Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and our lectionary text is foreshadowing Jesus’ departure on Ascension Day followed by the celebration of Pentecost when the promised Advocate makes a rather dramatic appearance to the disciples and indeed all of Jerusalem. Today is also Rogation Sunday which, in the Anglican world, is our ecclesial version of Earth Day. Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask” and it is a time when we ask God’s blessing on the soil and seeds and the crops to come from them. Originally, the major Rogation Day celebrated in the western Church was April 25th – three days after the much later secular celebration of Earth Day was instituted. Coincidence? I think not. But today, we celebrate Rogation Sunday as the Sixth Sunday of Easter and the season of Rogationtide extends from now through this Wednesday.
The impending departure of Jesus in the ascension may seem incongruous with Rogationtide at first glance. But in pondering these two things in my scattered and slightly ADD mind, I do believe there is a connection between the two and it coheres with our popular obsession with the eschaton – the end of all time. We Americans are fascinated the end of all things. We know, at some point, it will happen. Scientists tell us that at some future time, our planet and galaxy and sun will cease to exist. Some believe it will be the explosion of the sun while others surmise it will come as a result of a wandering black hole. But more colorfully, our scriptures speak of a time when all things as we know them today will come to an end – and some corners of Christianity have raised this specter to an art form. I am, of course, speaking of what’s known as “rapture theology.” Many of you have heard of the “rapture” and it has captured our cultural imagination through Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of books which have been made into movies. Essentially, it is a reknitting of a handful of scripture texts from Revelation, the prophecies of Daniel, and one particular verse from 1st Thessalonians about how those who are alive will be “caught up in the clouds together with them [those who have already died] to meet the Lord in the air.” Taking these texts together (and especially putting emphasis on the last one), people like John Nelson Darby and Edward Irving developed the idea of Dispensationalism wherein the belief that Christ would come again to take up the believers in the Church into heaven and then leave for a 1,000 period of tribulation where Satan would rule the earth, and then come back again at the end of the tribulation to take those who are “true believers” and cast into the lake of fire those who do not believe. Interestingly, the concept of the “rapture” does not appear in any serious biblical scholarship until the 1830’s. In the grand scope of Biblical scholarship and tradition, it is a new innovation.
And … it is wrong. It is heresy! “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again … and then leave … and then come again” is NOT what we proclaim as the Church. Much of what has been reinterpreted as the rapture are verses we historically associate with the resurrection of the righteous. And even the resurrection of the righteous is not some sort of celestial evacuation plan. God has not and will not abandon the earth! Let’s go back to the Gospel: Jesus says, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” The vision of John tells of the New Jerusalem says it will come to us – we will not be taken to it. The Church has historically taught that the resurrection will be for all of creation – not just people … all of creation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth – God is redeeming all of this because God loves all of this.
This is where Rogationtide fits into our readings. One of the dangers of rapture theology is a rejection of the care of creation. In a twisted logic, there are some who posit that we do not need to care for the earth because if we trash the planet and make it unsustainable, it doesn’t matter. Since God loves us and a loving God will not allow us to live on an unsustainable planet, destroying the earth will actually bring about the second coming of Christ sooner. Now there are all sorts of problems with this thinking not the least of which is we have lots of evidence that God allows us to live with the tragic consequences of our actions and does not swoop in to rescue us from our own stupidity. Trashing the planet to trigger the second coming is putting the Lord our God to the test … and testing God is consistently condemned in scripture. Instead, our readings today remind us that the home of God is with us – with mortals. God has not given up on us or the creation God made and loves. We are called to care for the earth and all of its creatures. When we are baptized, we renounce the sinful view of creation as something to be exploited and consumed for our pleasure and we affirm our God-given role as stewards of God’s good creation. It’s stewardship! And this radical view of our role in the care of creation shapes our choices because we are God’s people and God in Christ isn’t giving up on us or the earth. We don’t recycle because it’s a nice thing to do – we do it because it’s how we honor God and God’s creation. We don’t conserve electricity just because we save some money. We conserve electricity because it lowers the pollution levels in God’s creation and saves the lungs of God’s people. We support sustainability not just because it’s a neat idea but because we are called to care for God’s creation and God’s people.
In the Gospel reading Jesus says, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” Going away yet also, simultaneously, coming to you. Admittedly, this makes no rational sense whatsoever. But in the life of faith, rationality is wayyyy overrated! Jesus’ words are a paradox designed to get us beyond our rational brains. While he will not be with the disciples in the same way, he has promised the Advocate will be coming to remind them of everything. This early hint at the mystery of the Trinity – that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and yet distinct – is a way of saying that Jesus the Christ not only will leave the disciples but will be with them in a new and transformed way. Those who subscribe to rapture theology focus only on the going away part which preys upon our anxieties of abandonment and attempts to impress us with fearful images of what being “left behind” would look like. They neglect the second part of this sentence: that Christ simultaneously is coming to us and has promised that he and the Father will come to us and make their home with us. Rather than fear the end of all things and reject the creation which God loves, we are called to heed Christ’s command to love one another and, by extension, to love the creation which God loves. And so on this Rogation Sunday, we do well to live in the hope of the resurrection, the confidence that we are not orphaned or left behind in any way, and trust that God in Christ has come to us to make his home with us.