First Thessalonians 4:13-18
13 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.
14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
15 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.
16 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.
17 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.
18 Therefore encourage one another with these words
“(13) 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.
(14) For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.“
These words from the First letter to Thessalonians, chapter 4, are powerful. The words are full of comfort and full of faith. The words were full of comfort and hope, and explanation, when they were first written, to address a serious concern: what will happen to those Christians who died before Jesus’s seemingly belated return to fetch his people. The words are full of faith. They echo the earliest statements of faith we know of: words with which the early Christians signaled their experience of who Jesus was and what Jesus meant for them, in this life and beyond: “Jesus, you are my lord”, “Jesus, you are the lord over death”, “Jesus, you have come to save me”, “Jesus, with you I also will resurrect”.
In our Ancient/Medieval Christianity class we have been on a highway of exploring the rise and development of Christian beliefs and thoughts. We have seen how the simple statements of faith came to be elaborated into official Creeds that more intentionally express the Christian beliefs about god and salvation and how all that pertains to us, “for me”.
What we have come to see is that, just like with the early Christians, our beliefs and non-beliefs, and our theological configurations and liturgical practices, all boil down to one central two-folded experience and ultimate concern: death and resurrection. Death and resurrection – concerns about the “normative” experience of death AND hopes about life eternal - the Christian message about Jesus is anchored with these fundamental issues.
As an “early mover and shaker”, 3rd century anti-Arian bishop Athanasius preached long ago, we all will die one day, with the same certainty that we all are born one day. As Athanasius, we have come to see death as the enemy to be conquered. With Athanasius, we also have hopes to live from here on. With Athanasius, we cage our eyes on what we see in Christ’s person and work – in his death and resurrection; and what we see in his death and resurrection is the embodiment and the reason for our hope, our trust, our belief, our relief that: death has been overcome, that light wins darkness and life overcomes death.
It reads in the Epistle to the Thessalonians: 14 “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. “
No matter who we are, what period we live in, what our beliefs and nonbeliefs are – our souls resonate with the promise imbedded in this Christian gospel of life eternal. Even if our reason is offended by such an impossible vision, our belief systems cannot prove or support such a crazy promise, we cannot “will” it to happen… on some level, we just know, we know, it is so.
This message and experience of the resurrection hope, I’d say, has been the main reason to be a Christian. Our early Christians reckoned, amidst all the difficult debates and identity issues, conversations and battles between different philosophical schools, cults and expressions of roman religiosity, that they got something special, something special that pertained to all seekers. They debated to find a wording to best share their experience of this hope to share, the hope they considered worthy to die for in arenas or worth taking to the end of the world: this outrageous message has become all too familiar to us – the message that in Christ there is no death, that there is no end to a life given by God, that there is life eternal, and that we are all invited and included.
Then there will be the times when we cease to be numb, and we do hear the power in the words when we most need them. It reads in the epistle to the Thessalonians: 13 “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.” 14 “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Words full of comfort and hope, words full of faith.
Why think of death and resurrection on this November Wednesday as we are gearing up for the turkey day and Christmas cookies? Well, the First Thessalonians text is too powerful to pass. And liturgically, this is the time of the year we especially remember the saints and the people we have loved and had to say a temporary good bye to.
If we only had a cemetery around the chapel so we could light candles, to remind us, of the flickering light called life, and of our hopes for eternity. Those kind of concrete things and rituals help our weak faith and they carry our memories that are part of the resurrection hope – memories that keep us connected to those who have gone but not ceased to exist for us – this we know in our souls. Through the agony of death and through our ontological disbelief about the finality of death, we are, somehow, comforted with the resurrection hope.
Last summer someone very dear to me got very ill, and she died.
(When this was happening, I remember thinking: there is so much here to preach about, but wasn’t sure if I should or could. But then: the epistle text for today is what it is and it happened to be my turn to preach today so, one has to do what one has to do.)
She who died was a very dear person to me, and instrumental in many ways. So, I want to share a couple of moments from her journey to eternity, because I believe they are helpful and speak the gospel to us, with the epistle text for today, and because she would have been ok with that that and felt, as a lay woman, tickled for the opportunity to preach. She would have done it with great wit. She had a lot to teach. She was my teacher when she lived. She continues to be my teacher in her death.
A few weeks before her death, while still at home, she spent much time in a wheel chair, sitting by the porch, thinking, and looking outside, amused by the wooden decorative bird whose lifeless wings were flapping in the wind, while saddened by the weakening of her own wings. I got a few glimpses of her looking out from her porch door, while sitting in her wheel chair and being caressed by the midsummer late night sunlight, looking somewhere far far away, looking into somewhere where she in her heart knew she was going and where I could not yet see. I felt as if I was intruding and witnessing something quite private: a child of God gazing into the eyes of eternity.
I had seen that look before. With my father. With my mother-in-law. Now with my aunt. We have seen that look, even if not recognized it necessarily, or we will in our time see that look many times – and we pray that we know when we are in that place, gazing into the eyes of eternity, when it is our time. When Jesus is coming to fetch us.
The words from Thessalonians… 7 “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.”
When the time came that seemed like the end, there was the typical chaos, confusion, grief, tears, denial, rushing around. It was in the midst of those difficult moments of preparing to say goodbye that someone said those words that stopped the world for me, made me fall on my knees, and call for Jesus. The words were: “She is not that kind of a person.”
Those words were uttered, quietly, breathlessly, as a response to a suggestion that this would be the time to call the hospital chaplain. “She is not that kind of a person.”
I imagine such a comment and similar conversation or hesitation being not uncommon at all. If someone is not openly and actively discussing one’s faith, is not regular church goer or if one’s preferences for the “last hour” are not made clear ahead of time, we may hesitate and wonder: Would it be appropriate, would it be the time, to have someone come to proclaim the gospel of resurrection? It is as if we fear that such an act might offend the one dying or, God forbid, speed up the dying process.
If ever I had felt my theological and pastoral training was put to a test and called for, if ever I had felt that this was the moment to anchor on the basics of our Christian faith, it was this moment: to assure, to encourage, to strongly urge the grieving family to recognize the one dying as exactly that kind of a person who needed to hear the promise of resurrection at the time of her death – and to let themselves to be that kind of person too. “We all die one day, we all go through that” I remember saying, and “in that moment, we all need God”, “We all need God and God’s comfort when we die, and so do those who survive.” She is, I am, that kind of person. We all are. We all need Jesus.
The First Thessalonians says: 13 “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.” 18 “Therefore encourage one another with these words”.
After she died, and was cremated, it was time for the burial. I got a phone call, and I got pictures: something terrible had happened. The urn had broken on the way. In the mail. It had broken into beautiful pieces. The family decided to place the broken urn into the family grave in the cardboard box they had received. Their anger and fury helped with the grief, but the question on everyone’s mind was the obvious: what happened to her? The beautiful urn, the fox fur-coat she was cremated with, was it all spoiled because the urn was broken? Where was she? Did we fail her at her death, did the broken urn have anything to do with what “happened to her” in the other life? (Lutherans can be bothered by these questions too!)
If ever I had felt my theological and pastoral training was put to a test and called for, if ever I had felt this was the moment to anchor on the basics of our Christian faith, it was this moment: to assure, to encourage, to strongly urge the grieving family to recognize the one who had died as exactly the kind of a person who had need to hear the promise of resurrection at the time of her death – and to let themselves to be that kind of a person too and hear the impossible words about resurrection, again. “We all die” “We all need God’s comfort when we die.” She is, I am, that kind of a person. We all are. We all need Jesus, and thank God, Jesus has us all.
Ultimately, does it matter if the urn is broken, or if we are buried in a fancy casket that looks like a sports car, or if our ashes are spread on the ocean, or if we are buried by the roadside or in a mass grave without a gravestone? Of course not, any Christian would say. We say that, because of our belief in the resurrection and life after death. (And that is a relief: just think of the responsibility if people’s transition to eternity depended on us?)
The good news we Christians proclaim, the good news expressed in the First Thessalonians, is this: The radical message of Jesus, that he did conquer death for all humankind, that there is resurrection for all, that death would not be the end of it. That ultimately our ceremonies and actions and decisions, whether perfect or failed ones, would have nothing to do with it. Resurrection has to do with God’s act. With Jesus.
So why do we have rituals for burial and remembrance, if it doesn’t matter in the scope of eternity? Because it matters to us. Our ceremonies and rituals, just as our memories, are the glue that keeps us connected and as if within the reach of eternity and with those gone before us. We remember and celebrate those who have died and gone to Jesus before us because we have loved them and continue to love them, and because they have not dissolved and disappeared.
Experiences around death and surviving it are in a way proofs of the existence of the divine and of the eternal life. Our memories of the persons deceased, our continued love for them, our difficulty to accept and “experience” or get over their absence from our lives “for real” … all this in its own way points to the life eternal. On some level we know that death is only a temporary separation. That life does not end. We often find ourselves saying “I cannot believe she is dead” or “It does not feel real that he has been dead so long”.
These sensations, feelings, experiences, I have come to think, speak of the resurrection reality. Our disbelief in the face of death tells us what we know in our guts and in our soul: When we die, we do not disappear or cease from being. Something else happens: resurrection. Our ceremonies, our prayers, our candles, our graves, and perhaps most of all, our memories remind us and support our trust in this impossible grace: resurrection with Jesus.
To conclude, the epistle says:
16 “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.”
17 “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. “
18 “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”