But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The last time I preached this passage was May 22, 2011. I remember the date, because it was the day after may 21, 2011- the day billed by many including Televangelist Harold Camping as end of the world. Camping had meticulously researched and decoded his way through the scriptures, reading the Bible in its most literal form, and calculated that the rapture- a futuristic event based on the very passage I just read to you, was due to happen May 21,2011 at 6PM. I titled the sermon, "We're Still Here." And I talked about how, though we profess not to believe in such literal readings of scripture, that we still look to the clouds from time to time, especially when a kind elderly gentleman siting in a worn leather chair by the fireside tells us goodbye for the last time over the air.
Now, 6 years ago, FBCM may not have needed to hear a message like that- but the people I was preaching to at the time had come from backgrounds or come from a church where the rapture was not only believed, but was talked about on a pretty regular basis. Anyone?
What exactly is the rapture? In Christian eschatology, (which is a fancy way of saying ' the study of things that will happen at the end of the world, or the end of human history' eschatology- the Rapture is a reference to this passage- specifically vs 17 when in the End Times all Christians who are still living will be caught up, or gathered in the air to meet Christ. The rapture is supposed to start off a period of suffering for those left behind; which of course are those who don't believe. This period of suffering is called the great tribulation and it will last a number of years. And then as the story goes, at the end of this period will be one final battle of good and evil, and then the world will end. (This is the very, very short version- but no kidding that sounds pretty scary, doesn't it? Well, maybe not if you are one of the lucky few who believed exactly the right thing- and then there is no suffering at all- you wont even have to experience death- they just get lifted off the ground and go to Jesus's' side.
Now before you start thinking, why is she telling us all of this, no one really takes this stuff seriously, let me tell you that at the 2011 rapture prediction, and at every end of the world and rapture prediction that has happened since, there are reports of people who have so much faith in Jesus coming back in this way, ad on these specific dates, that they sell everything- or quit their jobs, or mourn the loss of their children who, being too young to make a decision to believe in christ are surely going to suffer. People, intelligent people, buy in to fear- on all fronts, not just when it comes to their faith. We know that.
But when it comes to faith, we're told over and over by Jesus, not to be afraid. We're told to trust- and give our burdens to God, and to let God handle the tough stuff. We are told to trust in Christ, our hope. Yet, we read in the Bible about the second coming of Christ and we, like the early Christians, wonder about when and how that will happen.
So what was going on in the church at Thessalonica that Paul was writing about?
First of all, Paul and the early believers had heard of or seen first hand, the man, Jesus. The word on the street (and later on in scripture) was the Jesus had said he was coming back. The early believers took that to mean that Jesus was coming back soon; within their lifetime. So they waited, and they watched, and they encouraged each other to be on guard.
The problem was, that some of their friends and family who were also members of their churches, were dying. And they were concerned about what was going to happen to them when Jesus returned… would they be 'in' on eternal life since they were already dead? Understand that the early church, and especially the ones who were formerly Jews, like Paul, had no experience with believing in an afterlife. Eternal life meant living in full community with one another... there was no hope of resurrection- This was a brand new thought to them; for them, death held no hope, of being with God- it was the end. So as they saw their friends die, they asked legitimate questions. And Paul, in this letter, was trying to give them an answer.
Remember also, that Paul’s letters were originally meant to be heard- they would be read out loud by a messenger. SO no doubt he wanted to use lots of images that would stick with them after the letter was read. And Paul does it really well- he assures the Christians of Thessolonica, 'We don’t live like those who have no hope'! “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) In other words… Don’t worry about your friends who have died… when Jesus comes back, they are 'in' on it too…
“15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.” (we’re all going together, and here’s how it happens… “16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
And Jesus would come back the same way they had seen him disappear- with clouds (which was also quite common throughout the OT and other NT scriptures for Gods to come in or on clouds) and Jesus will be shouting (all will hear it) and there will be a trumpet (also an announcement of royalty). And, if you happened somehow to have been oblivious to all of that, Paul says, you still don’t have to worry. Because Jesus will take everyone, the dead and the living, right off the ground to meet him! And everyone will be with the God forever. Paul uses this beautiful, loud imagery, not as a fear factor to get folks to believe, but as a reassurance that everyone will be taken care of; the living and the dead. That when Jesus is ready to come back, God will redefine time as we know it and redefine life as we understand it.
In fact the rest of the letter talks about how we won’t know when Jesus is coming back, (in fact, when Jesus himself was asked when the end of the world was, he said HE didn’t even know- he said that is something that only God knew) but that Jesus’ return is not something to fear!
Paul does say that we are to live, not in fear like people in the dark; groping and wondering and unsure- but as children of light. In other words, we can live every day like it’s the day that Jesus might come back- sure ourselves of God’s love… sure that nothing can separate us from that love… we can reassure each other, love each other; in fact Paul tells us to encourage each other with these words.
That we can live out what God has for our lives; period- that we don’t have to do anything extra to prepare; we don’t have to be frightened by people who are trying to convince us that the end is near… we don’t max out cards or sell all our stuff, or say last minute begging prayers in the hopes that we or our loved ones won’t be condemned to hell. Jesus didn’t come for us to live in a spirit of fear- he never motivated by fear- but he did come to bring and he left us with peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27 NIV)
Sow hat do "we" believe? Because we've come from so many different places and so many different theological backgrounds- some of us might believe in the actual second coming of a physical Christ some of us believe that the second coming was Jesus giving to Holy Spirit, some believe that we are the second coming of Christ- that we are Christs hands and feet in the world.... its ok wherever you are... wherever you've come from... your theology is an every growing, ever changing, ever shaping thing. As you grow in discileship and folowing in the ways and teachings of Jesus, you are bound to change how you see God as you allow the spirit to move in you and are obediant to what God wants you to do...
oh wait, i guess i need to stop a second cause i used that word... obedient... that's not so popular in many circles these days. We don'tGod loves you. God loves you. God loves you. I say it to you every week and I'll continue to say it, because it's the only thing you have to really believe in order for your life to be changed. We can talk about second comings and I know this month we are talking about stewardship, and there are election results to consider and social justice causes to take up and so many poor to care for and hungry to feed- there is so much work to be done to change the world but all of that comes in response to the truth that God loves us- that God has a hope for us- a plan for us- the God has desires for us.