This post is the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a classmate of mine from Vanderbilt, the Rev. Dr. Buran Phillips, is pastor. After the second service, Buran and a lovely 13 year old assisting minister draped a prayer shawl made by the knitters in the church and then prayed over me for the benediction. As church members told me after the service, all of us were changed by our time together on this beautiful November day.”
“Encourage Each Other with These Words”
Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
Westminster Presbyterian Church
9 November 2014
Last month the Nicholas Cage movie version of Left Behind was released into theaters and panned by the critics. But many of us likely remember the incredible hype around the Left Behind series over a decade ago, and you, like me, may see some resonance between the language of the Thessalonians passage—“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds . . . to meet the Lord in the air”–and images of rapture from the Left Behind series. The opening scene from the book—and the film—involves the righteous disappearing from their seats on an airline flight, leaving behind the unrighteous, and their clothing folded neatly on their seats.
Many of the people in the faith communities I hang out with are wary of end-time stories like these. In fact, most Christians I know distance themselves from visions of the rapture like those promoted by Left Behind. “We’re not those kinds of Christians,” I often hear. “You know, the kind that forward emails about the end of the world.”
Several years ago, two prominent theologians came out with a book entitled Saving Paradise. The authors argue that Christianity has been so focused on a promised paradise after death that Christians have paid too little attention to the awful injustices going on in the here and now. Instead of hoping that we’ll “meet the Lord in the air,” they would argue, we should follow Jesus’ example of helping create a paradise right here, right now.
The call to all of us to be more attentive to the needs of the world right now is a vital one. From the events in Ferguson that shine yet another light on our country’s ongoing racism to the staggering threat of Ebola and its potential to destroy human communities, there’s so much work to be done in the here and now. Should we really spend our time thinking about meeting God in the air?
Many Christian critics of the theology of Left Behind insist on a more this-worldly focus to our theology—that our hope shouldn’t be just about being removed from this world of suffering and hurt, but our hope should also be for this world of suffering, and this hope should embolden us to work to make it look a little more like paradise.
I’m very sympathetic to this critique of traditional Christianity—the critique of religion pacifying people to accept gross injustice in hope of reward later on certainly has validity. Christianity has too often been used by the powerful as a weapon against the weak.
At the same time, I wonder what those of us who reject these visions of rapture have put in its place. I wonder whether we Christians who are really good at rejecting problematic views of the end times also end up forfeiting talk of the life to come to those who brought us Left Behind. The hurts of today desperately need our attention. At the same time, those who are hurting, I believe, need a message of hope is not just for today and tomorrow but also, as Paul tells the church in Thessalonica, a message about how life in the here and now is related to God’s future.
As many of you know, I live with a lousy diagnosis of stage IV cancer. Since the diagnosis in December of 2008, I’ve been thinking about what it means to talk about hope in light of a life-threatening illness and how to talk about a life-threatening illness in light of the Christian message of hope.
I have stage IV breast cancer, but the cancer was discovered only after it broke my back not once, but twice. The breast cancer spread—metasticized—to my bones, breaking vertebrae in my lower back and gnawing away at my pelvis, hips, and various other bones. By the time they decided to biopsy my back, I could barely walk. The pain was a 10 out of 10.
Since the diagnosis I’ve had radiation, two back surgeries, ongoing treatment in the chemo room, and the list goes on. Once cancer’s spread to the bones, it’s there to stay. There’s no cure for what I have. The only hope is for containing the disease. One day a stage IV cancer diagnosis will likely no longer mean a few years to live, but rather a life with a chronic condition that can be managed for quite some time. Currently in my third remission in almost six years, I seem to be living mostly in that future.
But the vast number of hours I spend in oncology clinic waiting rooms, chemo rooms, undergoing all variety of scans, blah, blah, blah, I have to admit that life often seems very far from paradise. I work hard at having hope for today and tomorrow, but when I share small spaces with others hooked to IVs pumping chemicals into our bodies that often make us sicker in hopes of making us better, I’m struck by how talk of hope for today and tomorrow doesn’t seem like enough.
Paul and the Christians of Thessalonica believed that the end of time was almost upon them—that the resurrected Christ would soon return for all of them, and all would move into a state where death is no more. What happened, though, was that some members of their community died (very possibly due to persecution they experienced for following Christ), and this brought on great concerns for the community—what will happen to those who have died? When Christ comes again, will the dead be taken up to be with God along with the living?
Paul writes to reassure them. Those who have died will be raised first. Then the living will also be taken up to be with the Lord. “Encourage one another with these words,” Paul tells them.
Paul is calling the church to surround those who are anxious, those who are grieving, and encourage them. Encourage them with words of hope—hope that there’s more than the finality of death they’ve recently experienced in their community, more than the persecution they endure for following Christ.
There’s a long history of taking this passage in the direction of rapture. “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned” bumper stickers most likely link themselves back to 1 Thess. 4. Interestingly, though, it’s the only place in scripture where Paul uses this “air” imagery. What often gets overlooked, it seems to me, is that Paul’s primary instruction to the church is to encourage one another with the hope that there’s more, more than the suffering and death they currently face.
