
Judaism, looking for someone to blame for this disaster began to accuse the Christians of promoting heresy by following this Jesus. They were kicked out of the synagogues and so began the feud between Christianity and Judaism which led to thousands of years of violence, especially form Christians against Jews.
And if all that weren’t enough it was about this time when Luke’s Gospel was coming together that the Roman governors in Asia Minor, in Galatia and Ephesus, began to notice the rise of Christianity. And so the first organized persecutions of Christians by Roman authorities had its beginnings.
So maybe Luke’s Gospel was hoping for Jesus to come back and set things right. And like so many others, Luke’s community was disappointed.
Nevertheless countless generations have hoped for that day. Even now, we’re a mess. The world has gone crazy, with mass shootings, and ISIS wreaking havoc around the world. We want Jesus to come back and set things right or at least get us out of here. The current generation’s fixation with the rapture is all about saving us form the mess of humanity by getting us out of it. It’s an escape plan. We seem more interested in escape than engagement.
But if we were engaged with Jesus coming back what would that look like? In fact, that’s what ISIS thinks it’s doing. They are engaging the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus to make things right. I did not know until this year that Islam believes in the second coming of Jesus. Why not? Islam came out of Judaism and Christianity and shares many of the same stories; why not the second coming? Just like us they believe that the end of the world will come and God will be in charge. This will be preceded by the coming of the prophet (for them, messiah for us) Jesus. ISIS believes this is the time and they are giving God a helping hand by killing all their enemies and anyone who would disagree with them.
That’s even worse, when we think that God setting things right needs our assistance through violence for God’s sake. That’s just crazy. I cannot imagine Jesus cooperating with this kind of idiocy.
And in the midst of all this insanity still, just like in the early Church, the second coming is delayed.
But wait a minute. Let’s give the early Church a little more credit. Maybe the statement in Luke’s Gospel about the coming of the Son of Man in glory was not a prediction of an end, but the acknowledgement of a reality already present in their community.
After all, each week, despite persecution, they gathered and shared the bread and wine and said, “Here is the Son of Man, here is the presence of Christ in our very midst.” They created a community of love and support and looked around at each other, the gathered Church, and said, “Here is the coming of the Son of Man. It is the Body of Christ we call the Church.” And then they took the love they experienced in that community out into the world and shared it with those who were on the margins of society, those who needed the love of God, and said, “Here is the coming of the Son of Man, here is the Christ, given for you by the community of God’s love.” And despite all the troubles they were experiencing, the death of Peter and Paul, the destruction of the town of their origin, Jerusalem, the conflict with Judaism, and the Roman persecution, despite it all they were growing. In their generation they witnessed the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ.
My brothers and sisters, we too, in our generation witness the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ. Because we gather each Sunday and share the bread and wine and say, “Here is the Son of Man, the Christ, in our very midst.” We look around at one another and say, “Here is the gathered community which we call the Body of Christ. It, too, represents the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ.” And then we go out into the world to share the love of God, and in those acts the Son of Man, the Christ, comes to the world around us. Not at the end of time, but in our generation, right here, right now, the Son of Man is revealed among us. Despite the insanity of the world, the craziness of ISIS, mass shootings, and all that fills us with fear. We have seen the coming of the Son of Man in our generation. Amen.