Remember the Future- audio available
Remember the Future
6 November 2011
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13But 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. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For 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. 16For 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. 17Then 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. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
What happens after we die?
A familiar question. I’m sure all of you have thought about it, wondered about it, had to respond to your child’s curiosity about death.
This past Tuesday was All Saints’ Day…the day in the Christian year when we give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. And probably for most of us a time when we remember–with joy and sorrow close companions–our loved ones who have died.
Some, I know, talk daily to the memory of their beloved. Others set aside times on anniversaries to look at old letters and photographs or light a candle in memory. Some are comforted by the belief that our loved ones smile down on us from heaven. And some are tormented by memories of things said or left unsaid. All of us, though, in these remembrances, are suggesting some answer to that enduring question–what happens after we die?
As humans, this question haunts us at times. Shirley Guthrie, the late Reformed theologian, points out, that mature Christians confront the reality of death. It is central to our faith narrative. “We will die,” Guthrie writes, “and it will be hideous because it means the end of us, not just the death of our bodies. [Death] is a dead-end.”1
Grief is the same way, isn’t it? Following the death of his wife, CS Lewis described grief this way: “So many roads once; now so many cul-de-sacs.”2
Christ’s tomb itself was a cave and not a tunnel.3
Death brings dead ends.
That’s where these very early Christians in Thessalonica found themselves–a place that is familiar to us all–in the cul-de-sac of grief, the dead-end of death. They have written to Paul and asked the perennial question: what will happen to those who have died? Paul sets out to console them in their grief. He’s answering them for two specific purposes, he says: so that 1) they will hope even while they grieve and 2) so that they can encourage one another (v. 18).4
I appreciate Paul’s response a great deal. He does not dismiss their grief–not at all. Sometimes, I fear, we are too quick to deny grief–to look for the silver lining, to apologize for our sadness, to smooth over what is actually a very painful break. Paul doesn’t do that. He does not dismiss their grief, but he does remind them that grief is not all there is. He says to them, “you grieve, of course, but you do so in hope.”
Paul writes, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Because we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we can say something about those who have died. And what we say, in the Easter light, is that because we believe that Christ died and rose again, the dead-end of death is not the end. There is newly embodied life with and for God in the new/redeemed world.5
What we say, is that we believe in the resurrection.
Preacher and writer Frederick Buechner talks about resurrection this way: It is entirely unnatural. We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we’re made, he says. Rather we go to our graves dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e., resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.”6
That is the basis of our hope. Our Christian hope lies always, always, in the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.
That’s a pretty interesting thing to say–that our Christian hope has a singular basis—the death and resurrection of Christ. Because that means that this is NOT a theory about life after death that Paul’s offer; it is a reminder of what God did in Christ.7
Paul says to his grieving flock, “Remember! Jesus died, but God raised him from the dead. And so we can trust God will bring with him those who have died.”
I kind of wish Paul had stopped right there with verse 14 before going on to explain how it would happen that God would “bring with him those who have died.” But I also understand why he didn’t. No doubt he was thinking about the earnest faces looking expectantly to him for assurance about their dead father or daughter or husband. And so, although resurrection hope is more than enough comfort, Paul goes on and tries to explain.8
Biblical scholar NT Wright suggests this is an attempt to explain something we clearly cannot. He likens it to describing color to a blind person—everything you say will be inadequate. How do you begin to describe the passion of red or the tranquility of purple? Paul tries to speak of what will happen at the return of the Lord—everything he says will be inadequate.9
Paul claims this image of the future is the word of the Lord, but it’s not clear what “word” he is drawing from because there are no such accounts in the gospels.10
Nevertheless, Paul uses some interesting imagery.
- There will be a cry of command, archangel’s call and sound of the trumpet, he says. All are battle imagery, victory imagery.
- Clouds signify God’s presence, just as they have in the Canaanite belief system, and more familiarly in God relationship with the people of Israel.11
- The Lord will descend and the dead (followed by the living) will be lifted up. We meet “in the air,” in the space between heaven and earth.
- The phrase “To meet the Lord” is actually a technical one, used for the arrival of the monarch. A delegation goes out to meet the king and ushers him into the city.12
- One last thing. Paul makes the interesting point that the dead and alive will come to be with Christ, whereas in other places just prior in the letter (3:13 and 4:14) Paul suggests that dead are already with Christ. We are lacking in clarity on this point, but nonetheless, at the coming of the Lord–dead, alive, it doesn’t matter. Everyone will be in the Lord’s presence. Resurrection is finally NOT a place, but a relationship.13
Paul intends this to be a comforting vision of the return of Christ. This is not a doctrine of the afterlife or a description of who’s in and who’s out. It’s pastoral care to the grieving ones.
The comfort and care that he offers is that hope lies in Christ who already died and rose again! And hope lies in Christ who will come again and gather all the people to himself. When we say that our hope lies in Jesus Christ, we are placing ourselves exactly on the fence. For it must be both. There is an eternal nature to our hope. It is based on what has happened and will happen. This gathering—both living and dead—has happened and will happen.
Now, the Thessalonian Christians have committed themselves to Jesus Christ in an era when their allegiance and devotion was required by Rome. This devotion to Christ subverts the Roman patronage and order and puts one in mortal danger.14 If you’re going to brave that, you probably want to read the fine print. You want to know exactly how this “bringing the dead to God” thing is going to work. Otherwise, it’s just not worth the risk. But even today, in a much more comfortable environment for Christians (at least the way most of us practice our faith), there is still a nagging need to know more about what’s next, to be comforted in our grief, to be assured of where our loved one now rests.
