Pentecost 21: 6 November 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Christians at Thessalonica have been worrying Paul. He is writing after he has heard from Timothy that they have kept their faith despite facing persecution (3:1-10). His concern to address the issue of what happens to people who have died may reflect awareness that in the persecution some had lost their lives, although Paul does not say so directly. He does, in any case, want to offer words of hope and for this he passes on what appears to be early Christian tradition about Christ's return (4:16-17).
It is an extraordinary statement. Paul paints a picture of Christ returning with a loud shout, an archangel's call, and a trumpet sound. Possibly the image means that Christ does all three: shouts, speaks like an archangel and makes a blast on a trumpet. Paul would have been aware he was using imagery. Trumpets accompanied important events, especially festivals, and marked beginnings and endings. It was also common to imagine divine figures making themselves known with loud shouts, especially in the wider religious world of the time.
This colourful or perhaps, better, noisy spectacle serves another interest. Paul is underlining his belief that ultimately Christ will come to receive and care for his own. They will not be abandoned. Staying within Paul's framework of thought we can see that here, as in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul develops similar imagery, Paul expects to be among those still alive when Christ returns. So he imagines a sequence of events. The dead will be brought to life. Then those, like himself, who are still alive, will be caught up into the air and then both, the resurrected ones and those still alive will be taken off to be with Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians he defends his belief in future resurrection by explaining that it must not to be taken too literally. He is not talking about flesh and blood bodies, but about transformed bodies. People will be embodied but in a different order of reality. Such ideas have their roots in texts like Daniel 12 which picture the future for the righteous in a way that makes them seem like stars. It was common to believe that they would be embodied like angels. The preview of the climax of history which we call the transfiguration has Christ, therefore, transformed into this new order of shining reality. Handel has immortalised the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, which speaks of the trumpet sounding and our being changed.
It is hard to make much sense of such a passage today. We no longer believe the earth is flat or like a saucer; nor do we believe in an imminent return of Jesus, let alone in a form that would match Paul's imagery in any literal sense. Paul was wrong in his expectations. He died. 2000 years have passed. We now smile at the hundreds of attempts to revive belief in Christ's imminent return, even if we don't want to be labelled "scoffers" (see 2 Peter). It would be easy to walk away from such beliefs altogether. Is this the only way?
At a very basic level we might identify with Paul's faith in the following terms. He looks at uncertainty and adversity. He believes in hope. He embraces the imagery and poetry of his day. He probably did not have a clear definition of where the imagery stopped and where the reality started. In any case we would draw it somewhat differently. His hope was, as it were, held in solution in a beaker of swirling imagination using standard ingredients. In all of this he was conveying the confidence that all does not end in oblivion and certainly not in hopelessness. Ultimately that hope does not depend on images or sequences or explanations about how, but on the nature of God.
Even in the movie clip which Paul runs for us, the end is about hope in presence. Being present with Christ and this only has meaning in the context of the presence of God. In one sense, far from having a book of details, we have just one detail: God. But this detail has the contours we have seen in Christ and the story of his resurrection is the primary symbol of meaning that both declares him affirmed by God and presents a story which encourages us to hope beyond death and whatever else confronts us of such proportions. Thus Paul opens the door to his statements of hope by talking about Christ in 4:15. Christ provides an impetus for hope because we identify in him the contours of God as a God of love.
Even when we live with healthy agnosticism about the future, including post mortem survival, our faith remains grounded in the being of God, whatever that will mean and there we also believe we meet the one whom we see in the refracted symbols of Christ's impact and that one meets us. There are dreams and visions and colours splashed about the screen of our imagination, but it is not science and it is not knowledge. It is important not to believe the poetry; otherwise it loses its power. It finds its power when we live with hope and a sense of worth and do so with and for others.
There is a pastoral trap in the opening verse of our passage which if misread or misheard will inspire people to guilt about grief. "People who have hope do not grieve" - really? The text is talking about being able to grieve - with hope and not hopelessness. Hope does not mean we do not suffer loss, do not deeply miss loved ones, do not go through patches of Gethsemane or even sit sometimes like Job. But it is important to deal with the pastoral trap, because some people are waiting to "beat themselves up" and others have suffered much through naive notions about "happy" Christians. We need to be able to face pain, ours and that of the world. We are not good news for ourselves or for our world when we live in an artificially trumped up denial and this is even worse when it governs our politicians. Ultimately Paul's life shows that he's not holding his breath to get out of here, but that he has identified with the one who entered life's pain fully and gave his life - and found his life - for the benefit of all.
Gospel Pentecost 21: 6 November Matthew 25:1-13
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