Reflections of Bishop Whitaker for Advent -- Hope
During this season of Advent, the Conference will publish some of Bishop Timothy Whitaker's commentaries relating to the Advent themes for the four weeks that begin on Sunday, November 27: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. The commentaries are archived writings from 2006 to 2009. The following commentary was first posted on December 1, 2009, and relates to the theme of Hope.
The Second Advent of Jesus Christ
Advent is the season for Christians to meditate on the coming of Jesus Christ, and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in letting him come into our lives. The meaning of the advent of Jesus Christ is not adequately expressed unless it includes his second coming in the future.
"He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." So concludes the second article of the Nicene Creed. The Apostles' Creed says simply that Jesus Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead."
To the skeptic, the idea of Jesus Christ coming again is proof that Christian belief is humbug. If you believe this, they say, you probably also believe in a flat earth and witches.
We should never underestimate the ordinary skeptic's ignorance of the methods and content of Christian theology. However, even to some modern Christians, the coming again of Jesus Christ is often dismissed as one of those strange ideas which credulous Christians of the first century unfortunately mixed into their system of belief, but which no one but fundamentalists can take seriously today.
The coming again of Jesus Christ is no quaint sectarian idea, but it is an integral dimension of the apostolic and catholic faith of the ecumenical church. What is it about?
The simplest answer is that the promise of the coming again of Jesus Christ means that he has a future. Christians proclaim that Jesus Christ has a present because God raised him from the dead and declared him to be the Lord of the world. Since he is no longer dead, and death can have no hold on him, he lives.
Christians also proclaim that he has a past, not only his history as Jesus of Nazareth, but also his fulfillment of the prophecies of the prophets of Israel.
But he also has a future. As Emil Brunner put it, "Faith in Jesus without the expectation of His Parousia [the coming presence of Jesus Christ in the future] is a cheque that is never cashed, a promise that is not made in earnest. A faith in Christ without the expectation of a Parousia is like a flight of stairs that leads nowhere, but ends in the void."
The future of Jesus Christ is not some time ahead of us in the years to come, but it is a new age beyond this age of human history. So then, the coming again of Jesus is not an event in history, but the dawning of a new age beyond history, the transfiguration of the world as a new creation, the consummation of God's purpose to make a new heaven and a new earth. As Brunner emphasized, "It belongs to the character of the Final Event that its character as event is unimaginable. We shall then do best to stick to the New Testament symbols, knowing that they are symbols, and knowing, at the same time, that we need symbols."
The symbols of the New Testament express all of the hopes of the human race and all of creation for justice and healing and life, but we must remember that the hope of the church is not primarily for the blessings which are promised in the end, but for Jesus Christ's own presence. As Karl Barth said, "The New Testament community does not hope for the attainment merely of abstract blessings, as for example the resurrection of the dead, or justification in the day of judgment, or a life of eternal bliss....Or rather, it hopes for all these things in and with the fact that it hopes for Jesus Himself."
The theme of judgment in the coming of Jesus Christ is derived from the prophets' promise of the coming of the Messiah, e.g. Isaiah 11:1-9. As John Calvinwrote in his commentary on Isaiah, the judge should be understood as the "governor." Whatever else the judgment of Christ involves, it is the ordering of the world according to the purposes of God.
The Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergius Bulgakov, rightly observed that we should not forget that the second coming of Jesus Christ is accompanied by the completion of the work of the Holy Spirit in creation. The "glory" in which Christ will appear is the manifestation of the Spirit's work of glorifying creation, which is to transform it into a new heaven and a new earth by making it transparent to spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit which was revealed at Pentecost will consume the world in the sense that what belonged to the old world will be purified so that the new world will be suffused with the glory of God. The Spirit brings in the new age in which Jesus Christ will appear as its judge and ruler.
Given the transcendent nature of the second coming of Jesus Christ, it is understandable why skeptics would scoff and even many Christians choose to either deny or ignore it. To trust in it requires faith, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). It requires trust in the power of the Father, who works through the Son and the Spirit.
While this faith transcends the capacity of human reason and imagination, it is not totally contrary to our present perception of the world. Except for the self-blinded materialists, I believe most people sense the mystery of the transcendent already in the world. They perceive that there are doors in the world open to spirit, and we look through these doors in moments of beauty, truth and love. For Christians, the potential for the glorification of matter is illumined when we participate in the Eucharist, when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bread and wine--symbols of God's gifts of creation and humans' work and technology--become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In the ultimate future, all creation will be transfigured into the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit so that "God may be all in all" (I Corinthians 15:28).
We should take the opportunity during Advent to teach the church about the second advent of Jesus Christ. It is a profound mistake for the church to neglect proclaiming the final coming of Jesus Christ. It causes a vacuum in which distortions of all types can find a place to take hold. Most of all, such a neglect allows a sense of self-sufficiency to grow within us as the church. Without a strong eschatological hope, the church succumbs to the pressures of this time and lets the surrounding culture squeeze it into its own mold. Remembering our hope, we are set free to serve Jesus Christ our Lord, knowing that our labor for him is not in vain, for we are both "God's building" and "builders" on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and our own "work...will become visible" in the disclosure of the final future of this world (I Corinthians 3).
The One who was born in Bethlehem, and who comes to us now by faith, is the One whom we shall meet in the future.