Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Thy Kingdom Come: What is the Christian Hope?
 The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara

With the frequency of earthquakes, tsunamis, climate change and other calamities that hit Haiti, New Zealand and Japan and the phenomenon of wars and revolutions in the Arab world, one wonders if the “end of the world” is coming soon. This Bible Study is not about the negative connotation of the end-times as it is about the positive meanings of the Second Coming of Christ. Such an eager waiting for Christ return became the standard of the early Church. It is not a call to complacency but to activism; it is not a call to withdrawal from the world but a call to engagement to the concerns of the world; it is not a call to passive spiritualism but a call to a spirituality of action. When we wait for Christ, we wait actively. As Isaiah the prophet said, “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31)

In the Episcopal Church catechism (Outline of the Christian Faith), there is a Question & Answer portion, which says:

Q. What is the Christian hope?

A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in the newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God’s purpose for the world. (Book of Common Prayer, 861)

My understanding of this statement is influenced by my study of the Bible and by my diverse exposure to a variety of spiritual experience in the Christian Church. I grow up in the environment of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines; was converted to liberation theology while attending the 5th assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya in 1975; ordained in the Iglesia Filipina Independiente in 1978; became involved with the Anglican charismatic movement in Singapore in the 1980’s; exposed to feminist theology in the Presbyterian seminary in San Francisco in the late 1980's; became Episcopalian in the year 1990 and imbibed its inclusive theology.

Episcopalians are noted to be “thinking Christians” and I believe it is still mainstream Episcopalian to have diverse and even divergent opinions.  In fact, if I am asked whether I am conservative or liberal, I might say: I am a “catholic, evangelical, charismatic liberal Episcopalian.”

I think it is inadequate to box a thinking person into just one category, something classical and mainstream Episcopalians would agree. The Anglican ethos by which I subscribe to, is one, whom former Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Robert Runcie, described as “passionate coolness.” Anglicanism has evolved from being a monochromatic Church to becoming intercultural and pluralistic and holding many tensions in balance. Authentic Christianity, in all its pluriforms, continues to thrive because it adapts to the changing world and critically accommodates cultures as “whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is holy" (Philippians 4:8) in am imperfect but redeemed world. A living religion must continue to breathe the Holy Spirit within the sphere of  human existential realities so that humanity will not simply endure but prevail.

Consequently, the practice of the Christian faith itself, in its essence, continues to evolve as a diamond with many facets. Our attitudes to other Christians are changing, our attitudes to other religions are changing, our attitudes to other cultures. lifestyles and ideologies are changing, even as our faith in the person of Jesus Christ remains. As there are many songs about love, love itself remains constant. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. His mercies never fails, his love never ends and his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.

As an Episcopalian, it is against this background that I view the concept of the “Christian hope.”

The poignant letter of Paul to Timothy sets the stage for our understanding of the Christian hope in the end times. “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award me on that day---and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing”( II Timothy 4: 6-7).

Three Greek words are important in our understanding of Pauline longing for (Christ’s) “appearing.”

1. Eschatos or eschaton – meaning “last.” From this word, we  developed a branch of theology called “eschatology,” meaning the study of the last things or the “end times.”

2. Parousia - meaning the “arrival” or “coming.” In Latin, it is called “adventus.” The term parousia is mentioned in the New Testament twenty-four times (24), seventeen (17) of them referring to the second coming of Christ.

3. Kerygma - meaning ‘proclamation” or announcement. In classical Christianity, the kerygma is encapsulated in the formula which is familiar to us because it is included in our Eucharistic liturgy as a proclamation of the mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”

What are the signs of the “end times?”

Matthew 24, considered to be Jesus’ discourse on the “end times,” speak of both external events and internal behavioral change in people’s lives. Verses 4-8 speak about the rise of false prophets, wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes and calamities in various places. We do not have to stretch our imagination to know that these signs are present in our generation as they were of the past. Verses 9-14 speaks about persecution of believers, apostasy and “cold hearts” for God. It also says that the “gospel will be preached in the whole world.” With radio-TV combined with the internet and social networks, it is possible in our generation to saturate the world with the gospel message.

The Book of Revelations 6:1-8 speak about the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which are interpreted to mean war, famine, pestilence and death.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he spoke about the change of human character as part of the phenomenon in the end times. “People will become lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy without love” (II Timothy 3:1-5).

