Saturday, October 04, 2008

Disciples Values: The Eschatological Principle

Revelation 22:12-17

Back when I was in high school, I was really into eschatology. I mean, I read all the end times books, including Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. I also played Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Larry Norman’s “I am the Six o’clock News” on my record player. Sometimes at church we had rapture practice – which involved jumping off chairs in the sanctuary. I think I can safely say that my friends and I thought that Armageddon was just around the corner. In fact, by our calculations, which we took from Hal Lindsey, the end would come in 1988. Now, just in case you didn’t know, it’s now 2008, so I guess we were just a bit off in our calculations.

That was then, and as they say, this is now. But, I’m still into eschatology, just not the kind I indulged in back then. This word, eschatology, might sound a bit strange and exotic. It’s not a word we use very often on normal conversation, but even though most people don’t know the word, it’s an important theological idea.

As a general rule, we Disciples don’t talk much about the end of the world. We don’t have prophesy conferences or rapture practice at church. But, we do have an “eschatological principle.” That’s because we do believe that God is interested in our future. Even if Alexander Campbell wasn’t an end times preacher, he did name his journal “The Millennial Harbinger.” How much more eschatological can you get than that?

I. THE FUTURE AND THE PURPOSE OF HISTORY

Alexander Campbell believed in God’s providence. He believed that God was at work in the world and that the events of today influenced the future. Like Marin Luther and John Wesley, Campbell had what you might call a Damascus Road kind of experience.

His first attempt at crossing the Atlantic from Scotland, ended with a shipwreck. That event delayed his trip to America by a year, and during that year he studied at the University of Glasgow and met some of the leading reformers of the day. It was during this period that he heard God’s call to reform the church and seek unity among all Christians. What happened then influenced the ministry he would have in America. And as, Campbell looked back at that shipwreck, he saw God’s providential hand at work.

Campbell came to believe that we should take seriously the events of the day, because we don’t know how they will influence tomorrow. When I look back at my life, what might seem like random events, helped prepare me for my ministry here at Central Woodward. It’s not that God determines everything that happens in our lives, but God will use our life experiences to shape our future.

II. GOD’S STAKE IN HUMAN HISTORY

Campbell was confident that God “had a stake in human history." Ours isn’t the God of Deism, the God who sets things in motion, and then goes on vacation. Most Disciples believe that God is present with us. We see signs of that presence in the life and ministry of Jesus (Mt. 1:23) and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

At the time of his departure , Jesus told the gathered disciples that he wouldn’t leave them alone, but would instead send the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit would empower them so that they might bear witness to the things of God, beginning in Jerusalem and moving outward to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6ff). As Disciples, we must hear this eschatological message: God isn’t absent from our lives; Instead, God is standing out in front of us, leading us and beckoning us into a future full of hope.

There are pessimistic eschatologies and optimistic ones. Some are fantasy and others realistic. Some are focused on wars in heaven and on earth, but a Disciple eschatology should be both hopeful and realistic. Our eschatology is a reminder that God is already at work establishing his reign here on earth, even as God is doing the same in heaven – just as we pray each week when we recite the Lord’s Prayer. This eschatology of ours invites us to join with God in this work of reconciliation and healing of a broken world. It’s ultimately an invitation to love our neighbors, even as we love ourselves. As Paul said, "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself," and God is making his plea through us (2 Cor. 5:19 - 20). Yes, God is making something new of this world, and we have a role to play in it!

III. THE HISTORY OF SALVATION AND THE FUTURE

Disciples biblical scholar Eugene Boring suggests that we might best understand the Bible as a five act play: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. It has a beginning and it has an end. It happens in the past, in the present, and in the future. We call this five act story “salvation history.” Standing at the very center of this story of salvation history, is the promise that God will be with us every step of the way as we journey forward into the future. We go forward in the hope that in the end, God will reign over all. Because of this hope we needn’t live in fear.

No book of the Bible is more linked to the future than the book of Revelation. This book might seem exotic and difficult to understand, but its basic point is quite simple. Even though things may look bad right now, hang tight because God will reign victorious. Rome may seem in control, but its leash is short. This bad news you’ve been hearing, it’s not the last word. If we go back a few verses in Revelation 22, we’ll find the messenger of God telling John, “do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” Keep the book open because God is at work. Yes, both evil and good are present, but in time the good will prevail. So, again, just be patient!

We see this same eschatological message present in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. Jesus tells us that just like a mustard seed the reign of God starts small, but given time, it will grow, just like the mustard seed, which is among the smallest of seeds, but given time it will become a great bush. You might not see it just yet, but God is already reigning – for the kingdom of God is in our midst. The old order may still be hanging on, kind of like a lame duck politician, but the signs are all around us. If we look hard enough we’ll signs that God is at work. And if we listen closely, we’ll hear God calling on us to join in this work of salvation.

The late Disciple historian Tony Dunnavant once wrote, that the Disciples have always been a "movement that understood itself in eschatological terms as one of God's instruments for the evangelization of the world." It is our calling to be a harbinger of God’s good news of healing and wholeness in this world. Our eschatological message isn’t focused on promises of death and destruction for our neighbors whom God chooses to leave behind. Instead, it is a word of hope and reconciliation.

In these closing verses of John’s Revelation, we hear a word of blessing along with an invitation. We hear Jesus saying to us: “Come . . . let everyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift" (Rev. 22:17). That message of Jesus, is our message as well. It is our good news.

There may be a financial crisis and seemingly unending wars. There is poverty and disease. But these do not have the last word. The days ahead might get rough and unsettling, but the reign of God continues to spread, and we get to be part of that work.

It’s appropriate that today is both World Communion Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. Our eschatological message is truly one of reconciliation, for God is at work in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:17). And there is no better sign of this work of reconciliation than the Lord’s Table, around which we will soon gather – together with brothers and sisters from around the globe.

The Lord’s Table is one of two important markers of God’s reign. The other is baptism. As Mark Toulouse, our tour guide puts it, "these two central sacraments of the church collapse God's time into our time and bring Christians to a firsthand encounter with God's grace in the here and now." Baptism gives entrance into the kingdom, while the Lord’s Supper anticipates the messianic banquet when the hungry and the thirsty will be satisfied. When we share in them, we declare that God will reign over all.

If this is our eschatological calling, then our prayer, as Disciples, should be: Come quickly, Lord Jesus!


1. Mark Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, Rev. Edition., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 127.

2. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998).

3. Tony Dunnavant, "Evangelization and Eschatology: Lost Link in the Disciples Tradition?" Lexington Theological Quarterly, 28/1 (Spring 1993), 51.


Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
October 5, 2008

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