Sunday, November 10, 2010, Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Each year, as the year draws to an end, the Church draws our attention to the end of the age. The end of the world, at least as we know it, is a favorite topic of TV preachers, which is enough to cause some to scoff at the very idea; but it has always been an established part of the Christian revelation that, as the creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.”
To “come again in glory” means more than just that each of us will meet our Maker when our personal time comes. It means that a time will come for the whole world to meet its maker, a time when Christ appears before the whole world and brings to bear His divine power. It will be the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation. The Bible has a good bit to say about these anticipated events, but these passages call out for interpretation, and there has never been a shortage of interpreters eager to answer the call. So, we must be sober and cautious in our study.
Which is nothing new. That’s the general gist of Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians. There were some in Thessalonica who thought that Christ was about to return, so they had quit their jobs, and were leading disorderly lives, sponging off the charity of their fellow Christians. What did it matter? Any day the new creation would change everything anyway. Paul addressed this disorder by reminding them about what he had already taught them. Here’s Paul, 2nd Thessalonians, Ch 2, VV. 3-10:
You may notice that this interesting passage poses more questions than it answers. Paul knew, and he had explained it to the Thessalonians, but he doesn’t tell us!
And so the interpreters go to work.
Who exactly is the lawless one? An individual, or mankind itself in rebellion against God? Or perhaps an individual who is empowered by the general rebellion, what Paul calls the apostasy, and by force of personality carries it forward to its conclusion.
And what is the great Apostasy? The Church in its history has always had ups and downs. How massive must an apostasy be to qualify as the final and decisive one? The Church is in serious decline in Europe and North America, but growing in Africa and Asia. Might it not be a little ethno-centric of us to think that the end is near because Christianity has weakened in areas where it used to be strong? Or will the powerful influence of the de-Christianized, decadent West sweep away the gains in the Third World?
And who is it restraining the spirit of lawlessness, preventing it for the time being from taking complete control? Some have said it’s Michael the Archangel. Others have suggested it’s the preaching of the gospel throughout the world that is keeping the initiative away from Satan and his human allies. Christ said the gospel must first be preached throughout the world before the end can come. Many of the Church Fathers thought the restrainer was the Roman Empire, Christianized by their time. By extension, it would be any stable human government that keeps law and order. If that’s the case, what happens as national governments become interconnected and detach their legal codes from Christian values? Could our extreme permissiveness of pornography, sexual license, abortion, our greed, theft, confusion about the meaning of marriage and the family indicate that the restraint is collapsing and the mystery of lawlessness is gaining the upper hand, ready to welcome a leader who will personalize and advance the whole apostasy and rebellion against God?
All interesting questions. Books have been written offering answers by reputable scholars and by charlatans. The questions are worthy of our attention because we believe that Christ will come against in glory to judge the living and the dead, and because the collapse of moral restraint has become to obvious to deny.
Paul told the Thessalonians not to get all excited because the apostasy had not yet happened, and in fact the gospel had hardly begun its progress through the world. It has been progressing now some 2000 years. Is that long enough?
But even if we somehow knew that Christ would return in our lifetimes, Paul’s advice would still apply to us – don’t abandon your responsibilities for disordered lives. Christ told more than a few parables about servants awaiting their master’s return, and they all conclude like this: It will go well with those servants whose master finds them busy on his return. We will not be rewarded for having figured out the time of his return. We will be rewarded for carrying out our responsibilities faithfully; as husbands and wives or as dedicated singles, as parents or children, as employees or employers, as citizens, as Christian believers doing what we can right up to the end to win others to the truth so that they will not fall victim to the deceptive mystery of lawlessness but instead, through love of truth, find salvation.
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