Basic Christianity (4): Hope

. 6 min read

August 2017, Christ Mountain Top, Communion
to Worship, Setting the Table (Sunday) or Psalm 90 (Saturday)
Matthew 25.1-13
1 Thessalonians 4.13 – 5.11
Moment: Pounding the Pastor
Story of the 10 maidens, 5 wise and 5 foolish
      (who bring
no oil for their lamps)
Not about looking good, but about what we possess in
our hearts
Thessalonians 4:13
 we do not want you to
be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may
not grieve as others do who have no hope.
      Walking the cemetery at McKendree
      The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The most powerful memorial of the dead I have ever
visited: in Galilee at a school administered by Father Elias Chacour, a
Palestinian Christian and Melkite Catholic priest, in January of 1996.  It was a monument, as sparse as our Vietnam
Veterans Memorial, though much less beautiful. 
It was shaped as two arcs of a circle, facing each other, with benches
between.  They were crude, poured
concrete and the benches were simple slabs. 
One the inside of one arc was cut, in Hebrew, “For the Palestinian
victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” 
On the other side, in Arabic, the words read, “For the Israeli victims
of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Thessalonians 4:13
 we do not want you to
be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may
not grieve as others do who have no hope.
      It is a
very pastoral concern that introduces Paul’s next theme with his friends from
Thessalonica: What does it mean to be dead? How do we remember the dead? We
grieve a loss, but what kind of loss? We have lots of euphemisms: Pass away,
transition, in a better place, just a shell, really looks good. They are
designed to help us feel better, which is not a bad thing. But sometimes they
also help us to ignore the realities of what is happening, which is not a good
thing. The Thessalonians are grieving. We are not told why, we are not given
the story. Did a saint die of “old age”? Was one of the leaders killed by
Instead of euphemisms, Paul offers theology. He talks
about resurrection and rapture. Last week, we noted how common ideas on
holiness, even in the church, can lead us down some pretty destructive paths –
and that Paul’s theology of holiness was driven by love, not purity. This week,
we encounter a similar move.
      Most of the
conversation on resurrection at the last day, rapture, and the Lord’s coming is
designed to offer fear. Bumper stickers proclaim, “In case of rapture, this car
will be without a driver.”  If we want
fear-filled imaginations of the end, let’s talk about the science of global
warming and nuclear winter, or, better yet, let’s go to Hollywood for robot
domination, alien invasions, and zombie hordes. 
But biblical apocalyptic, while it may include the end of the world as
we know it, while it may include warnings against not being prepared …
biblical apocalyptic is focused on hope and comfort rather than on fear.
      Indeed, the
traditional text concluding each of the reading sections is, “Therefore,
comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18) and “Therefore comfort
one another and build up each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Part of the assumption in the question of the
Thessalonians is this: We know that we who are alive will be okay at the coming
of the Lord, because we’re alive.
(Duh!) But what about those who have died? They’re dead, so how can they be
exposes a lie that we have embraced in the church today: We think of salvation
as only after death. For Paul, and
for the church he planted in Thessalonica, that is clearly not the case. For Paul, salvation is now and it is not yet. It
doesn’t begin after death; it begins now. Let us never forget the words of
Jesus: “The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story
about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of
Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;
for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20.37-38). If God is the God of the
living, then why do we think that that death is required to enter glory, to
experience the promise, to know the full goodness of God? The promise of God,
the hope of the gospel, is for here and now, for life in this body – not simply
in the hereafter.
Paul’s response is two-fold. As to those who die,
there is resurrection. For those who live, there is being “caught up in the
clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (4.17).
view of “rapture” – headed to heaven
Wright, parallel with welcoming the victorious emperor
Paul’s response, laying out the hope of resurrection of the body and the rapture of bodies exposes another contemporary
lie: We assume that it is only the soul that matters, that the body – which is
assuredly “matter” – does not actually “matter”. Plato is the one who talked
about “the immortality of the soul”, an immortality separate from the body and
perhaps best expressed in the delightful film Ghost. But Plato was not writing of the hope of the gospel, not
offering theology in the Christian and Jewish tradition.
      If our soul
is the only important part of who we are, then only our souls are redeemed,
then what we do with our bodies is not significant for our spirituality or our
ethics, then Jesus did not become fully human. But our bodies are God’s gift,
each as unique as our souls are unique, and not easily divisible from the soul.
Our bodies accomplish things that matter for eternity – like weeding the
garden, doing the dishes, making love. They matter because our bodies matter.
Our bodies bear the image of God. And Jesus, becoming fully human, embraced our
human body with all its frailty and majesty.
      “This is my
body broken for you.  This is my blood
shed for you.”  This is what Paul returns
to as he reflects on the question raised by disciples in Thessalonica: What
happens when we die?  Well, remember
Jesus.  He died and was raised
again.  Even so, God promises a
resurrection for all Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
The second half of this morning’s focus reading, like
the story with the children, deals with readiness for the coming of the
Lord.  That day will “come like a thief”,
Paul tells them, adding, “You have no need to be reminded”.  It appears that their expectation was that,
at any moment, Jesus may return.  Paul
doesn’t tell them to water down their expectation.  He focuses on readiness, on living as those
who are “awake”, on all the things that they must be doing as vigilant people.  
readiness is difficult. Our attention wanders when all we do is wait and watch.
I used to struggle with my personal discipline when Robin was away. I’d be
scrambling to clean up the kitchen from my mess as she was walking in the door.
Clearly not ready, clearly procrastinating. She learned to love me without
judgment. I learned self-discipline.
      In 2005,
Robin went to Lesotho, Africa for six weeks to train the staff in two
government hospitals in HIV/AIDS care. I joked with Robin: “When you get home
from Africa, the house is going to be a total wreck.”  “I don’t care,” she said, “I’ll just be glad
to be home.”
      For all of
us who fear our failure to be awake and alert, to be ready for the day of the
Lord, to have oil for our lamps, Paul slips in this line: “For God did not
appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus
Christ.  He died for us so that, whether
we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” (5.9-10). Maybe all it
takes to be ready is to be glad to welcome him home – not just in that
surprising day of the Lord but here and now, for life in this body. Start
“living together with him” today. No need to wait on that gift, and whatever
gifts are to come on that day, they all begin with the gift we receive on this
“He is God, not of the dead, but of the living”

“Therefore, comfort one another with these words.”