I’m a big fan of First Thessalonians. Most scholars see this letter as the first piece of Christian writing that we have. Written around 50 CE, the letter tells us that Paul founded a community of believers in the capital of the Roman province ofMacedonia, Thessalonike. Paul was there only maybe a few month but he gathered together a group of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus. When he left, probably heading to Corinth, the small community was flourishing and faithful. While in Corinth, a member of the community at Thessalonike named Timothy visited Paul, telling him all about what was happening back home. Timothy brought Paul words of thankfulness and love but the community had a problem. They were looking for an answer to a big question. Members of their community had died and the Thessalonians didn’t know how to handle it. They were concerned that their dead brothers and sisters had somehow missed out on salvation because they died before Jesus had come back. Was heaven and God’s love no longer available to them now that they were dead? Would Jesus pass them over or not see them when he returns? The community in Thessalonike not only were mourning for the loss of their friends, they were also fearful of their friends’ future.
Paul hears what Timothy says and writes a letter in response. His words are gentle, kind, loving, and, above all, are encouraging. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died are not lost. They have not missed out on the promise of Jesus. They have not, somehow, lost access to God. No, the ones who have died are fully caught up in Jesus’ loving arms and Jesus is not letting go.
This text from First Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) has been used to justify the “rapture,” a vision of the end of the world where “good Christians” somehow escape the world before Jesus returns. But Paul isn’t talking about escape in his letter. Escaping never enters his mind. Instead, Paul is talking about living (and dying) in the world right now. He’s telling his beloved community that grieving is okay, that the darkness that can come from sudden losses is part of our life, but that we are, first and foremost, a community rooted in a hope and love that even death cannot break. What matters in this text is not our being “caught up in the clouds” but, rather, that Jesus “will descend from heaven,” into our lives, worship, and communion, in a million different ways. Not even death can keep us away from God’s love. Jesus is running into the world and not away from it – and that truly is good news!
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 2nd Sunday After Pentecost, 11/09/2014.