Year A, Proper 27
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 8, 2020
The texts we hear in the liturgy in these last few weeks of the church year are strange to modern ears, as they talk about “the last things” using rather dramatic and fantastical imagery. In the three weeks preceding Advent, the Church invites us to in the liturgy to wrestle with this question: what does the coming of the Lord mean to us today?
For some Christians, Paul’s message to the church at Thessalonica explains a doctrine called “the Rapture.” The word Rapture comes from the Latin rapiemur which is the Latin translation of the Greek word that Paul uses in verse 17 to describe what will happen to those who Christians who are alive when Christ returns – that they will be “caught up” (raptured) in the clouds to meet with Jesus and those who have gone before. Some believe that this passage isn’t about the coming of Christ at the end of time, but is about a distinct event that happens before then in which all true believers in Christ will be snatched up to heaven, leaving behind those who are destined to live through times of calamity and war and destruction in the years preceding the Lord’s coming in glory.
Others hold that this passage is about the Second Coming of Christ, which we all profess to believe in when we in the Nicene Creed say “he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” Paul’s description of this event is quite dramatic: the Lord himself descends from heaven with a cry of command, and the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet, and all Christians, dead and still living, are caught up in the clouds where they will meet the Lord in the air (vs. 16-17).
What beautiful and dramatic imagery! But Paul is not giving us a description of what will happen at the end of time. He’s addressing a particular group of people in a specific time and context. The early Christians who heard this message believed that Christ would come again immediately within their lifetime, so much so that Paul had to remind the Thessalonians twice to keep their jobs and continue working. Expecting Christ’s return at any moment, they worried about what would happen to the faithful who had already died. What would come of these poor souls when Christ came back again?
It’s important for us to hear this passage in light of the early Church’s fear about what would happen to those who had already died. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” (v. 14). The physical resurrection of Christian believers is bound up with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, those who have already died will not miss out on the return of Christ in glory – they too will be there. Paul is emphasizing here the unity of the living with the dead.
Instead of focusing on the details of exactly when and how Jesus will return a second time, this passage is better seen as addressing one of our deepest human fears – that of being abandoned by those whom we love. It’s more about the Communion of Saints than it is about “the end times.” It’s ironic that this passage is, for some, a source for stories of children coming home to an unexpectedly empty house and being frightened that the Rapture had occurred and that they had been “left behind.” Rather than being about fear, this passage is about hope.
We live in a world deeply in need of hope. We live in a world where persons of color are disenfranchised and subject to continued discrimination. We live in a world in which some of our fellow human beings will not observe simple and effective public health protocols and wear a mask to protect others. We live in a world in which the most vulnerable are dying at an increasing rate of COVID-19. We live in a world where fear abounds.
In the three weeks preceding Advent, the Church invites us to in the liturgy to wrestle with this question: what does the coming of the Lord mean to us today?
It means a great many things – more than we can cover today. But one thing is for sure – the promise of the coming of the Lord give us great hope. Hope that we will be reunited with those who have gone before us. Hope that the gun violence will one day come to an end. Hope that wars will cease and there will be no more need to thank our veterans for their valiant sacrifice and service. Hope that each person will follow public health guidelines out of care and respect the most vulnerable in our society. Hope that COVID-19 will be eradicated and we can pack this place out again and hear the choir lead us in worship. Hope that the bridegroom will come and lead us to the heavenly wedding banquet.
As our burial liturgy reminds us, the Eucharist is a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. At this and every Eucharist, we are brought into the presence of the great company of Saints – those who are here with us, and those who have gone before. It is when the Church celebrates the Eucharist that we are closest to the dead. No matter how we may feel, in this liturgy, we are brought so close to them that all of creation seems to groan and long for the day when all will be made whole, when the endless violence will finally cease, when Christ will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, when the immigrant will be fully welcomed in the foreign land in which he finds himself – the day when all our hopes will be fulfilled. In this Eucharist, let us receive the Sacrament as a comfort in affliction, as a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fulness of joy with all the saints.
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!