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Existential Rapture (continued) August 18, 2013

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Existential Rapture (continued) August 18, 2013

My lecture of March 6th reviews Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” but here I want to think about what I call the existential rapture once more. The reason that I associate it with Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” and with the ascending and descending angels, is because Luther finishes his most popular pamphlet associating them:

Christians do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor — in Christ through faith one ascends above oneself into God. From God one descends through love again below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love. As Christ says, in John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[1]

As you see Luther somehow associates the ascending and descending angels from the opened heavens with the ascent of believers in faith and their descent in love. Somehow I associate increasing angel power in a person through a higher ascent with the angels for their lower descent increasing our love and service.[2]

Why do I use the word “rapture”? It is a uncomfortable word for Lutherans, but it is firstly, because I think we should think more in terms of the Holy Spirit; but secondly, the Latin word Luther uses for the ascent is raptus, from which we get the word “rapture.”

Figure 1: The Existential Rapture diagrammed in a Chart;


And if you read his “Freedom of a Christian” you will see how the contents of the chart are all there, and even more, because I left out the bottom circle, “becoming the first born,” and note, as a daughter no less as high a status as a firstborn son).

The growth, development, maturing, or promotions from one stage to the next come from the tension of opposites: completely sovereign by faith versus completely enslaved by love and other tensions, like simultaneously being sinners and saints, the rapture and the groaning, those sighs too deep for words in the Spirit, and many more tensions.

If you look at the chart, the bottom line is significant, we are not just talking about a concepts, although thinking can follow the same development,[3] but the growth and maturity of a person. While in Jacob’s ladder Luther relates the ascending and descending angels to the person of Christ and the tension of the opposite natures, human and divine, in the one person of Christ. The two poles are not allowed to separate, nor can a unity without these tensions work.[4]

So often I have been speaking about growing and maturing into the full stature of Christ. I thought I would go back to the scriptural source for this aspiration. Surprisingly, ascension and descent and another hierarchy are right in that passage!

Look at Ephesians 4:7-13:

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift, therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself captive; he gave gifts to his people.” When it says “He ascended” what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

What an interesting passage. (I wonder if the whole of Ephesians would throw more light on our subject.) The same person is ascending and descending and each holy office, apostle, prophet, etc., is higher or lower. In “Christian Freedom” Luther did not use apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but first born, nobility of the spirit, priests, Christs and up into God. I believe he did so, because his focus was to declare the priesthood of all believers, so that laypeople have holy vocations very much like apostles, prophets, etc.

Listen to the sociologist, Talcott Parsons, who writes in The Evolution of Societies:

…the form of stratification within the medieval church, the differentiation between the laity and members of the religious orders, lost it legitimation in Protestantism. On the level of a way of life, all callings had the same religious status, the highest religious merit could be attained in secular callings. [He is citing Max Weber.] This attitude included marriage – Luther himself left the monastery[5] and married a former nun, symbolizing the change. This change in relations between the church and secular society has often been interpreted as a loss of religious rigor in favor of worldly indulgence. I consider this view a misinterpretation, for the Reformation was a movement to upgrade secular society to the highest religious level. Every man was obliged to behave like a monk [I add every woman as a nun] in religious devotion, although not in his [or her] daily life, that is, he/she was to be guided by religious considerations. A turn in the process which dated from early phases of Christianity, was to permeate all things of this world with religious values and to create a [human] city in the image of God.[6]

The stages in Ephesians are holy ones that are not yet completely “churchified.” The ecclesiastical ones of the Catholic Church go through a real change, for Luther does not only say that all believers are priests, but he maintained that coming out of baptism, every believer became more than a priest, bishop, and even a pope and that in your secular calling when you permeated it with Christian values of grace, faith, hope, and love.

Interestingly enough secularism is a child of the Christian religion and in Talcott Parson’s description, it can be more: the social expression of Christianity in our time. In Medieval and Early Modern history, the church distinguished between secular and regular clergy. A regular clergy person like a monk never had to do with the laity, while those who dealt with the laity in congregations were called secular priests. So our congregation and the expression of its ministry as it shaped the community would be considered the secular. Perhaps the term “secularism” could be used for those in society, who do not want Christian values nor that their society express and become shaped by them. And because only spiritual persuasion as opposed to coercion was the ideal that Luther’s Reformation strove for, a secular neutral area for Christianity was necessary to accept or reject the faith. We need the freedom to make a choice, but also the freedom of the context in which to make it in. That context is provided by the Christian secular.

