Death and Resurrection
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13, (31-46)
Our New Testament reading today is from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia, a Roman province in the north of Greece. Paul had just recently founded the church there. Now he was in Corinth and received questions and concerns from the new church. Our passage today is an answer to one of these questions.
The early Christians, including Paul, believed that Jesus would return in their life time. How they expected this to happen and in what way Jesus would return is vague. But generally, they believed as some still do today that Jesus will come suddenly without warning with trumpeting and angels. Paul would modify this in his second letter to the Thessalonians to say that first the Antichrist would come … yet another somewhat vague notion. This transformative Second Coming of Christ is called variously, the “Day of the Lord”, the end-time, or the Parousia (which means “arrival” in Greek). What happens when Jesus comes is descibed in Matthew 25:31-46 that Jesus will come to judge, separating the sheep from the goats, and the righteous, i.e. the sheep, will inherit the Kingdom of God.
The parables in Matthew just before this judgment admonishes us to be prepared for the Second Coming. Since Jesus’s coming will be unexpected, it behooves us to live our lives as if Jesus will arrive this very day… for once Jesus arrives there is no going back and trying again.
So these Thessalonian Christians have been preparing for the Coming of Jesus and were expecting the Parousia any moment. They are impatient. They’ve been Christians just for a short while and already some of their numbers have died. Their deceased loved ones had also prepared for the Coming of Jesus by contributing to the building up of the Kingdom of God in Thessalonica. They were counting on all of them seeing the coming of Christ. But now they want to know if their deceased loved ones will also see the coming of Christ. Many in Paul’s time believed that death resulted in non-existence. They therefore concerned that their loved ones were cut off from Jesus.
Paul reassures them that their deceased loved-ones are not cut off but will be resurrected on that Day of the Lord even before the living join Christ “in the air”. This was the promise that the deceased also are embraced by Christ’s love and grace.
The implication of the Second Coming is that once Jesus returns the Kingdom of God prepared by the righteous will finally replace the present society.
But the Parousia never came. Here it is over 2000 years later and we are still waiting for the coming of Christ. The Parousia never came … or has it come … or is it coming even now?
I think there is a way to look at Jesus’ Coming that isn’t a sudden fantastic event that re-creates the world in the blink of an eye. I think there is a way to see the resurrection of the “dead” and the joining to Christ in our day. I think there is a way to see Jesus constantly coming into the world.
In past sermons I’ve talked about living in the Kingdom of God. We examined many of Jesus’ kingdom parables that instruct us how to live so that the Kingdom is among us. If we follow Jesus’ teachings of love our neighbors, care for the suffering and dispossessed, accept strangers, judge acts but not the person, speak truth to power with love, never act violently, and so forth, a little bit of the Kingdom emerges from our behavior and life style. Each such act prepares the Kingdom of God to receive Christ.
We should behave this way not to be ready for the Parousia, but just out of our love for God, wanting to return to God God’s care and grace. We do that by sharing God’s love with everyone, friend and foe. Our lives thereby our richer, deeper, and more fulfilling.
But there is always an unspoken hope that if enough people, whether they profess to be Christian or not, practice this Kingdom behavior, the world as a whole will be transformed from its violent, self-centered, power hungry and greedy way of living. The hope is that the world will finally at last become a place of love and care and justice for everyone. It sounds utopian. And I suppose it is. But that is what the Parousia is all about … that New Earth.
So we still wait for that to come (and next week we will talk about how to have hope in such a long wait). But even today amidst the chaos of our lives we can experience little Parousias where the “dead” are resurrected and the world is a better place.
I submit that when we enter into the practice of Kingdom behavior and shape the way we live towards the teachings of Jesus, there comes a time in our lives when we’ve internalized so much that we basically know no other way to be. We no longer need to resist the temptations of the world, because we are no longer tempted by them. Indeed, we reach a point where we can no longer justify or even understand how people can sucomb to the sins of violence and greed and hate and dominance. We are transformed. And that’s a parousia: Jesus coming into our lives.
This is not to say we would slide back from time to time and have our moments of sinfulness. We are human. We cannot be perfect. God doesn’t intend us to be perfect. But we always regret having slid back and we return to the Kingdom.
And for some of us, this is a resurrection from death … from spiritual death. Because some people can be so taken by the world around them that their spirits have become deaden. But then at some point in their lives they are given the gift of descernment, of revelation that there can be a better way of life.
