Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Preacher: Emily Hayes
So, this is our third week reading through the book of 1 Thessalonians. I will begin with a quick recap as I do, for those who have not been here or for those who have just forgotten.
1 Thessalonians is a letter attributed to Paul (but the opening says it is also from Timothy and Silas). Scholars believe it was Paul’s first letter, written to the church of Thessolonica around 50CE.
We began with Thessalonians chapter 1. In this opening Paul, Timothy and Silas give exuberant thanks for the Thessalonians. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, this letter is not delving into controversies, there are no particular conflicts in the church to address. Rather it about God’s good news that transforms the way we live. It is pastoral, warm and positive throughout though particularly in these opening lines.
In chapter 2, which we read last week, the focus moves to Paul and his coworkers and their leadership. And so last week we reflected on this leadership. In this letter the authors describe their leadership as
- having financial integrity
- as non patriarchal
- as collective
Paul, Timothy and Silas are eager to distinguish themselves from those who come with a pretext for greed and looking for praise. Those who sought to manipulate and dupe the population with trickery for money and status.
In a world of millionaire Christian influencers, tele evangelists and financial corruption scandals amongst our leaders and churches I think it is crucial we consider how this compares with Jesus and Paul.
This does not take away from the need to reflect on our own greed and relationship with money. Of course. But I do not think this means we cannot also call out excessive wealth in our Christian leaders as contrary to the way Jesus and Paul lived and called others to live.
Paul, Timothy and Silas also describe their leadership as gentle, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. This imagery I think subverts the popular notion that Paul takes a thoroughly hierarchical and patriarchal stance toward the churches.
And finally, in this chapter, Paul calls on all the Christians at Thessalonica to live a life worthy of their calling. It seems to me for Paul, Christian leadership is not something for the select few but for everyone. At a time when the church, but the society as a whole as well, is facing some particularly complex challenges I think we too need to have this collective mentality to leadership.
But now we turn to today’s reading from chapter 4.
The lectionary skips over chapter 3 which narrates the story of Timothy returning to Thessalonica after they had left, to find out about and encourage the Thessalonians in their faith. Timothy then returned to Paul and Silas in Athens with the good news of their growing faith and love which prompted them to write this joyful letter.
In chapter 4 Paul, Timothy and Silas seem to be addressing a question that was raised by the church in Thessalonica during Timothy’s visit. It seems likely that the Thessalonian Christians had not expected anyone to die before Jesus returned. However, they now have, and the community is concerned about what will happen to these people. The response is both theological and pastoral.
Clearly, 2000 years later, most us no longer have an expectation of Christ’s imminent return. However, I think this letter still has something to say to us. In this time of leading up to advent, when we will again enter the season of preparing for Christs coming as a baby, the lectionary invites us to ponder what the return of Christ means for us?
This is the question I want to delve into today but first I will just respond very briefly to some of the well known controversies that surround this text.
It is one of the central proof texts for the idea of the rapture. Most of you are probably familiar with this idea but a quick recap, the doctrine of the rapture teaches that before the actual return of Jesus Christ, Christians will taken away from the earth. This taking will then be followed by 7 years of tribulation for those left behind before Christs actual return. It is actually relatively new idea in the history of Christian thought. It is mostly attributed to a man named John Nelson Derby who lived in the 19th century. More recently, it was popularised by the “left behind” books and movies, written between 1995 and 2007.
A very large number of Biblical scholars have disputed this idea as a serious distortion of Scripture. NT Wright is arguably its most well known critic. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright presents a forceful counter to a “rapture-based” view of heaven where the earth is left behind. He says,
“When Jesus comes back, it’s not to snatch people away from earth but rather to transform earth with the life of Heaven and to transform us as well. He doesn’t come back to take us away, but to heal the world and to heal and transform his people.”
The purpose of this letter is not to give a detailed timeline of end-time events, rather it is an assurance to the Thessalonians of resurrection and reunion.
And so as we ponder what the return of Christ means for us today, we too should not to become consumed by speculation on specific timelines and events in the future rather we should be considering how we might yet be part of bringing God’s new creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.
As long term members will know I am a bit of a fan of the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union. And I think this Basis gives a beautiful description of this.
The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.
The core message of this passage is hope. In it Paul and the others address one of our deepest fears – that of being separated from our loved ones. Thus it is rather ironic that this passage, written to encourage people with the hope of being reunited with their loved ones, should prove the source for stories of children coming home to an empty house and being frightened that the rapture had occurred and they had been left behind. On the contrary rather than grieving, “as those without hope” Paul present a vison which enables us to stand up to fear and anxiety with hope. Something so desperately needed in our world today.
This is also the beautiful vision of revelation 21, with which I will finish.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”