Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Two weeks ago I decided it would be a good idea to talk to the youth at First Presbyterian about the rapture.
I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it was the marquee at the movie theater near my apartment advertising the new Left Behind movie. Maybe it was the memories of the Y2K scare or Harold Campin’s 2012 rapture predictions, or how, when I was growing up, it seemed like every other car had a bumper sticker saying, “In case of rapture, this car will be unoccupied.” Maybe it was because when I was a teenager I never really understood what the rapture was, only that it was scary and easy to make fun of and not really all that Presbyterian.
For those of you lucky enough to escape rapture theology, the basic narrative goes like this: at some point in the future, God is going to swoosh all the good Christians up into heaven—this is the rapture. After the rapture, according to some, comes the tribulation—a period of massive chaos, destruction and suffering. Some Christians throw an Antichrist into the mix for good measure. The whole scheme is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of biblical interpretation, with bits and pieces picked out of various books and sewn together to create a bogeyman to scare Christians into the straight and narrow way. The rapture bit comes from this morning’s passage; the tribulation from bits out of the gospels and Revelation, all decoded and rearranged to suit a particular purpose. It’s also worth noting that rapture theology didn’t really exist until the seventeenth-century, and is almost entirely American in origin. Yet it’s had a huge impact, fueling franchises like The Late Great Planet Earth and the massively popular Left Behind series of books and movies.
I had only a general sense of the rapture before last week’s youth group. If you saw me looking a little ill last week, it was from going too deep into the dark corners of the internet for my research, watching too many youtube videos on the Antichrist, who, depending on your preferred conspiracy, could be anyone from Pope Francis to Kim Kardashian. But I wanted to have my facts straight—if facts is the right word to use here—because I wanted to have as fair and thorough a discussion with the youth as possible. We Presbyterians tend to avert our eyes when end-times talk comes into play—we don’t want to look like those crazy street preachers with their cardboard signs saying, “the end is near!” We are very proud that we are a sensible, quiet, orderly folk, and maybe if we just don’t talk about unsettling things like the rapture and apocalypse then the whole thing will just go away.
Except the world doesn’t work like that. If we surrender passages like the one I just read to the ranters and the foamers and the youtube prophets, we are surrendering a fragment of God’s word, a piece of truth that has come down to us from the earliest days of Paul’s ministry.
It’d be easy to stand up here and preach against the rapture. To tell you what is wrong with a theology that says look out for your own salvation and leave the rest to burn. To explain why the bit at the end of chapter four about meeting the Lord up in the air is a poetic image about welcoming Jesus back to earth, not evidence of a divine beam-me-up-Scotty transporter. To rail against a theology that works primarily off of fear—fear that we are not good enough, fear that we are not chosen, fear that we won’t make the cut.
I know very well what this passage isn’t about, and I can give you the arguments and show you the evidence and stand here yelling at Paul’s letter to the community at Thessalonika and all the harm it’s managed to do over the last few hundred years.
But preaching’s not about yelling at the Bible. It’s about listening to it, listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying through these ancient words.
And what I discovered, listening to this text this week, is something beautiful.
This passage is about hope.
Not fear. Not judgment. Not wrath.
Listen to the first line again.
“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.”
This is not a secret coded message about apocalypse, rapture, or prophecy. It is a bereavement card. It is Paul’s broken words of comfort to a community in mourning, a community who have lost friends and family, a community who thinks that death is the end, that the dead have missed their one chance to experience the kingdom of God.
This letter is written to the daughter who believes her father’s tombstone is the last word on his life.
This letter is written to the husband who believes his wife’s disease will part them forever.
This letter is written to the parents burying their stillborn child, wondering why he ever existed in the first place.
This is a community that thinks when Jesus comes back, he will only come back to the living. The dead have no chance. An accident of time took away their only hope.
Paul knows differently.
God leaves no one behind. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, why not God’s other children, God’s human children? Truly, Paul says, the dead will rise, and we will all be together with Christ, at a family reunion of the best kind.
This kind of dream—that death has lost its sting and life will win out in the end—this used to be called, in what I find to be a rather quaint phrase, “Christian hope.”
Maybe this has changed in the last fifty years or so, and maybe I’m showing my age, but I didn’t hear much about Christian hope growing up, beyond the obligatory bit in the Apostle’s Creed about life everlasting. Theology and preaching has largely shifted to concerns about the here and now—how we live and love and serve here on earth. That’s not a bad thing; in fact, I think such a focus was long missing from Christian discourse. But I also think that in keeping quiet about what we hope for beyond this life—beyond the grocery lists and the nine to five and the annual physicals—has done us a grave disservice. We have ceded the discussion of “life everlasting” to those same ranters and the foamers and the youtube prophets, and sometimes, when we grieve, we grieve as if we have no hope.
Maybe the last bastion of preaching about Christian hope is at funerals, and I readily admit that at my age I’m getting more wedding invitations than obituary notices. Maybe this sermon is old, old news to you. But I think it’s news that bears repeating.
“Encourage each other with these words: we will be with the Lord forever.”
Some of you know that my home church is going through a period of grief right now. We have added several names to the list of saints in the last few weeks, and there is more death on the horizon. One of my dearest friends and mentors just lost her father, less than a year after losing her mother. Through her blog, I have had the honor of watching her prepare for and grieve her father’s death, something she has done with grace and faith and honesty. She has a rock-solid grasp of Christian hope. It does not cancel out her grief, or make it less painful. But she grieves with hope.
“We know,” she writes, “just as Dad knew, that the Loving Force that created us all has more in store than what we can see. Life on this earth is just one chapter in a much longer love story. Whatever happens next in Dad’s story, I can only imagine. But I believe he is with mom again. And I imagine she is fussing at him for taking so long to get there.”
I do not know what grief is in your own life. Perhaps you have lost someone recently, or years ago. Perhaps you are coming to terms with the fact that you will lose someone. Perhaps you are grieving for the loss of life in West Africa, or Ukraine, or Syria. Perhaps you are grieving over the pollution and destruction of the earth. Perhaps you are grieving ideals you used to believe in and no longer can.
But do not grieve as one who has no hope. Grieve, by all means, for all that is wrong, all that is lost, all that carves out holes in your hearts until they are tattered and tired, but also hope, hope in God’s word, hope in God’s promises, hope in God’s kingdom, that it will come, and we will be with the Lord forever, restored and healed and whole, the dead and the living, with all the saints we ever loved and who ever loved us.
Grieve like one who has hope.
It sounds crazy, I’ll admit—the idea that we can mix joy into our sorrow without betraying either emotion. Maybe to some, such a claim is as crazy as predictions of the rapture and the tribulation. To be hopeful in a world that produces ISIS and racism and cancer—it is crazy. Impossible. Ridiculous.
But so is a God on a cross.
Because Christ died and rose to show us just how out-the-box, how nonsensical, how unrealistic, and how powerful hope can be.
So hold on to this crazy, Christian hope.
The God of love will never leave us behind, not now, not ever.