The Second Coming as Endpoint of the Human Life.
Today’s epistle consists of some opening verses from St Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Its sounds like a mere prelude to the points that are developed later in the letter; but it ends with a significant and consequential statement of purpose: “that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is to say, the entire purpose of all the instruction St. Paul is about to give in 16 chapters of 1 Corinthians has this goal: that the Corinthians might be ready for the coming of Jesus.
The future event St. Paul is talking about is described in different ways in the New Testament. It is called the Second Coming of Jesus, the revealing of Jesus and the Day of Judgment. The purpose of looking forward to this “day” is frequently misunderstood. To say that our goal is to be blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a call to try to figure out when it will happen. It does not give us a vocation to be doomsayers who constantly and gloomily predict the end of the world. Nor is it a call to become escapists who always talk about “heaven” but have nothing to contribute to this world. It is, rather, a call to change the way we look at time.
Life in this world is temporary. It has an end. The movement of time always lets us know that we are moving forward toward something. From the stand point of the world apart from God, that something is death. But Christ has conquered death. And we share in that conquest through faith. As Jesus said, “whoever…believes in me shall never die” (John 11). Our bodies will die, but, through the gift of the Spirit we have been given a new kind of life that will continue beyond the death of the body. So, we understand that death is not the “end” of life.
Death is the separation of the spirit from the body. Our hope is resurrection, which is to be restored to eternal life in our bodies. We bury the body in the ground “in sure and certain hope of resurrection” (BCP 333) because the fullness of human life and the biblical hope require a body. We do not know much about the state of the spirit after death and before resurrection other than that it is an intermediate state and not a final state. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” And so do the faithful departed.
The Day of Resurrection, when our spirits will be reunited with our bodies, is the “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” of which St. Paul speaks in the epistle. It is the endpoint of our hope. It is the day when the life planted in us in baptism will be brought to completion. It is the day when “the creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).
We don’t know exactly what it will look like when Christ is revealed, the dead are raised and the creation is renewed. There is no way we can envision it. It will involve opening up dimensions of reality that are now hidden from us. It will involve the end of the current continuum of time and space as we know it. But if we believe in an omnipotent God who created the world in the beginning with meaning and purpose, it only makes sense that he also plans to bring the world he made to the glorious conclusion he intended for it. The Christian faith makes no ultimate sense without a day when all that is promised will be fulfilled.
Thus, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessarily the focus of our hope, no matter when it may occur or whether or not we live to see it. It is not a chronological goal. It is, rather, the endpoint of human existence, the thing that everything else points to and without which nothing makes sense.
The Future Anticipated in the Present through the Life of Prayer.
However, the Christian hope is not merely to wait for something that that is entirely in the future. The future is experienced in the present through the life of prayer. We desire the future fulfillment in the body because we already experience that fulfillment in part right now.
We can see this in the language the New Testament uses about the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom of God was present in the person of Jesus. It had not yet fully arrived, but it was beginning to break into time and space, into human history in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Through the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, the kingdom of God came to be present in and through the church. The church is the extension of the Incarnation. As the church proclaims the gospel in word and deed, as her members use their gifts is service, the future kingdom becomes present in time. We can also say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here.”
We experience the Kingdom of God right now through the life of prayer in the community of the church. As we pray to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and as we celebrate life together in the Body of Christ, we experience the future kingdom now. Nonetheless, each way in which we experience makes us want more and points us to the future consummation. The kingdom is here, but not fully here.
We see this tension between fulfillment and expectation in the Eucharist. We come to the altar to enter into union with God in Christ through the sacrament. This experience fulfills us, on one level, but it leaves us with a longing for something more. Or, to put it another way, we experience a taste of the future fulfillment in the present moment. This taste puts within a perpetual longing to fully experience the future feast of the kingdom.
In fact, the gathering of the faithful around the altar on the Lord’s Day anticipates the gathering of the faithful by Jesus on the Day of The Lord. All the elements of the future event are present here. We have an encounter with Christ that changes us—our sinful bodies are made clean and souls are washed. We enter into union with God. We are restored to the wholeness in the body.
And we leave the altar to live in the new time of the new creation. For us, time does not begin at birth and end at death. Rather, time begins in baptism and ends in resurrection. We gather of the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, which is both the first and eighth day of the week. It signifies both the beginning and the fulfillment of time in Christ, who is the alpha and the omega. For us, time begins and ends “in Christ.” Our experience of time involves the continual interplay between fulfillment and expectation.
Consequently, we work at being blameless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ not by predicting the day, or being afraid of judgment or what may happen in the world. We work at getting ready for that Day by entering into the kingdom through the life of prayer now; by “truly and earnestly repenting now”; by being “in love and charity” with our neighbor now; by doing the good works God has prepared for us now; by honoring the image of Christ in the least of his brethren now. The future kingdom is already here and we experience it now in part, even as we wait for it to arrive in its fullness.