Did the idea of the second coming of Christ originate with Jesus himself? Or did it originate within the earliest Christian community?
One has to acknowledge that the idea of the immanent Second Coming of Christ was a major idea of the first generation of Christians.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest New Testament book to be written, Paul reveals a very strong belief that Christ would return in his own life-time. In one of his Corinthians Letters written not too long after, he even encourages people not to get married because in his mind the end was so close. But in later letters Paul seems to have modified his views on the matter and it receives less and less attention in his writings. In his later writings, instead of speaking of Christ coming again, he more and more speaks of his own death and wanting to be with the Lord.
We are therefore left with an important question: Did the idea of the immanent return of Christ originate in Jesus himself? Or was it an expectation of the early Christian community that they had then read back into the story of Jesus?
I would tend to agree with Marcus Borg who believes that the teaching on a literal second coming of Christ that would happen within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians was in fact an idea that originated in the early Christian community and not Jesus himself.
They had seen in Jesus the fulfillment of the promised Messiah they had been hoping for. But there was also a sense of in-completion. The promised Messiah was supposed to finally put things right in the world, and this had not yet happened. And so it was natural for them to believe that Jesus would return in order to bring his work to completion.
What Marcus Borg would say is that the belief in the second coming was then read back into the Gospel stories of Jesus, like our passage today.
It is important to remember that the four Gospels as we have them are not simply four eye-witness accounts.
Most scholars would acknowledge that the four Gospels were only written down between 40 and 70 years after Christ. Before they were written down many of the stories of Jesus would have been told and re-told in sermons and sometimes reinterpreted in order to communicate the meaning of Jesus to a new situation.
Analysing and comparing the 4 Gospels, especially the differences and discrepancies between them have led scholars to suggest that each of the 4 gospels were written for four different communities, seeking to interpret the meaning of Jesus for the unique circumstances of that community. From this perspective the four gospels are therefore not pure eyewitness accounts, but rather four interpretations of the life and meaning of Jesus.
While there is surely material in the Gospels that goes back to the earliest witnesses of Jesus life and ministry, there are clearly also layers of interpretation as well as ideas that reflect the understanding of the Gospel writers and compilers themselves.
Scholars like Marcus Borg would suggest that parables like this one we have read today, about the second coming of Christ, would most probably have been one of those layers of interpretation introduced by the writers of the Gospels.
Luke's Gospel, written in about 80-90 AD, would have been aimed at a 2nd or 3rd generation Christian community who were struggling with the fact that Jesus had not yet returned as first generation Christians had expected.
The essence of the parable is of a servant who thinks his master is taking a long time in coming back, and therefore begins to abuse his position and to eat drink and get drunk when he should have been on duty doing his masters wishes.
For a community who was beginning to question and perhaps even lose faith because Christ has not returned as they had first expected, the parable would have been a call to faithfullness and a reminder that even if the master is taking longer to return that expected, he could still come at any time.
For me, the biggest indication that that this parable is a major reworking by the Gospel writer himself, is that it contains imagery that could probably be classified as abusive and even violent as it refers to servants being whipped and beaten, and even, being cut to pieces. This kind of conduct would today be labelled physical abuse and assault and a gross human rights violation.
This language I believe and out of character with the overall teachings and conduct of Jesus himself. Either Jesus has a split personality and is capable to swinging from positions love, kindness and forgiveness, to ideas extreme and brutal violence, or one might conclude, these verses are the work of the gospel writer. As some would say, the worker of a lesser mind than the mind of Christ.
If the community of Luke were struggling with the fact that the anticipated Second coming of Christ had not yet happened, what are we to do then 2000 years later and Christ has still not returned as the first generation of Christians expected in their own lifetime? Do we just ditch the whole idea of the Second Coming of Christ?
I believe that within every human heart there is a deep longing and a deep hope that one day this world will be put right. That the injustices of the past and the present will somehow be resolved. And I do believe that the overall thrust and meaning of the Christian message speaks deeply to that hope, the hope, that as one of Paul writes in one of his letters to the Corinthians, that one day, God will be all, and in all, even if at the present it does not seem that this is the case.
And so, while I would not take Paul’s language in his letter to the Thessalonians literally, in a different way, I still believe in the second coming of Christ. I don't believe that literally Christ will come down in the clouds with a trumpet blast. But I do believe that the God who has been made known in Christ, will one day bring all things to completion. That as Rob Bell would put it, in the end, Love will win.
I would also agree with a friend of mine who used to say that in a very real sense, we are the second coming of Christ. Christ does indeed come again into this world, through each of us, in the lives of every person who seeks with faithfulness and sincerity to live out the teachings and love of Christ in this world.
Whenever a person acts in a completely selfless way in this world: Christ comes again.
Whenever a person acts with a heart of great compassion in this world: Christ comes again.
Whenever a person acts with real understanding (what we might call wisdom): Christ comes again.
Whenever a person acts with humility, kindness, generosity or honesty... in this world: Christ comes again.
And so I am a believer in the second coming of Christ. Not perhaps as many fundamentalist Christians would believe it.
And if God’s love as revealed by Christ really is at the heart of reality, then I do believe that one day, in God’s love, everything will finally be put right in this world and in this universe and that in the end every tear will be wiped away.
I need to be careful that I do not go on too long. But I do wish to make reference to that verse in which the unfaithful servant will be cut to pieces and assigned a place with the unbelievers. As I said earlier, I believe that these are the words of a lesser mind, and not the mind of Christ himself. But I believe that the mind of Christ can help us to re-interpret those words to find a deeper meaning to them.
To be cut to pieces is a powerful symbol of a life that is painfully broken and fragmented. Whenever we lose awareness of our Centre, the Divine Centre within us, and get lost in the world of outward things, our lives become fragmented and fractured. It can sometimes feel like we have been cut into tiny painful pieces.
And so the central message of this passage remains for us in symbolic imagery: the call to be watchful.
And so, this week, when you are beginning to feel fragmented, as though you have been whipped and beaten and perhaps cut into pieces, may is be an invitation to make time to discover our centre again in God, that centre that can help us to return to a sense of wholeness and one-ness. And when we do so, may it also be that Christ might come again into this world through us, through our hearts, in our words and through our actions. Let us pray.