Friday, June 22, 2001

Expectation and Hope

I originally posted this essay to the Christ Talk board, which succeeded UCMPage after the latter board's implosion.

Perhaps I am too comfortably post-Constantinian in my churchmanship, but I'm not sure those early Christians who expected the imminent return of Christ were best examples of Christians in their generation – even if they were in the majority in some places at some times. It reminds me too much of the cults whose members sell all their worldly goods and retreat to await the end of the world.

Instead of forming expectations about Christ's return and then living our lives contingent upon our expectations, should we not be prepared for all possible contingencies? Christ has this habit of not conforming himself to our expectations . . . Perhaps the only thing we should count on is that he will surprise us.

I think St. Paul exemplified such an approach, in a different context, when he said, "Whether I live or whether I die, then, I am Christ's."

However, I think the key question is neither expectation nor preparation, but hope: Do we truly hope for Christ's return? Do we join the early Christians in crying, "Maranatha"? When we pray, "Thy kingdom come," do we mean it?

It is hard for us to wish for Christ's return. The prophets warned that the day of reckoning would not be what their hearers wished or expected – that they would suffer – that one has to be pretty bad off before he can count on his condition being improved by God's judgment. Christ himself often said, "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first." Given our comfortable American lives, we might reasonably fear Christ's coming, rather than hope for it.

But most Americans look to Christ's coming with neither hope nor fear. This is exactly the sort of question that our consumer culture does its best to keep us from facing. The Establishment wants to keep the drones on their treadmills, working and consuming without thinking too much about what it means (or should mean) to be human beings subject to divine judgment.

American business has mastered the tactic of transmuting our spiritual longings into new sales opportunities. This not only makes a buck for someone, it also cons us into thinking that we have "made a statement" by the way we have spent our money. Thus, every sector of our consumer economy now has a special niche where the adjective "Christian" precedes the name of every product. We can now practice our religion by simply buying products bearing our own union label.

Eventually, however, the commercial anesthetic will wear off, and American Christians might then realize that they no longer have a stake in this culture of spiritual death. Then perhaps they will wake up and take up the Revelator's cry, "Come, Lord Jesus."