“Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.”
Revelation 1:7, CEB
Advent is the season when Christians anticipate the Second Coming of Christ…yes, Christians believe that the Jesus who came 2,000 years ago will come again. We say it every time we take Holy Communion as we proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” which is a take on Revelation 4:8, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is coming” (CEB). Charles Wesley’s hymn, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending, (1758, Wesley altered the lyrics from John Cennick’s hymn of the same name), is 5 verses richly elaborating on Revelation 1:7, and 5:11-13. But Christians are all over the map when it comes to interpreting what we mean by these claims. Popular Christianity may lean towards a Left Behind model of Christ’s return, searching for “signs of the times” that might indicate an imminent return of Jesus, where the faithful will be raptured (suddenly disappear), and the unfaithful doomed to a life of a sort of hell on earth. Another extreme are Christians who believe the world will end by natural causes, with no Jesus appearing in the clouds. You know, the sun explodes or everybody died in nuclear warfare….Christ doesn’t “return” in a physical way, so much as, oh crap, everything’s going to end.
Charles Wesley was influenced by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and believed that our work in this life was to strive to make this world more like the perfect world (the New Jerusalem) God would one day make reality. While John Wesley had more of a love for this life, Charles (who suffered from pleurisy), had more of a desire to leave this life, and often dealt with spells of depression. But instead of just desiring to escape this life, Wesley did ultimately believe (along with Jesus in Luke 17:21) that the kingdom of God is here, within/among you. Some argue that Charles Wesley held a millenial view of last things, that Jesus Christ would return to rule perfectly on earth for a thousand years (see Randy Maddox’s excellent research at this link). What does seem clear in the hymn we explore today, is that Wesley, along with Revelation 1:7, sees an end where everyone must stand before the crucified Christ. For some, that will be a great joy because of the humility of Christ’s death for them and for all led to a transformed life of humility in service for others. For some, that will be a great terror because they spent their life crucifying Christ by their lack of concern for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner.
You see, the gospel has always been political, and it always will be. Because those who worship Christ worship a King and belong to a kingdom. It is the kingdom of the God who condescended to become one of us, to live among the sinners, to reveal that true holiness was found in grace, that mercy was always superior to sacrifice. It is the kingdom of the contrite, the humble, those who defend the weak. It is the kingdom that perceives the image of God in one’s enemies. It is the kingdom that prays for those who persecute instead of dehumanizing them. It is the kingdom that sits at table with those we don’t understand, that calls out the self-righteous all-the-while recognizing them as children whom Christ also died for. It is the kingdom that demands allegiance above all other allegiances.
Since the election, two of my closest friends had parishioners leave their churches claiming their sermons were “too political.” I can’t imagine they’re alone in that experience. Honestly, in those cases I think people were just looking for an excuse to bail on church. Nevertheless, we cannot talk about the reign of Christ without making the political assertion that the way things are is wrong and that the powers that be will be overthrown. When we read the Isaiah text that swords will be beaten into plowshares, we are making a political assertion that war shall cease under Christ’s reign. To believe in the Second Coming of Christ is to believe in a political claim that no one can escape the eternal judgment of the one who died for them…yet who also died for their enemy.
So before you make that next post or comment that sweepingly dismisses the person with whom you disagree, send them a personal message and ask them about their story. Get to know the Christ that is preveniently at work in them just like you wish they would get to know the Christ that is at work in you. Get to know the person Christ died for…yes, even the self-righteous buttholes. Work to build real bridges where people have real table-fellowship with real people of difference. That simply can’t be done over the computer. Then come back and post your stories about the kingdom of God breaking into this world…the foretaste of the return of the One who died for you and your enemy.
PS – if you’re not familiar with Byzantine iconography, the top right corner panel is my take on the famous Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It’s super creepy.