Today’s reading from Thessalonians is one of the texts used to speak about the imminent return of Jesus and the end of all things – empire, suffering and persecution and hardship – when all believers would be united with Jesus. For this particular fledgling Christian community, their particular question was not based on fear about what would happen, but upon hope, since they anticipated that the return of Jesus would happen in their lifetime. There’s plenty of poetic imagery aplenty here with the angel, the trumpet of God, and Jesus appearing in the clouds, in the middle of the air, as Paul draws upon the imagery of his day and the imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures with which he was familiar. And through the generations, Christians have affirmed this hope that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’ (Nicene Creed).
For the early believers in Thessalonica, the question for them was, what would happen to those who had already died in the meantime? What would happen to them?
In the grieving process following the death of a loved one, there may well be questions about the welfare of the person’s soul beyond death, about what happens to them. I was interested last week, for All Souls Day/ All Saints Day, that in the Philippines people remember their loved ones by visiting the family cemeteries for overnight and weekend vigils. They bring candles and flowers and pay respect to departed loved ones. Offices and schools close as the usually silent graveyards become a party with food and music. It is an interesting national celebration that pays tribute to those who have died, but also displays an ongoing care for their welfare even in death.
It was all the more poignant for the early church community who wondered if the faithful who had died would miss out on eternal communion with the divine. They feared that separation through death may lead to eternal separation.
Grief touches us all, and in this text we need to see past all the apocalyptic imagery to see that the writer is seeking to offer comfort and consolation at the very point of people’s very human needs as they work through grief, and the loss of loved ones, and their eternal welfare. And each anniversary with those special memories toss those emotions up once again.
There is a longing for hope that will hold people in times of loss. We all long to hear a good word of encouragement. We long to hear ‘good news’ that lifts up our lives, a word that can sustain us, a word that can give us the vision and courage to make it through another day, a word that tells us that God is with us, that God does not abandon us.
The writer locates consolation in the heart of the Christian community – an ongoing expression of hope embodied within their shared community. Grief and hope intertwine – grief is recognized with integrity, and hope in Jesus concretized in how the people lived based on what they already knew about the life, death and risen life of Jesus Christ. The confident hope in Jesus is the source from which people may draw comfort, encouragement and faith.
I wonder what our community life here at Pilgrim offers in this kind of consolation, and companionship. There are many here with experiences of loss, grief and heartache, and who find courage to continue, and receive compassion and kindness, from within this community and its shared life.
I wonder in what ways you have received from the community, and how have you supported and encouraged others in their time of loss and grief and struggle? Let us affirm our best selves as a community, and strive to continue to develop a community life where all may flourish and find hope, even in times of sorrow and loss.
I’ll hazard a guess that for Christians in the 21st century, the expectation of Jesus return, or the rapture, is not primary in their thoughts. Yet, I wonder how you might respond to the fundamental question in this text: ‘what does the ‘coming of the Lord’ mean for us who are alive today?’
Rather than a kind of suspended animation waiting for the future hope to break through, or dismissing the concept altogether, we might reflect on the role of the Spirit who brings the new into our lived reality, into our specific historical, political and social context.
Can we hold hope for the new things being ushered in?
Who could have held hope long enough to imagine that the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down, for something new and life-giving to emerge. Today, November 9, 2014, marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall separated East and West Berliners for 28 years, from August 1961 until November 1989. Along its length were more than 300 watchtowers and thousands of soldiers, guard dogs, and a no man’s land. Today, Berlin is bathed in illumination, as lights in balloons have been placed along the entire length of the wall, which will be released today. Light, illuminating the darkness.
What are those things for which we long to see change in our world today. How do we hold hope amidst the despair? What are the ‘balloons of light’ we would seek to be released to illuminate the darkness?
Jennifer McBride writes: ‘whether God descends from heaven and meets Christians in the air, arrives in the Christ child, or continually breaks into this-worldly living through the power of the Spirit, this passage witnesses to the fact that God is a God on the move. God is a dynamic God, never static, never stale, but always stirring, always opening reality up to God’s unfolding promises and possibilities’.
May we lean into that hope. Amen.
Rev Sandy Boyce
Pilgrim Uniting Church
posted 09 Nov 2014 by Sandy