Newsweek reporter and now best-selling author Lisa Miller reports in her book Heaven, that 81% of Americans tell pollsters that they believe in heaven (up from 72% ten years ago). We can’t know exactly what they mean by that, “beyond an automatic and understandable hope for something after death besides the terrifying end of everything.”15
She writes, “We say the word heaven out loud only when we’re murmuring the Lord’s Prayer; when a child asks us about the death of a pet, friend, or grandparent; or when we face death ourselves—our own or that of a loved one. Yet in spite of the pervasive sense that real talk about heaven is somehow silly, nearly all of us—me included—carry visions of heaven around in our heads.”16
Paul, too, had such a vision in his head. He describes the archangel’s call and the sound of the trumpet, the rising of the dead, followed by those who are still alive, all caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Many since have been inspired to share their own visions….Dante, Milton and lately LaHaye of Left Behind fame, and most recently, the pastor Rob Bell, who has written a very interesting book on “the fate of every human being who ever lived.”
So what can we say about heaven? How can we answer the nagging question, what happens to us when we die? Shirley Guthrie provides some much needed help for how we speak of our hope for the future:
- We must not want to know too much. Even Calvin said, “It is foolish and rash to inquire concerning unknown matters more deeply than God wants us to know.” Where scripture places its emphasis, so should we. That emphasis is living in the present in light of our future hope, knowing that what is going to happen to us, our loved ones, and the world will be better than the very best we can imagine in our wildest dreams.
- [Furthermore] Biblical language about the future is symbolic. The writers of scripture used categories of space and time to express truth beyond all such categories…, and the understandings of space and time they used belonged to an ancient culture, quite different from our understandings today. But the symbolic descriptions tend to agree that at the end of our individual lives and at the end of history, God will be there as Judge and Savior. Further, the descriptions tend not to be interested in the “furniture of heaven” or “temperature of hell” but of the people and what it will mean for them to be together with or separated from God.
- And finally, the best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking at what God has done. In other words, Christians remember the future.17
What we can say about heaven and what happens when we die is that Christians remember the future. We have hope for what is to come because of what God has done in Christ. Already and not yet. Now and later.
We remember the future and so we grieve in a particular way–with hope. Our grief might be such that hope is a teeny mustard seed. Or maybe hope lies only with our friends and the community of faith because our grief is that potent. But nonetheless, hope is there, because we remember the future. That’s really what Paul is talking about here. Really, truly–even upon the sheer cliff of death–God’s promise and action in Jesus Christ remains. So, “do not grieve as those who have no hope.”
One of the paradoxes of faith I find, is that the more seriously I take God’s invitation to new (and eternal) life, the more painful it is to look around at a suffering world, a world that I am sure falls short of God’s hope for us. Looking at the broken world—where economic collapse is a very real threat throughout Europe, where families are denied loan modifications and face foreclosure on their homes while bank CEOs take home millions in bonuses, where immigrants are villainized, where pressure and stress kills kids—I find the balance always tipping between despair and hope, between death and life. Paul’s words invite me to remember the future. Do not grieve the state of the world without hope. Grieve to be sure, but do so in the hope of the promise of the one who died and rose again.
Such hope became tangible the summer I worked as a chaplain in the children’s hospital. There was a very sick infant girl in the neo-natal intensive care unit. The ICU staff worried the parents were in denial about the gravity of their daughter’s condition. The parents had been coming daily to the ICU, praying for their daughter’s recovery and decorating her crib in scripture verses. They renamed their child, calling her by a Nigerian name meaning “the one who lives.”
I was called into the hospital one night because the child died. As I drove in, I was wary of what I might find—to be sure I would find a family devastated by this loss, but would I also find a family whose faith had been wrecked, whose trust that God would provide had been shattered? What measure of comfort would I have to offer in the midst of such pain?
When I arrived at the ICU, the father and mother were sitting by their daughter’s crib, by the crib of “the one who lives.” They held her in their arms and slowly we began to talk. They told me about their child’s death and we cried. And then the father said softly and earnestly, “We are Christians; we believe in the resurrection. We live in hope.”
Remember the future, indeed. We need not grieve as those who have no hope.
Thanks be, now and always, to our risen and redeeming Lord.
1 Guthrie, Shirley. Christian Doctrine. Louisville: WJK, 1994, p. 380.
2 As quoted by Joan Didion in her memoir of the year following the unexpected death of her husband. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005, p. 195.
3 Craddock, Fred. Interpretation: Philippians. Atlanta: John Knox, 1985, p. 42.
4 The Discipleship Bible. Louisville: WJK, 2008, p. 2014.
5 Wright, 125.
6 Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking. New York: Harper One, 1993, p.
7 Boring, Eugene and Fred Craddock. The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: WJK, 2004, p. 644.
8 Wright, NT. Paul for Everyone: Colossians and Thessalonians. Louisville: WJK, 2004, p. 123.
9 Wright, 123.
10 Boring and Craddock, 644.
11 Boring and Craddock, 645.
12 Boring and Craddock, 645.
13 Boring and Craddock, 645.
14 Saunders, Stanley. Introduction to the Letters to the Thessalonians. In The Discipleship Bible., p. 2010.
15 Miller, Lisa. Heaven. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010, p. xiii.
16 Miller, p. x.
17 Guthrie, 382.