The Fall sessions of our Adult Faith Formation program have been a Bible Study focused on the Book of Revelation, the final book in the canon of the Christian Scriptures. The topic was suggested by some of those who participated in the Bible Study last Spring. Those folks are now regretting their suggestion because of the unusual nature of that particular Scriptural text. Much of the content of that book is a type of biblical literature called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic is foreign to most people today; it sounds strange, highly emotional, and overly dramatic.
The first reading and Gospel passage in today’s Liturgy of the Word are examples of biblical apocalyptic. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus warns his disciples that they will face persecution because of their faith in him. It is typical of biblical apocalyptic that such warnings about present danger are set within the wider context of the eventual end of history. In order to understand the meaning of Jesus’ references to wars, famines, earthquakes, and celestial signs, it is necessary to understand the historical events that gave rise to this particular instance of biblical apocalyptic.
The author of Luke’s Gospel was writing after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul and after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The Gospel author saw these tragic events foreshadowed in Jesus’ teaching about the cost of discipleship. In his final editorial product, the Gospel author addresses the intended message of apocalyptic to all of Jesus’ disciples who suffer for their faith. As all apocalyptic intends to convey consolation to the faithful, this passage of Luke’s Gospel intends to console those who suffer as a result of their discipleship.
At this time and in this nation, it is rare for anyone to be persecuted for being a follower of Jesus. We don’t live in place or time where disaster or intense social conflict is occurring, but there are examples of such troubles that have occurred recently in neighboring countries. You will remember the devastation caused in the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian. If you were speaking to the victims of the hurricane, you might want to offer consolation and hope. If you were a victim of such a disaster, speaking to your fellow survivors, your message of consolation and hope might have an urgency that couldn’t be fully appreciated by those who hadn’t suffered a fate similar to yours.
Biblical apocalyptic is a type of literature that grew out of personal experience of destruction, disruption, and dire threat. It’s quite dramatic, but for good reason. Biblical apocalyptic is a message of consolation given in response to persecution, threat, or disaster; the emotionally-charged nature of the message owes to the fact that the messenger is part of the population experiencing the destructive or threatening events. Biblical apocalyptic entails a first-hand experience of disaster and loss, interpreted through the lens of unwavering trust in God.
For those, like ourselves, who read biblical apocalyptic from outside the sequence of events that gave rise to it, there are several lessons to take away from this unusual type of biblical literature. Firstly, there is the obvious moral lesson about the obligation to respond charitably and generously to victims of war, disaster, and displacement. The restoration and healing promised by biblical apocalyptic can, and should, be provided by the disciples of Jesus. His ministry was addressed to the marginalized; our lives should reflect his teachings and actions.
Secondly, there is a lesson about faith to be learned from the events that gave rise to the apocalyptic literature in the Scriptures. Suffering, loss, and tragedy are familiar to everyone. Sadly, everyone experiences sorrow and loss. Not everyone experiences life-threatening disaster, but even minor tragedies can pose challenges to one’s faith and hope. Biblical apocalyptic is a reminder to be grateful during times of peace and joy, and to hold fast to those memories when tragedy and loss occur.
There is some disagreement among Scripture scholars about the nature of biblical apocalyptic. Some scholars classify it as a sub-set of Wisdom literature; others classify as influenced by the Wisdom literature, but belonging to its own genus of biblical literature. Regardless of how one chooses to classify it, apocalyptic intends to convey biblical wisdom. It is an emotionally-charged appeal to remain constant in one’s faith regardless of one’s circumstances.
Jesus summarized his teaching about constancy during suffering by saying, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Lk. 21:19) Faith is real only when it endures until the end; faith can only endure to the end when one keeps one’s attention focused on God regardless of immediate circumstances. Occasional religious sentiment is pointless. Turning to God only in times of trouble is faithless. Using God to satisfy one’s desires is idolatry. Biblical apocalyptic, like today’s Gospel reading, is a stark reminder that authentic faith must be a constant in one’s life; one’s faith is redeeming to the extent that it is as unwavering as God’s loving kindness.