The following is an example of the secular expressed at a very high level of religious values. I know a pastor’s son who will not go to church, who is a musician, and who has opened up two vegan restaurants with a partner and only hires musicians, giving them a livelihood and allowing them to use the restaurants as the base from which to go on tours and do their gigs. They make sure their music is non-commercial, they still make phonograph records instead of using computer CD’s and all his help call him Dad. In many ways I could show how he illustrates taking these restaurants to the highest religious level. Let me just include one: the tip jar is not only for the waiters to the neglect of those in the kitchen in back and those who buss the tables. The jar is equally shared by all. And they all have to work at converting carnivorous Southerners not only into vegetarians, but even vegans!

From the Ephesians passage, seeing that our becoming Christs continues the incarnation, in which the angels, according to Luther are descending and ascending from God in heaven to the humble birth of a baby here below, we too grow into the measure of the full stature of Christ that God gives us the grace to attain. It says,

“He ascended” what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth? [Christ] who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things.

So in the growth of ourselves as persons, in continuing the incarnation by the grace of God, we have a deep self and an extended social self. In terms of the deep self, how low can you go? Or in the words of the BeeGees song, “How deep is your love?” In thinking of our deep self just let me remind you of the iceberg metaphor. Like a grapefruit, there is so much more to us, than meets the eye. We have to delve far below the surface of life and become the deep selves that help our whole community rise, like those two vegan restaurants.

In the extended social self, we really can have a boat-load of people in us when Christ’s descending and ascending becomes all in all. The church is not a house, but all the members who live in your hearts inside you, when you say, come into my heart Lord Jesus there’s room in my heart for you. And that goes for your community and your neighbors on your street as well.

We become far more aware of ourselves under the surface when we become deep listeners, active listeners. We have to listen the Gospel and not only preach it. When we listen and hear what people are saying, really hearing who they are, with all their cries for help, and all jubilation in having this gift of life, then we can also descend and ascend with the angels in the existential rapture that Luther describes, becoming promoted from only taking care of ourselves, to supporting a family, to becoming a pillar of our community or even the mayor, or like our wonderful Governor Jerry Brown, or like President Obama, or our wonderful First Lady, Michelle, and even John Kerry, who is trying to make peace  between the nations. We need to pray for them and we need to ask God for the gifts of grace to follow after becoming Christs for our neighbors.

[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, page 90.

[2] Also see the metaphor of the magnitude of stars and the brightness of the shining saints in the previous lecture.

[3] Hegel’s dialectics, for example place the thesis into tension with its antithesis bringing about a synthesis. This is the logic of life and thought of growth and development. Paul Recoeur makes the Hegelian dialectic more comprehensive by using the terms “orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.” Sometimes he uses “displacement” for “disorientation.” I first learned of Recoeur’s terms from Walter Brueggemann’s classification of the Psalms: in “Psalms and the Life of Faith,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 17(1980), 3-32.

Another interesting association in the development of thought can be found in Gerard Caspary, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) pp. 109-24. Caspary worked with non-lineal, internal, symbolic, monastic thought that preceded Scholasticism. The tension between polar symbols brought out deep meanings. For a Biblical example: “Your eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, then your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, then your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mat 6:22-23.) See an interesting diagram illustrating the symbols of light and darkness, good and evil that Prof. Caspary presented in class:

Figure 2


[4] Heinz Cohut in his Self-Psychology places two poles in the mystery of the self, one for mirroring and one for merging with the “tension arc” for action emerging from them. See Ernest Wolf, Treating the Self: Elements of Clinical Self Psychology, (New York: The Guilford Prss, 1988), p. 50.

[5] Parsons is not well informed here, because he never left the Black Cloister, but just stopped getting the tonsure of a monk and being a monk. All the other monks left the cloister, while he and Katie married in it and boarded students and religious and other refugees. The table talks came from the students taking notes for every word he said.

[6] Talcott Parsons, The Evolution of Societies, Jackson Toby, ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977),pp. 132-33.


Written by peterkrey

August 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

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