'Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away...' -- Mark 13:30-31

For almost a century and a half, scholars have debated whether the historical Jesus actually preached God's kingdom among us right here and now or preached about its future arrival. Both opinions can be defended from Scripture.

But, from those same Scriptures, we can be fairly certain what some of Jesus' first-century disciples believed on the topic.

All experts agree that one of the most difficult and unexpected things with which Jesus' earliest followers had to deal was His "delayed Parousia." We know from the earliest Christian writing we possess, I Thessalonians, that Paul was convinced Jesus' Second Coming was just around the corner.

Paul still was hoping for His imminent arrival when, 10 years later in the late 50s, he wrote his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. He advised its unmarried members not to get married, because the time between then and Jesus' arrival was very "short."

Around the corner?
Sunday's Gospel (Mark 13:24-32) most probably came from the last years of this "it's just around the corner" belief. Though Jesus was still delaying, the "fig tree was about ready to bloom."

Mark might not be around to experience it, but he was convinced some of his readers would still be alive when it happened. His goal was to instill the faith of Daniel (Dn 12:1-3) in them -- a faith which constantly looked forward to God breaking into the lives of the faithful and delivering them from all their problems.

This hope for an imminent Parousia began to fade by the mid-80s, when Luke composed his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. The third evangelist seems to be the first Christian author to presume that he and the community for which he wrote would live their natural lives and die before Jesus' return.

That major change in faith automatically forced many Christians to switch their focus from the future to the here and now. More and more, they began to zero in on the risen Jesus' presence in everyone and every situation.

Within 10 years, John's Gospel appeared, featuring the novel theology of "realized eschatology." Events which followers of Jesus had once presumed would happen at the end of their salvation history were already taking place as that history was still unfolding. (Read the chapter-11 exchange between Martha and Jesus on the occasion of her brother Lazarus' death to surface an example of this new way of thinking. John's Jesus assures her that what she thought was going to happen in the future is already taking place as they speak.)

Right away
The author of Hebrews (10:11-14,18) may not have totally bought into John's realized eschatology, but he's concerned with making sure his community reflects on how Jesus' death and resurrection has changed how we live our lives here and now.

Whether Jesus returns or not, we -- unlike our Jewish ancestors -- no longer have to worry about "sin offerings." Our sins have already been forgiven.

Getting back to the historical Jesus, can we know with certitude what He actually believed and preached? Probably not. Experts agree He certainly mixed both the future and the present in His preaching. Though He might have thought a special future event would drastically change the universe, He was also convinced that such a change would begin in the way we lived our daily lives right now.

Perhaps some of us have yet to acquire that kind of faith.