So, it would seem that we’re all still here.
I guess, either the gentleman who predicted the rapture was mistaken, or we are all reprobate sinners who’ve been left behind, and heaven is filled with those of previous generations. I think I know which option my money’s on.
The Gospel reading on the Sunday following the supposed ‘rapture’ contained a rather apt question: “What’s going to happen next, Jesus?”
In chapter 14 of the Gospel according to S John we’re back in Holy Week. They’ve had their last meal together, Jesus had washed their feet, Judas had left to betray Jesus, Peter had been told of his ensuing denial and Jesus was beginning to talk about going away and being lifted up.
Fairly confused by this, the disciples rightly ask, “What’s going to happen next, Jesus?”
It’s a question asked by all humans: after life and death, what comes next? Unlike those who play on various superstitions and fears in order to frighten people for their own ends, Jesus’ reply in S John’s Gospel is intended to paint a picture to answer that question in such a way that may well be helpful.
It’s like a house, in which there’s room enough for everyone. This is my Father’s house, and you enter it through me. Believe me when I tell you this. Don’t worry, because I’ve made sure that it’s going to be fine.
What on earth is meant in this encounter? Not only our rapture-mad friends, but also many of the more vocal strains of Christianity, state very clearly that it is very simple: if you believe in Jesus, you get into the house; and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.
It’s funny, though, because when I hear people say that, no matter how politely it is said (and it is usually said ever-so nicely), it sounds just like the kind of attitude that so enraged Jesus. In the Gospels, the Pharisees appear so intent on working out who was in and out, that Jesus is shown as spending an inordinate amount of time pushing and playing around with their boundaries.
So what was he doing here?
I’ve heard it said that Jesus invented a new boundary; a universal boundary that was based upon belief. Certainly that would appear a more just and equal basis than one’s birth family.
What, though, is the definition of ‘belief’ used here? It seems to me that it is a ‘signing up’ to something: I stand up, of my own free will, and say ‘yes’ to this. It is an understanding of belief that starts with a decision, a cognitive understanding.
And this is where I start to have a problem, because my mind turns to:
the very young who can’t possibly make that kind of decision;
those with learning difficulties;
and those with mental illnesses, whose view on the world is knocked from day-to-day by chemical in-balances.
And that is only the start of the list. There are many more subtle issues that affect how decisions are made.
Surely, the gospel is for these people as well as those who ‘can’ believe? Surely they’re not going to hell just because they can’t stand up and say “Yes”?
And for those who do ‘stand up and say yes,’ what does that actually mean? Whilst that is certainly the result of reflection and searching, it is also dependent upon the kind of people who have influenced you, the places and times in which you have lived as well as the kind of personality that you have. That’s not to remove the responsibility of a person to make decisions, but to show that such choices are set within a context, much of which is outside of one single person’s control.
It appears to me that, despite the confident manner in which it is often presented, ‘belief as decision’ is not quite so clear-cut as it may at first seem.
I see belief differently to this.
The word in S John’s Gospel is Pisteuete: trust. Whilst you could argue linguistically that trust implies a decision, it is not the only way of understanding ‘trust’. More than that, I simply cannot see how salvation could be dependent upon an individual’s cognitive processing, when it is so dependent upon factors outside of a person’s own control. This approach just makes salvation far too individualistic, and I can’t accept that salvation is all about me and my choices, rather than God.
I once heard it said that belief is less about making a decision to ‘get on the bus,’ but realising that one is already on the bus, and would enjoy the journey a great deal more if one would just learn to trust the driver. It’s a rather simplistic image, and like all images has its limits, but it works for me.
“No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I hear that phrase from Jesus in S John’s Gospel, not as an exclusion, but as a simple statement of fact. Meeting with God, entering into God, takes place through Jesus Christ, whether a person knows that or not. He is the living way through which all of humanity come into the eternal embrace of God. Whether a person believes it or not, the God shown to the world through Jesus will have the last word, and not us.
So, what happens next, Jesus? What happens when we die?
Jesus invites us to trust him that death is not the end, but that there is life beyond life and death. The frailty and finite nature of this world that we all know so well is, in a mysterious way, changed through death into something everlasting, in the twinkling of an eye. And we all shall be changed.
No matter how difficult or wonderful our lives might be, they are nothing as compared with that which awaits us: the eternal embrace of God. All who die are somehow brought into the loving arms of God, where they are transformed into their truest self; that person that, perhaps, only those closest to us ever see a glimpse. And in that eternal embrace, we will all be at peace with God and one another, forever more.
Being able to trust in this way can bring an enormous sense of peace. This isn’t so much other-worldly feelings of peace, but rather a peace that learns to trust the words given to us through the person of Peace, Jesus Christ. The role of those able to live in such a way, then, is not to shut themselves off from everyone else, nor to tell the world to “Accept this peace or burn in hell,” which seems rather counter-productive. Rather, it is to allow that peace and trust to speak gently to ourselves, other people and the systems in this world that seem unable to be at peace with themselves and others.
As Jesus goes onto say in the same Gospel: “I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” (S John, 16:33)