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John W. MartensDecember 10, 2013

The Greek word that refers to Jesus’ arrival, most often translated as “second coming,” is parousia. The term was adopted by Christians from the common Greek usage and imperial Roman ideology of the day, in which a city prepared for and eagerly anticipated the arrival of a major political personage. This ancient data became known among students of the Bible through the groundbreaking study of ancient Hellenistic papyri by Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, published a century ago. If the arrival was that of the Roman emperor, the preparation of the city and the people would be magnificent and fitting for a person of such rank. Preparation would be made for great feasts, and all the leading citizens of the city would be arrayed in their finest to meet the emperor. It was a matter of great importance.

Adventus is the Latin equivalent of parousia. Advent is for Christians a similar process of anticipation and waiting, but it must also be a time of preparation. How do we prepare for the coming of the king? In Rom 15:2 Paul asks the Christians in Rome to seek the good of their brothers and sisters, writing that “each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” The church in Rome in the first century exhibited divisions between Jewish and Gentile Christians and the “strong” and the “weak,” and Paul instructs the church to imitate Christ, who “did not please himself.”

Paul prays for the Romans that “the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus.” The New American Bible translation, cited above, captures best the meaning of the verb phroneo in this context as referring to the need of the Roman Christians to “be of the same mind” or to “think harmoniously.” To prepare for the coming of our king it is essential to seek harmony.

Christians today exhibit various divisions that mimic those of Paul’s ancient church. Our divisions are between those of different liturgical or political commitments, not between Jew and Gentile; but they threaten our ability to “be of the same mind” or to “think harmoniously” as we prepare to welcome Christ. Yet we await and prepare for the parousia of the same king, the source of harmony. Paul’s call that we “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” is not a simple proposal or suggestion, but the way of life that ought to set Christians apart as we prepare for Christ’s arrival. It is our task to prepare for the coming of Christ by inviting all into the kingdom, by making room in the house for those once excluded, which certainly includes our brothers and sisters from whom we might feel estranged or excluded.

Isaiah foresees the time after the arrival of the king, after the parousia, when the king has judged the poor with righteousness and “with equity for the meek of the earth.” This will be a time when harmony resonates through all creation, inaugurating a kingdom in which “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” At root, this kingdom destroys expectations that life in creation must be “red of tooth and claw” and offers a new way of living together. Isaiah says we “will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.... On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

Harmony in the household of God is preparation for the kingdom, and our duty begins now. For there was another aspect of the parousia found in the Roman empire. The New Testament scholar Brent Kinman asked in an article in 1999, “What would happen if the customary greeting were not extended?” He answers that it happened rarely because of the dire repercussions; but on one occasion when that happened, the Roman magistrate in question besieged the city “because it did not receive him properly.” Our ability to welcome each other in harmony is a necessary preparation for welcoming Jesus at his parousia

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