To live in love and mutual encouragement, to be a shining light in a world of darkness, to live like can be expected of people who know they are loved by God and show faith that his promises will come true, that is what Paul, so far, has been writing about to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica.
He writes from Athens where his friend Timothy has just returned to after a visit to Thessalonica, full of warm and positive reports. Reports that have encouraged Paul and have filled him with gratefulness for the steadfastness in faith, love and hope the Thessalonians display. He urges them not to slacken but to intensify their efforts to live a life that is pleasing to God, a holy life, a life that is a worthy answer to the love and care God has extended to them in Jesus Christ.
Chapter 4 verse 13, a bit over half way through the book Paul now starts to address some concerns that were apparently raised by some of the Thessalonians. Concerns that were, probably, brought back to Athens by Timothy.
Questions that feature in several of Pauls letters and must have been important to the fledgling Christian communities of the time:
"What happens to those who have died" and "when will Christ come back"? Two closely related questions about what would be the next phase in the unfolding of Gods plan for the world and for his people.
Paul and the other apostles with him, seem to have believed that Christ would return sometime soon and were probably expecting it to happen in their life time. When that did not happen and some of them started to die that created a crisis of faith for many in early Christianity. Was it ever going to happen? What about those who had died? Would they miss out when that day came? Was there a chance they themselves would die too and never see the day?
I think we can all imagine what the questions must have been when the young Church had to adjust its expectations. It is those questions Paul is asked to address.
Are they questions that still concern us? After 2000 years the interest in the Church in these matters has waned a bit. Most of us have learned to live with the fact that we dont know time or hour and many more have died since the day Paul addressed the questions posed by the Thessalonians.
We live with other questions though that are not dissimilar to the questions of those early Christians. Questions that are disturbing and many of us will feel at a loss to answer: The question not of our own death or the death of our loved ones before the return of Christ, but the question of the death of the Church and the not unlikely possibility of the demise of Christianity in our world and time. What if we die? What if we all die? What if, in the end we will have to close the doors of our Church as so many other Churches around us have already been compelled to do? What will become of our hope? Of faith? Who will then be part of Gods future?
Pauls answer to the Thessalonians is as much of an answer to their questions as it is to ours: "Do not grieve as those with no hope. For since we believe Jesus died and rose again, so we believe God will bring with him those who died." he says. In other words: Even death can not separate us from the love of God, as Christ showed us and if death cant nothing can. So: dont worry, in the same way God was there with Christ, his love extending beyond the grave, God will be with us and with those who have died before us. Death to God not the undefeatable enemy it is for us, but only a temporary phase, a sleep he can awaken us from when he is ready and the time has come.
A cry of command, the archangels call, the sound of a trumpet is all that will be needed to set it all in motion, bring the living and the dead together and take them up to God to live with him forever.
Of course Paul knew that it would be quite impossible for a cloud to physically carry people up to heaven. Of course he knew there would probably not be a meeting somewhere halfway between heaven and earth with the faithful treading thin air. Science may not have been as advanced as it is today, but he nor his contemporaries were quite as unscientifically stupid as that.
Archangels and trumpets, Christ descending from heaven, the faithful moving up to meet him, the dead rising from their graves to meet the Lord, it never was meant as an exact description of what was going to happen. Elsewhere, even a couple of verses further on in the same letter, Paul stresses that nobody knows about the when or the how. The only certainty is that Christ will come, that God will not let death come between Him and his people, that we may live in the certain hope that God will not abandon his people nor forget his promises.
Apocalyptic literature as we find it not only in the letters of Paul and Revelation, but elsewhere in Old and New Testament, in other Jewish and non-Jewish writings was a way of expressing hope beyond words, reality beyond history, faith beyond reason in poetic, imaginative, highly symbolic and often extravagant language. To say what could not be said, to give expression to what could not be expressed: Faith in God, faith in another future, another world order about to come, hope against hope in a world that seemed to be controlled by other powers than God and his love.
Exalted language that says: No matter what happens, no matter how our faith is tested by a reality that seems to contradict everything we hope for, no matter what, we believe that God is in charge and could change everything in an instant, and that he will, when the time is right, and that things will be different. Light in the darkness, heaven on earth, death conquered forever.
We know says Paul, because of Christ, we know, we are not without hope like some others. Do not grieve but believe that God will come and make things right. No matter what they may look like just now.
For us I think that same admonition stands: Sure, it can be very alarming when we look around the Church and see fewer and fewer getting older and older. Sure it can be very disconcerting to realise that if we keep going the way we are there could be an end to Christianity as we know it in this place.
Will God abandon us? Will God leave us when that happens? No says Paul. If God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead God can do the same for us. God did not abandon him and he will not abandon us. God will still be there and working towards the coming of his Kingdom. It is in Gods hands and it is safe there.
All we have to do is live our lives in eager anticipation and faithful certainty that God is there and will not leave us whatever happens. Live a life that is a worthy answer to his love and not let go of the hope he has given us. The rest is Gods. The how and when is not up to us, it is up to him. We are not in control, but God is. Amen.