Call to Covenant II: Rapture or Responsibility?
Third Sunday in Epiphany, Year B

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

The collection of fragments the Elves pulled from the Old Testament prophetic tradition, the Psalms, Paul’s first letter to the non-Jewish Christians in Corinth, and the gospel of Mark is cherry-picked proof-texting at its worst.  That such an exercise serves to solidify the dogma that has defined Christianity for 17 centuries is no excuse.  Repent for your sins – especially sexual ones – forget about family values like love and fidelity, because the end is near.  Taken at face value (and how else have these readings been taken?), this teaching leads directly to the conviction that personal, individual salvation from hell in the next life is all that matters.  Collective distributive justice-compassion and peace in this life is futile because the Rapture will happen at any moment.

What is a liberal Christian to do with these readings, short of pitching them into the circular file?

Start with the story of “Jonah and the Whale.”  The Elves never consider the entire tale, which is usually assigned to primary Sunday School lessons.  The idea that “The Lord provided a large fish [whale] to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” is too outrageous for even the most literal-minded adult to accept.  It has to be a fun story for children.  So we concentrate on the “moral” found at the end:  chapter 3: 1-5 and verse 10 during Epiphany Year B, and 3:10-4:11 in Year A  “When God saw. . . how [the people of Nineveh] turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.”  All is well if we repent for our sins.  

The Elves imply that the Jonah story is a direct parallel with the portion selected from Mark’s gospel.  After John the Baptist was arrested, the writer says Jesus took up the Baptist’s proclamation that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Mark’s Jesus even says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Just like God “provided” the fish that ate Jonah, James and John promptly abandon their fishing nets and become the first disciples.  

Finally, poor misunderstood Paul reassures the cherry-pickers that “if you marry you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin.”  Well, that’s good news.  But then Paul seems to be saying that because the Rapture is going to happen any moment, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none [rampant partner-sharing?], and those who mourn as though they were not mourning [denial?], and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing [?], and those who buy as though they had no possessions [unregulated 21st Century financial shenanigans come to mind], and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

The “Rapture” is a very convenient metaphor.  It absolves us from all responsibility for corporate life while assuring us that our own individual lives are saved for all eternity simply because we believe that Jesus is bodily coming again to judge the living and the dead.  Those who refuse to believe that are doomed, and (since the Reformation) we are not required to exert ourselves to try to convince them otherwise.  Justice, whether retributive or distributive, is not relevant.  Peace does not matter.  Poverty is the fault of the poor.

Perhaps if believers in “the Rapture” were also prophetically involved with saving souls by recruiting folks into the great work of restoring God’s realm of radical fairness on this earth in this time, they would be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Some level of apocalyptic thinking is probably hard-wired into human minds, given the brevity  and uncertainty of most human life.  We only have three or four score and ten years to make a difference on the Planet, and the first score (or more) is usually taken up with learning that fact and dealing with the accompanying ramifications.  The last ten or so is spent realizing that tending our own garden (as Voltaire put it) is really the best way to make a difference.  That leaves a middle third in which to be President of the United States, to write the pivotal novel of the Century, or figure out how to stave off the seemingly inevitable meltdown of the Antarctic ice cap.

As the so-called “culture wars” surrounding the separation of church and state have heated up in the past 25 years, the strategy for fundamentalist Christians has been to claim that free speech trumps the prohibition of the establishment of a religion in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The result is that whenever anyone piously claims Jesus as his/her own personal savior and lord, license is granted to defy the separation of church and state.  When Rev. Rick Warren closed his inaugural invocation for the Obama presidency “in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus [using the Spanish pronunciation],” he was daring anyone to object to this “universal” even “inclusive” syntax.  When he then proceeded to the proprietary words of the Christian “Jesus prayer,” he crossed the line into defiance.  His use of “free speech” established Warren’s version of Christianity as the official religion – at least until  Rev. Lowery put things back into perspective.  

Whether in city council meetings, school board meetings, or on the most public and secular occasions, “Arrest me!” this behavior demands.  “I’ll pray in the schools, I’ll post the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn, and I’ll invoke the name of Jesus wherever and whenever I please, and regardless of what anyone else holds as sacred” – because nothing else is sacred outside the Christian religion.  Not life, not liberty, and especially not justice.

What a convenient belief for Empire to foster among the disenfranchised masses, who might otherwise demand fair treatment, health care, education, and a chance to better themselves.  Karl Marx was absolutely right:  Religion is the opium of the people.

But what is really going on in these readings for the third Sunday in Epiphany?

What is going on is that “Paul, like Jesus before him, did not simply proclaim the imminent end of evil, injustice, and violence here below upon this earth.  They proclaimed it had already begun (first surprise!) and that believers were called to participate cooperatively with God (second surprise!) in what was now a process in human time and not just a flash of divine light (third surprise!).”  In Search of Paul, p. 176.  Whatever Jesus, Paul, and everyone else has said about the length of time involved, they all are and have been profoundly wrong.  Jesus was here once, and has not yet reappeared.  Given what we now know about the nature of life on Planet Earth, Jesus is highly unlikely to come again as his original, recognizable self, and most certainly not in a single, cataclysmic instant.  For a thorough discussion of “parousia” – for that is what is referred to in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – please see the series of commentaries at  Meanwhile, Crossan and Reed point out, “the first and fundamental challenge [Jesus and Paul] offer to Christian faith is this: “Do you believe the process of making the world a just place has begun and what are you doing about joining the program?”

As pointed out in the commentary for Year A, Proper 20, “Radical abandonment of self-interest brings justice and life – the presence of God.   The joke – which Jonah resented, Jesus knew, and Paul realized – is that the Covenant includes everybody and anybody who is willing to sign on.  Jonah only went to Ninevah after his journey into death in the belly of the fish.  But Jonah didn’t die – he held onto his pious convention like a three-year-old.  He would rather hold his breath until he turns blue than acknowledge that God cares more about saving 120,000 sinners from injustice than one recalcitrant, self-righteous prophet.”

It seems that whoever wrote Mark wanted to get to the bottom line as soon as possible.  There is no birth story.  Jesus’s ministry overwhelms the Baptist’s ministry within the first 13 verses, and the disciples are called almost as an afterthought as Mark plunges into telling about Jesus’s real work of healing and miracle.  Six chapters later (which the Elves don’t allow us to consider until Proper 9 – sometime in the summer), “the twelve” are simply called together and sent out as Jesus’s emissaries.

We are confronted once again with the reality of “Covenant” with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Paul, and 21st Century post-modern Christians.  Jonah didn’t get it, but the animals in sackcloth clearly did.  The work of distributive justice-compassion is an ongoing struggle that we are called to join, but must choose.  The writer of Mark’s gospel can’t wait to tell us what that work is.  Paul approaches apoplexy trying to explain to the clueless Corinthians that conventional life is meaningless without the radical abandonment of self-interest that puts us directly into participation with God’s great work, and mystic sweet communion with the spiritual body of Christ.

What are we waiting for?  Why stand around gawking up at the sky?  Work, for the night is coming.  There is no more time to lose.