The “end times” seem filled with cataclysmic events and hardening of people’s hearts but also create a deep commitment of believers to make sense of these events. While disasters sometime bring out the worst in humanity, it also brings out the best of humanity. People reach out in solidarity with one another while “suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3,4). The general composure of the Japanese people in the midst of unspeakable devastation from the recent earthquake and tsunami is a case in point.

In the context of the Christian faith, suffering should intensify our thirst for God and should enable us to “eagerly long” for Christ’s return. The vision of a "fully-healed" world like a new (or renewed) earth should spur us to become both responsible stewards of creation as well as not fully attached to the material trappings of a passing stage. We are, in the words of the mystics not material beings with spirits but "spiritual beings with bodies."

The standard of the New Testament Church was measured by the way in which they believed in the signs of the imminent eschaton (last things); in the way in which they waited for the parousia (Christ’s return); and in the way in which they proclaimed the kerygma (central proclamation). It is this standard that motivated them to order their lives, their relationships, and their priorities.

Their love for one another was so overflowing that it just spilled over the communities around them; their zeal for evangelism was so awesome that Paul would say, “woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel.” Their primordial concern was the salvation of souls and to work towards that "holiness, without which we can not see the Lord" as John Wesley described. The early Church grew rapidly because this proclamation of the gospel of repentance was undergirded by the life they lived and by the relationship they created. They spoke love and lived love.

In the proclamation of the gospel, it is important to address ourselves to the holistic needs of human beings. To speak against injustice and oppression, as the prophets of the Old Testament did, means to address ourselves to “human sin in all its protean forms,” (WCC 1975) but the goal of evangelism has to begin with the conversion of human hearts to be free from infection and corruption of sin. A fish taken out of water dies and begins to corrupt. The solution is not to dry the fish but to have a new fish and let it stay in water. Spiritual rebirth is precursor to societal transformation.

The New Testament Christians believed that spiritual rebirth was important and even more Christ’s return would mark the finality of all their spiritual longings. Christ’s return would mean four (4)  things, namely:

  1. Christ’s return will be the “final answer” to human needs.
Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10) but that kind of life are denied some people due to the structures of injustice and oppression in society. Calamities also bring intolerable human suffering. We must preach repentance and change in human hearts and hope in the future when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Revelations 21:1-1) With regards to healing the divisions of the Church, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, commented: “I see some healing, but full healing will only come at Christ’s return” (message in Pittsburgh, 4/17/2011).

  1. Christ’s return will mark the final consummation of our salvation.
We are “already in the not yet.” This means that the kingdom of God has come near but the best is yet to be. Christ promised that “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-54). With the tremendous advance of science and technology in prolonging life expectancy and experiencing better quality of life, we are just beginning to understand an iota of what “eternal life” can really be. If your had been one of misery, there is always hope. And even if your life has been wonderful, the "best is yet to be."

3. Christ’s return will mark the harmony of all creation
This is good news for the environmentalists. Romans 8:18-24 gives the image that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” and so “the sufferings of the present time is not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed,” which is the “redemption of our bodies.” The Apostles’ Creed says in part: “I believe n the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” For me it is both the affirmation that our body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and that we shall experience being one with God and with one another, including nature.  The prophet Isaiah also gives the imagery that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth in singing and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). If Mother Nature is excited with Christ's return, what should prevent us from eagerly longing for His return?

  1. Christ’s return will mark the completion of shalom, the reign of God. The Hebrew word “shalom” means not only the absence of war but the fullness of life and the depth of life. Shalom is the increase of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 9: 1-7), the utopian image of all that we imagine peace to be:  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9). History is replete with human's inhumanity to humans as well as gross exploitation of the whole creation. We have learned to exploit nature but we have not learned enough replenish what we have taken.

  1. How would “end times” impact our EVANGELISM? In light of the ‘parousia’, how should we order our priorities in the proclamation of the Kerygma: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?”
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be urgent in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage---with great patience and careful instruction... endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

  1. How would “end times” impact our relationship with people of other faiths, cultures and ideologies?
“The challenge today for seriously concerned individuals is not merely an absolute theology or religion that brings assurance, but the honest recognition that our worldwide realities of hunger, exploitation, dwindling resources, and ecological devastation, prompt us to join forces in order to build a better world by developing a global practical theology that will transform religions and the world.” – Paul Nagano, Council for Pacific Asian Theology,  2011.

  1. How would “end times” impact our stewardship of God’s creation?
‘At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both "the human environment" and the natural environment.1 It is about our human stewardship of God's creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.”-Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, USCCB, 2001 #3 (US Catholic Conference of Bishops)