If we take this passage as instruction for us to be the church that encourages each other to hope for more, what might it have to say to us today?
It’s important to acknowledge that it’s tough being with those who are sick, or suffering from depression, or grieving the death of a loved one, or barely surviving the effects of a severe accident. The pain in our communities runs deep. As the body of Christ we’re called to be especially concerned with the weakest among us—those who need the most encouragement and hope.
Paul admonishes the church to encourage one another with words of hope. But often we don’t know what to say. How do we encourage someone who’s got a few weeks to live? What kind of hope is possible for a parent who’s lost a child? Words often become scarce in the midst of such awfulness. And our uncertainty about words leads us avoid other members of Christ’s body who are desperately in need of encouragement.
At our best, I believe the church is being the church when it’s with those who are going through the worst life has to offer. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas casts in stark, uncomfortable relief why it’s so tough to be with one another at those times:
It’s no easy matter to be with those who [suffer], especially when we cannot do much for them other than simply be present. Our very helplessness too often turns to hate, both toward the one in pain and ourselves, as we despise them for reminding us of our helplessness. Only when we remember that our presence is our doing . . . can we be saved from our fevered and hopeless attempt to control others’ and our own existence. Our willingness to [suffer] and ask for help as well as our willingness to be present with [those who suffer] is no special or extraordinary activity, but a form of the Christian obligation to be present to one another in and out of pain.
So hope and encourage don’t always need to depend on our words. I’m sure many of you who’ve experienced awfulness in life can relate—the only thing worse than going through the awfulness would be to go through it alone.
But back to Paul’s admonition to encourage each other with words. Paul implores the ancient church—and the church today—to talk of the hope we as Christians have—not just for more chances to experience the grace and joy of life in the here and now—but also to be encouraged that this life, with all its sadness and brokenness and joy and beauty, is not all there is.
Since I wrote my book about living with cancer, I spend my days talking with student groups, faith communities, medical professionals, pastors and others about issues related to suffering, grace, and faith. These often are sacred conversations, where we think together about how we can be the body of Christ to one another at the most difficult of times. Talking with a group of parish nurses about how to address these issues with those who are dying, one nurse reported she asks: “What are you thinking about most these days?” Rather than initiating a conversation about death and what might be beyond, this nurse gently lays a question before the person facing death and invites them to venture into that holy and potentially unsettling place of wondering what’s next.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul talks about the dead being raised with Christ, a claim of bodily resurrection that Christians across the world continue to confess almost two millennia later. And yet many of us likely wonder what this can possibly mean in a world where we know well the science of decomposing flesh and cremation is growing in popularity.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a long time religion professor at Yale University, wrote a searingly beautiful book called Lament for a Son after the death of one of his sons in a rock climbing accident while the son was in graduate school. On the last page of a book filled with many more questions than answers, Wolterstorff writes:
I wonder how it will all go when God raises [Eric] and the rest of us from the dead? Giving us new bodies seems no great problem. But how is he going to fit us all together in his city? Eric here, man of the twentieth century, has to be fitted in with someone from long ago who lived in primitive conditions, knowing nothing of airplanes and electricity and neutron bombs, knowing only of the patch of soil which she tended and from which she never strayed more than five miles. Will God have everyone learn computers? Eric would have a head start. And what about the different characters and temperaments that all these people bring? Eric was loyal and gentle and loving, if sometimes a bit self-centered. Some people are nasty, ill-tempered, unpleasant to be around. How will God handle that? Seems to be there’ll have to be a lot of purging first.
And so many, so innumerably many. I see them stretching way back, their faces eventually becoming just a brownish haze from here. Everybody is known by somebody in that crowd, but the memories usually trail off somewhere so that up front here we know only a very few. God alone has them all in mind.
I don’t see how God’s going to bring it all off. But I suppose if he can create he can re-create.
I wonder if it’s all true? I wonder if he’s really going to do it?
Will I hear Eric say someday, really now I mean: “Hey Dad, I’m back”?
“But remember, I made all this, and raised my Son from the dead, so . . . “
Ok. So good-bye Eric, goodbye, goodbye, until we see.
I don’t claim to know how God’s going to pull it off, either. But I, like Professor Wolterstorff, struggle to trust that the promises of scripture are true—that life beyond this one in God’s future will be a place where there’s no more dying, no more crying, only light, only love.
Encourage one another with words of hope. Even as we might admit ignorance on how we should interpret passages like “being taken up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” the biblical images of God’s future are always corporate, communal ones. In 1 Thessalonians, it’s those who have died who go first, then those who are living. In other letters Paul writes to the church, insisting that in hope we have been saved, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
I’m not a big fan of rapture talk, but I’m quite passionate about hope talk. May we be encouraged by Paul’s words today, and may we be emboldened to speak words of hope to one another, hope for a more just and grace-filled today and tomorrow, and hope in the promise of continued connection with God and one another in the life beyond.