Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, July 16, 2018
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Grieving With Hope

1st Thessalonians 4:13-18

 One of the things we might find a bit peculiar about the New Testament is that, in a number of places, it’s pretty clear that many people expected Jesus to return very soon, often within their lifetimes.  That didn’t seem odd to them at all to think his return was very near.  It just seems odd to us because we are living more than 19 centuries later, and it still hasn’t happened.  For that matter, many Christians today think Jesus’ return is very near.  Maybe if we’re still here in a thousand years, people will look back at us and wonder why we thought it was so near!  

 Regardless, that was their perspective:  Jesus is coming back soon.  In the city of Thessalonica, though, it caused some anxiety.  People began to wonder what that meant for the Christians who had already died.  Had they missed out on eternal life?  Did it mean that they were somehow “not saved?”  

 So Paul is writing to reassure them about the Christian hope of eternal life and to correct this misunderstanding.  He begins:  “We want you to know what will happen to believers who have died…”  Literally he says, “to believers who have fallen asleep.”  

 “To fall asleep” was a euphemism for death.  But I think it’s a wonderfully appropriate euphemism because it explains something about death from a Christian perspective.  When a person is asleep, their physical body takes on a semblance of death.  It stops moving, restless sleepers aside.  But of course, they’re not dead.  Their mind is still active.  The non-physical portion of the person is alive and well.  And in a way, that’s how it will be for us as Christians when we die.  Our physical bodies die, but the non-physical part of us, the spirit, the soul, however you want to describe it, lives on joyfully in the presence of God.  

 By comparison, most people’s perspectives on death in the ancient world were not nearly so joyful.  Most people in the first century had no concept of a happy afterlife.  Most believed in an afterlife, but for the most part, it was a dark, shadowy, cheerless existence in the “realm of the dead.”  

 Maybe their perspective on death is the reason why grieving rituals in the ancient world were so intense.  When someone died, if you believed that they were gone forever, lost, then you would certainly grieve their loss.  Most ancient people engaged in prolonged grieving rituals that could last up to a year.  

 Conversely, many of the philosophers of the ancient world told people not to grieve at all.  Because it didn’t do any good.  They’re dead.  They’re gone.  There is no hope.  So no point in wasting any time grieving over them.  Again, not a very happy perspective.

 But we as Christians do not believe in a shadowy, dark, cheerless afterlife.  Like the Jews did before us, we believe in a future resurrection of the dead.  We believe in a bodily resurrection, not just a spiritual afterlife.  Many people believe in a spiritual afterlife, and not all of them are Christians.  For example, I have reconnected with a young lady I knew in high school through Facebook.  She did not grow up in a strong Christian environment.  They might have been CEO Christians, Christmas and Easter Only.  And since then she has obviously rejected any Christian background she ever had and has several times remarked about how odd we Christians are.  But she has also put things on Facebook about her belief in an afterlife and that the dead maintain a connection to us.  Does she believe in a spiritual afterlife?  Apparently so, but she is decidedly not a Christian.

 We believe in a future resurrection.  We believe that those who have died in Christ are with Christ in a spiritual existence, awaiting the physical resurrection.  The Bible seems to call this condition Paradise.  Jesus said to the thief on the cross who repented, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  

 Regardless what we call it, we believe the dead are not lost.  We believe they are with Christ and will return to life in the resurrection.  And we believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s assurance that the resurrection of believers will follow.  And so we do not grieve like those who have no hope.  We do grieve.  And we should grieve.  The reality of losing a loved one affects us deeply, even if we have the full confidence that they are not lost.  Failing to grieve can really be very difficult for us emotionally.  

 But we grieve differently as Christians.  We do not grieve like people with no hope.  We grieve hopefully.  We mourn the loss, but we remember that they are present with the Lord, and if we are faithful to Christ, then we will be together again.  

 “We tell you this directly from the Lord.”  It is uncertain what exactly Paul is referring to here.  He’s obviously referring to something Jesus said.  But what?  Because Jesus never said exactly what Paul says here.  It may be that Paul is referring to a saying

of Jesus that was not recorded in the Gospels.  Or it may be that he’s referring to a specific prophecy that came to the Church from Jesus after he ascended.  Or, what I think is most likely, Paul is referring to a number of sayings of Jesus.  Luke 22:61, Acts 20:35, 1st Corinthians 7:10, Matthew 24:27, 31, and John 11:25-26 all include pieces of what Paul is speaking of.  If you piece together details from a number of Jesus’ sayings, you find all the basic information that Paul is relating.

 The essence of it is that one day, the Lord will descend.  He will come with a shout, the cry of the archangel, and the trumpet sound.  All of those have the idea of a great announcement or the calling out of people or even a call to war.  And I think all three of those might be part of the idea.  The dead will rise, and together with those who are alive in Christ, they will be “caught up” to meet Christ in the air.  

 This verse is the source of our idea of “rapture.”  Rapture comes from the Latin translation of the original Greek for “caught up.”  

 As for the idea of “meeting Christ in the air,” one of two things may be in mind here.  Some people think Christ will take his people away from this world in anticipation of a “great tribulation.”  But that’s not necessarily the only way to read this verse.  It was a frequent custom in the ancient world that when a king came to a city, the leaders of the city would go out to meet him and then escort him back to the city.  So it may be that we are caught up to meet Christ and escort him back to this world to begin his eternal reign.  

 Which one is right?  Well, the book of Revelation could be used to argue for the first perspective.  But I think the second may be right too.  The great tribulation is not necessarily something that only happens after the “rapture.”  It can also be understood as the whole resistance of the world to the gospel from the time of Jesus to the end.  

 Does it matter?  No.  It doesn’t.  How exactly this world will end and the new world will begin does not really matter.  Because the essence of the message is this:  “Then we will be with the Lord forever.”  The rest is just details.  The message that is meant to comfort us is that whether we are “awake or asleep,” Christ is with us.  So don’t get caught up in the details.  People love to argue about the details of the end, but they are not what really matters.  What really matters is eternal life in the presence of Christ.  That’s the source of our comfort.

 It should be a message of comfort.  But you know; this should also be a message of urgency.  I can think of two reasons it should be a message of urgency.  

 First, we don’t want the people that we love in this world to be unaware of the message of the gospel.  We want them to share in the joy of eternal life with Christ.  So we should be urgent about sharing the gospel.

 Second, the thought of a future resurrection should not be an excuse for being passive in the world today.  I have a friend who denies the rapture.  He doesn’t think there will be such a thing, and he calls the rapture “pure escapism.”  I don’t think I agree with him, but I see his point.  We should not believe in escapism.  We should not think, “No sense worrying about this world ‘cause Jesus is coming to take me home!”

 You know what:  In a way, this world is our home.  Not as it is right now, but as it will be when Christ returns.  Because we Christians believe in the renewal of creation.  And we should be working toward the renewal of creation right now.  We should be spreading the gospel.  We should be working toward seeing lives healed and restored.  And we should be engaging in works of justice and mercy.  Someone once said, “When we get to heaven, we don’t want it to be a culture shock.”  In other words, we should be doing the things that Christ will do when he returns right now, with a sense of urgency.

 One of my firm convictions as a Christian is that we should have a good Christian understanding of the difficulties of this life before we have to face them head on, and that includes our understanding of death.  If we know and understand what God teaches about death, we can approach the death of a loved one or our own death with a very different perspective.  And today is a good day for us to think about this.  It is All Saints’ Sunday.  It is the day when we remember those from our lives who have gone home to be with Christ.  Today can be a day of mourning as we remember them.  But remember:  We do not mourn like people who have no hope.

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