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Perhaps it is providential that the lectionary Epistle reading is this marvelous brief lesson in Christian doctrine from I Thessalonians about death and hope. Truth is, no matter what Sunday it is, death is a constant companion. As Tennyson said, "Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break."
"Brothers...and sisters...we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope." What prompted this little lesson? No doubt, the fact that the Second Coming had not come yet. You see, the early church was anticipating the imminent return of the risen Christ. Indeed, some Christians had even quit work, were waiting around idly for the glorious appearing, had exhausted their funds, and were now depending upon the generosity of the church to support them day to day. It grew to be such a frustration among that little faith community that Paul would be prompted to write, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."(1) With the delay in Christ's return, life was keeping on keeping on, and, since death is a part of life, death was keeping on keeping on too. It made grieving family and friends wonder what was to become of believers who have "fallen asleep." Are they going to miss out?
The first thing the apostle instructs is do not grieve as those "who have no hope." He does not say do not grieve. Grief is one of God's good gifts to help us deal with painful events. Anyone who has ever shed tears of sorrow knows what a wonderful catharsis a good cry can be. In fact, those who refuse to grieve appropriately can do themselves severe psychological damage. In the congregation in which I grew up, there was a wonderful lady who for years and years taught the kindergarten class in Sunday School. Her husband taught one of the adult classes; one of her daughters was our Senior Hi leader. The husband died suddenly - heart attack. Miss Emma refused to cry; she was convinced that weeping would not be a proper witness to her Christian faith. She believed in life after death; she was confident that, one day, in the sweet bye and bye, there would be a wonderful reunion. So, no tears...none. That proved to be such a strain that her mind snapped. She spent the last years of her life in a State Hospital. So sad. No, Paul does not say do not grieve, but rather, do not grieve as those who have no hope.
What hope? Listen again: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again..." That is the basis of our faith. Death - the event that elsewhere Paul called the final enemy - did not have the final word with Jesus. "...and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." Death did not have the final word with Jesus, nor us either. These friends who have died are not going to miss out on the glorious future that awaits.
The language that Paul uses to describe the day is magnificent. "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." Glory! The sound of an enormous celestial Reveille - as the old spiritual has it, "that great gittin' up morning."
Marvelous imagery. The trumpet - the traditional way to announce the arrival of a royal figure. The notion of "meeting the Lord in the air" speaks the language of power. The Greek word for "meeting" that Paul uses (apantesis) is used of a ruler paying an official visit or the return of a conquering hero. THIS particular dignitary receives tribute, not as he approaches the city gate, but "in the air," a signal that his dominion is not that of an earthly ruler. Unlike the Roman emperor, he is not in charge of particular territories. He is in charge of ALL territories.(2) POWER!!!
So saying, one word of caution. This language is poetic, not photographic. This beautifully evocative passage has been misused in recent years by what someone has called "prophecy-mongers." An unfortunate literalism about Paul's brief rhapsody depicting believers caught up in the clouds has become the basis for a lucrative industry about a "rapture." As I have explained to you before, this is a relatively new phenomenon in the church and is NOT traditional Christian teaching.
More than 400 years ago, in a time of even greater theological conflict about Christian teaching - the Reformation raging, people fighting and even dying in defense of their beliefs - two young men (one a pastor, the other a professor in the local university) were asked by their German Governor to put on paper just what Reformed Christians believed. They were asked to write in simple terms so the next generation, the youth, would not have all this trouble.
We still have the results of their work in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. It is called the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers that provide an overview of the faith. They are all helpful, I suppose, but for me, the very first question and answer make the whole thing worthwhile: "What is your only COMFORT in life and in death?" The answer:
That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who, at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins...that he protects me so well that, without the will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.My only comfort - I belong to Jesus, and nothing can ever change that...not even death. As we come to the Table this morning, "encourage each other with these words."
1. II Thessalonians 3:10
2. Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Interpretation series, (Louisville : John Knox, 1998), p. 66