A sermon preached at Hebron United Presbyterian Church (NY), November 15, 2020
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
If you heed the dire warnings of social media—and some conventional media outlets—you will know that we are living in the end times, for the end of the world as we know it began on November 3rd. If not the end of the world, then we are living the end of democracy. Depending on what political perspective you’re reading at the time, the end of our country (or the world) is coming as a result of encroaching socialism or persistent fascism. Be vigilant, for you know not what day the end will come, but it is coming!
This kind of dire prediction of the cataclysmic end of human history is called apocalypticism, and though the Bible didn’t invent apocalypticism, it contains a bunch of it. Some of the Old Testament prophets engaged in that end-times talk, and of course the Book of Revelation is all about the end of human history, the final battles between God and Satan, and the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom. The earliest generation of Christians thought this end of the world was coming very soon. Jesus, the Messiah of God, had come to proclaim the nearness of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was crucified, but he rose from the grave as a testament to God’s power to save. And then he ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, promising to come again to usher in God’s final Kingdom on earth.
The biblical idea of forbearance is an underappreciated metaphor for divine grace and an underutilized concept for capturing how Christians ought to replicate that grace in the project of living together in community. To be sure, not much has been made of this idea in classical or contemporary biblical commentary. In his commentaries on Ephesians and Colossians, for instance, John Calvin leaves the term “forbearance”—the Greek anecho meaning “to bear with” or “to hold up”— without comment, skipping past it on his way to elucidating other parts of the passages where it appears (Eph. 4:1–3 and Col. 3:12–14). Similarly, most modern commentaries do not linger on the idea of forbearance as the linchpin for these passages.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its current unpopularity is that the term sounds like a call to yield, which unsurprisingly is not what people want to hear when they are embroiled in protracted disagreements over convictions they consider essential to Christian faithfulness. A couple of years ago, in the run-up to the latest denominational battle over same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the faculties of two seminaries—Columbia Theological Seminary (GA) and Austin Theological Seminary (TX)—issued statements calling for forbearance in the debate. Insisting that schism in the church is a “profound pastoral and theological problem,” the Columbia and Austin faculties implored their fellow Presbyterians to bear with each other in the debate over amendments to the denominational constitution that would allow ordained ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. In particular, the Columbia Seminary statement notes the way tag-words like “purity” and “inclusivity” have been weaponized in an increasingly hostile ideological environment. Calling on Presbyterians to repent of this hostility and work constructively toward a healthier future for the church, the Columbia faculty modeled this attitude by disavowing their own contributions to the polarization in the PC(USA). Citing biblical authority and denominational precedent, both statements argued that a spirit of forbearance, of “endeavoring to hear and take seriously the convictions of others,” was the only way to forestall further division in the church. Indeed, they suggested that a spirit of forbearance in this controversy would testify to the true source of the church’s hope, the One who calls the church together.