For example, what if …
There was a man named Eb. He is a good, reliable worker and a good husband and father. He is a good provider for his family. But this is the extent of his world: work and family. He has made it his life work to make sure that he and his family our secure.
He works long hours, often during the weekends, to insure there is enough money in the budget. He is very studious about keeping track of his budget. As a result he has provided well for his family. They have a good home in a good safe upscale neighborhood. His children have gone to all the best schools. His wife works but doesn’t really need to. He provides all of the essentials and extra stuff as well.
They vacation occasionally together. But they don’t have an extended family or close friends. He and his family are an universe unto themselves. And so it is for him day in and day out.
Now he works in the City. In the morning he goes straight to the train and when he arrives he goes straight to work. He has no interest in the world around him as he walks the few blocks to work. Indeed, he barely notices his own neighborhood. He knows he and his are safe and that’s all he’s interested in.
And that’s his life and his zone of comfort. He is in control and strives to eliminate all the risks of living. He has money set aside. He has all the insurance you can find. He is a careful driver. He and his wife have raised two will behaved children, who are going to fine colleges and will be able to also live safe and secure and reasonably prosperous lives. All is well in the world … at least his world… or is it?
Eb took no interest in the world around him. His world was work and home. He was always on his cell phone as he walked and rode the train. He never saw the homeless on the street as he rushed to work. He never read about current events except where they would impact his narrow world. He cancelled anything that was not relevent to his world. So he missed the horrid damage of Katrina and the Haitian earthquake, the uprisings in the Middle East and Occupy Wall Street.
He doesn’t deal with immigrants so he has no interest in their plight. He has secured his home, so he has no interest in those who are losing their homes. He is a very good and esteemed worker in a very needed business, so his job is not at risk. He has no interest in the unemployment around him.
Indeed he not only has no interest in the broken world around him, he is not even aware of it.
Further he is so focused on making sure nothing goes wrong in his life and insuring his family is risk free, he has no interest in art, poetry, even music except as a background. He hasn’t prayed since he was a child. And if asked … but who would ask since he doesn’t get into abstract arguments … if there is a God and angels and spirits, he would say who needs them!
His spirit was dead.
Then one day at work he and his co-workers were called together. The company had overextended its finances in its rush to make a profit. They would have to start layoffs.
This hit Eb like a bolt of lightening. He was stunned and went home with great anxiety… he wasn’t so secure afterall. He may go in to work tomorrow and find its his last day.
He and his wife talked that night about what they would do if he loses his job and how to deal with the current Recession. For the first time he had to think outside his zone of comfort. They didn’t come to any conclusion.
But the next day as he walked from the train, he saw the homeless and the long line at the unemployment office. When he arrived at work, he was called into his managers office. To his great relief he would stay on and was assured that his skills and his hardwork was needed by the company as it worked to recover. The manager was optimistic and shared his optimism with him.
But going home that night, he knew he was at risk and that was never going to change. When he arrived home he announced the good news of his job security. He and his wife were releaved. But he told her of the homeless and unemployed he saw as he walked to work. They spoke about this and realize that if not for the grace of God that could have been them.
Then his wife told him about a friend at work who works with the unemployed. She helps them get back on their feet. She helps them with resumes, budgeting, job searches and so forth. She has coached some on presenting themselves to a perspective employer. Eb’s wife suggested he might want to help her friend on Sundays.
Going to work the next day he again saw the unemployment line. That night he asked for the friend’s phone number and volunteered.
The next Sunday he worked with a number of the unemployed. They were very grateful to him. After a few weeks at what now became his Sunday desk, one of the people he help dropped in and thanked him. He had a job with good pay and benefits. He didn’t have to worry about being homeless. Eb realized he had skills that could help other people outside of his family.
And it was like a light going on … he realized his day job was just that, a day job. That there was much, much more he could do that would make his family’s future better … and that it wasn’t just about his family. He could help the world however small his efforts may be.
And Eb’s spirit was resurrected.
Today we will be celebrating communion. The communion meal is a re-enactment of Jesus’ last supper. It is also a meal for today with Christ present. But it is also the Eschatological Meal – the meal we will share with Jesus at the Parousia. Today it may be that eschatological meal for you.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …