Sunday, September 13, 2015
I have no idea what my cholesterol level is. I don’t know what a healthy level is. I went to the doctor last month and my cholesterol was checked and I don’t even know the result was. I think if I had a real cholesterol problem I would pay a lot more attention to it.
The Christians in Thessalonica were thriving as a church, but they had a problem and it was not a cholesterol problem. They were not worried about levels that were too high, but rather too low. Their hope was threatened.
We’ve been studying the Thessalonian church and the letters Paul wrote to it in order to glean ideas for our church’s spiritual health. We see the two letters, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians as a prescription for life. The doctor’s prescription is to read 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, and Acts 17, the account of Paul beginning the church in that city. Read and re-read these texts, making sure you pray as you read and listen with a focused, receptive mind.
Along with the prescription is a therapy plan. This is not physical therapy, but it is analogous. It is a spiritual exercise, a discipline. We come to worship ever week, even when we don’t want to come. We come and are fully present in the family of God, the church, when we gather for worship. Make this time with your church family a top priority.
In addition to the prescription and the spiritual exercise plan, last week, we received last week two diagnoses. First, enter into deep relationships in the life of the church family, so deep that we take ownership of one another’s hearts; and, second, be mindful of the lurking enemy, the devil, who wants to snatch us out of God’s embrace. In a few weeks, we’ll look a bit closer at this threat. This morning, we’re going to hear about specific aspect of health that is essential for all of us – hope.
One important feature of the earliest Christians, those who came to follow Jesus in the first couple of decades after the resurrection, is their expectation. It is an expectation that’s profoundly different from what Christians expect today. Those first believers in the Jerusalem Church and the churches of Galatia and Antioch and in Thessalonica thought they would live to see Jesus return. They literally did not expect to die.
We do. We buy cemetery plots and we plan for our funerals. We have life insurance plans. We have wills – instructions for what to do with our assets after we die. These are means of preparation for something we absolutely expect to happen. I have yet to meet a person who lived as if she thought Jesus would come back before she died. And nearly 2000 years of history have shown the wisdom of this shift in expectation.
When Paul wrote 1st Thessalonians, the shift was in the midst of happening. We see from his words how his own expectations were adjusting to the reality that Jesus was indeed going to return, but as an unknown future date that very well might be after he – Paul – had died. He had to adjust his thinking and so did the Thessalonians.
A paradigm shift is always a crisis. Listen to this definition of crisis: “stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.” A second definition is a “condition of instability.”[i] The Thessalonians had lost their loved ones, and they believed those who had died would miss the coming of Jesus. A beloved grandmother; a best friend; a spouse of many years; a child who died of a disease: they would all miss the kingdom of God when Jesus returned to reign as Lord over all the earth because they were dead and buried. Reflecting upon this, the Thessalonians’ hope was dangerously low.
Recall the key virtues of discipleship Paul said Timothy had mentioned. From chapter 1 verse 3, he remembers the Thessalonians work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. These same virtues, ordered differently, come at the end of “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. “Faith, hope, and love remain and the greatest of these is love.” But, the other two, faith and hope, are extremely important for a follower Jesus. From 1st Thessalonians 1, we know the church had hope, but the glaring deficiency in their witness was the way hope was in decline.
Paul addresses this directly and at the same time gently. He tells the Thessalonians he’s going to inform them so they won’t grieve in the way those who have no hope grieve (4:13). He doesn’t specify who he means when he says, ‘those who have no hope,’ and we gain nothing by trying to identify them either then or now. The focus is on the Thessalonians and on anyone who is in Christ. We who are in Christ have hope.
Paul goes on to talk about resurrection with the promise that at Jesus’ return the dead in Christ will rise (end of 4:16) and meet him in the air and then we who are alive will also be part of that meeting. The Thessalonians are free to grieve. It is hard to see someone we love die. Death is God’s ultimate enemy and our Heavenly Father who loves us weeps with us when we mourn the passing of our loved ones. God remembers God’s own tears at the death of the Father’s Son, Jesus. God identifies with us in our grief and allows space for that grief. But it is not a hopeless grief.
In fact, Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is hope producing. Jesus is coming back! Your departed loved ones will rise to be with him. If you are alive at his return, you too will be at that meeting in the air. Paul concludes his thoughts by saying, “Encourage one another with these words.” As we have discussed in previous messages, his love for the Thessalonians ran very deep. In this teaching on resurrection, he wants their hope to match this wellspring of love and tireless faith.
In the opening of chapter 5, Paul reiterates a teaching that originated in the very first community around Jesus from the days just before the crucifixion and then was circulated through the first churches in the decade after the resurrection. Jesus gives this lesson himself. Read Mark 13 or Matthew 24. After the resurrection, Jesus will ascend and the age of the church will dawn and in God’s timing Jesus will return to gather all who have worshiped him to God to live in the eternal Kingdom of God in perfect fellowship with God and each other.
The key for today’s lesson and for Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 is the phrase “in God’s time.” Jesus said, we won’t know when. Jesus said that in the incarnation, when he lived his earthly life, even he didn’t know the times of God’s restoration of the earth (Matthew 24:36). But he did know it would come. Paul’s primary lesson in 1 Thessalonians 5 is “Keep awake” (vss 6-8). Live a spiritually alert life.
The good news is we have been given the tools we need to do this. It is one thing for the Bible to give an instruction. But can we obey it? Are we able? In verse 8 it says we have spiritual armor to equip us – the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation. There those three essentials are together again: faith, love, and hope.
Something important to note in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 is an observation from noted New Testament Scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa. She writes the Greek, the original language of Thessalonians, says in verse 8 “since we belong to the day,” in other words, because we are in Christ, we are already clothed with the breastplate of love and faith and the helmet of hope. My favorite English version, the NRSV, misstates this verse. When it says, “Put on” the armor it sounds like this is something we are supposed to do.
The verse is not saying that at all. In this verse Paul builds on 4:13 where he promised to inform the grieving Thessalonians whose hope was fleeting. In essence he says, because of Christ, you are already clothed in faith, love, and hope. We don’t have achieve these things. We just live in what we’ve been given. And the root of our hope is that we and our loved ones will join Christ in resurrection.
So today, faith, hope, and love mark our lives and mark our communal life. People in the world desperately need these things so it is with faith, hope, and love that we build one another up and encourage those from outside the church who come in to see what’s happening here. Paul concludes this section of chapter 5 the same way he ended chapter 4. “Encourage one another and build up each other.”
A key to maintaining high levels of hope is for us to remind each other. We’ve had two deaths of long-time church members this summer: John Charles and Donna Allgood. These losses hit those members who were especially to one or the other of these two particularly hard. In a patient, gentle way that allows space for grief, we gather round those who are really hurting and sit with them and remind them of who we are in Christ and encourage them. If today, I am the encourager, tomorrow, I may be down, depressed, unable to see hope. I will need you to encourage me. It is communal. Our hope is dependent upon the promises of God and living in those promises within the community of faith. And this means of maintaining high levels of hope by living in the armor God has already given and encouraging one another applies in all areas of life, not only where there is grief over one who has died.
To that situation there is a unique question that always comes up. Is the one who died asleep now? Is the one who died with Jesus now? My own reading of the New Testament does not give me definitive answers to these questions, but I do see indicators that I find very helpful.
When Jesus was raised, that was not a resuscitation. Resuscitated people are in bodies that will eventually die. In resurrection, we cannot die. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, we are changed. Our bodies go through a transformation. He says we put on immortality and imperishability (v.52-4).
That resurrected body is physical. When Jesus was raised, the women at the tomb were able to grab him (Matthew 28:9). With the Emmaus Road disciples, he took bread in his and broke it (Luke 24:30). He ate fish (Luke 24:42-43), and invited Thomas to touch him (John 20:27). The resurrected body is a physical body. And those who followed Jesus recognized him and re-established fellowship with him.
All these stories would have been known in the first churches when Paul arrived in Thessalonica. This was part of his preaching. When he said, “Resurrection,” they knew what he meant. They would be raised in bodies that could not be harmed or killed and they would be reunited with those they loved who preceded them death. That promise holds for us.
Furthermore, Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 4:14, “God will bring with him those who have died.” The actual way of saying it is “those who have fallen asleep.” At this great event, the second coming of Jesus at which time the New Heaven and the New Earth will join together and the Kingdom of God will be fully inaugurated, the dead will already be with God.
I think that means that right now Donna’s soul, John Charles’ soul, Ellie Bevington’s soul, Vola Louder’s soul is with God. In what form, I cannot say. But when I read “God will bring with him those who have died,” to me it says those who have already died, and died in Christ, are with God. They are with the Lord – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
Paul comforted the Thessalonians by assuring them their deceased loved ones would share in the resurrection. Paul comforts us by indicating our deceased loved ones are with Jesus and will be reunited with us in the resurrection in the eternal Kingdom of God. Living in the hope this provides we are armed with faith, hope, and love to be a community of encouragement where it is OK to grieve. But our grief is always soaked in joy because we know God is with us in the Holy Spirit and our future is with the Lord and with everyone we have loved who also follows Jesus. With our hope level high we are able to live out the joy of the Kingdom even here and now.