Sermon by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber
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.
It was bound to happen. Once I published my own version of St Paul’s epistles a couple of months ago (Dear Friends: St Paul’s Letters to Christians in America) it was bound to happen that I would find myself preaching on a passage he wrote — and I rewrote. Like the second reading today.
Now, I take standing in this pulpit seriously. This is not a place to preach my opinions. You don’t come here to hear my opinions. You come here, I hope, to hear the gospel proclaimed and that’s what I hope to do this morning. But to do it, I have to tell you that what St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, needs to be re-translated.
Now I’m talking about St. Paul and I want to be respectful but I also want to say that St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians very early on in his ministry. This might be the first letter he ever wrote so it’s not his last word on the subject. St. Paul hadn’t been a Christian very long when he wrote to the Thessalonians but his converts had all kinds of questions and I suspect he was scrambling to keep up. He was a new convert himself, after all, and conversion doesn’t necessarily include the answers to all questions.
A lot of us have been Christian quite a long while and probably don’t have all the answers yet either. I’ve often told people that I have a list of what I call “hereafter questions.” Questions that I don’t expect answers to any time soon and so I’m saving them up for hereafter. Like “Why is there ebola?” And “Why are there mosquitos.” I wish I had answers but I don’t and that’s alright. I’ll get the answers later.
So anyway, Paul was getting questions about life and death, about the resurrection and the second coming and I’m not sure he had all the answers either. You’ll find something much better developed in the Letter to the Romans, for example, where Paul, many years later, had thought through much more of what it means to believe in the resurrection and spells it out at much more length. There was never any question that Christians believed in the resurrection but how to explain it: that was something else.
But here in today’s reading St. Paul is giving the people in Thessalonica his first attempt to explain the resurrection and it’s a simple, unsophisticated attempt that Paul himself would modify later when he had had more time to think about it. And now we’ve had a lot more time to think about it so I modified a lot more in my version of this letter because I think we have learned much more over the last 2000 years and I think Paul, today, would write differently. I mean, how ridiculous would it be if 2000 years had gone by and we still couldn’t explain any better and in ways more relevant than Paul did maybe ten years afterward?
But what Paul is trying to do is to say something concrete and clear about heaven and that’s useful but over two thousand years our knowledge of the universe has expanded a lot faster than our knowledge of God and we’re groping for words, groping for language that fits today’s world and Paul’s first attempt to do it for his world isn’t necessarily a lot of help for ours.
The question, you might say, is not, “What did Paul say?” You heard that this morning. The question is, “What was he trying to say and how would he reword it if he were talking to us?” That’s the question I tried to deal with in my book and when I came to this passage, I rewrote it this way:
“We want you to understand also what happens when we die so that you will not be overwhelmed with grief as many others are. Our faith begins with the fact that Jesus died and rose again from death, so we can be sure that those who have died will live again through faith in Jesus. We tell you this as God’s own word: we will be reunited with those who have died. In earlier days we expected the second coming of Jesus at any moment, but even if it is delayed no one should imagine that this present world will last forever. We may, of course, destroy it ourselves, but whether we do or not, the final trumpet might sound at any time and each moment should be lived with the awareness that this life is not eternal and all that we do will be judged. God calls us and comes to us to gather us into an eternal life with all those we love. Strengthen and encourage each other by reminding them of this.”
Notice two things: first, I back away from some of the concreteness of Paul’s original. There’s nothing about meeting the Lord in the air. Paul lived in a three story universe: heaven up, hell down, earth in between. He wrote in terms of the world he lived in. We don’t live in that world so that language doesn’t work for us. Where will this meeting be? St Paul said it would be “In the air.” “OK,” you say, “How far up in the air? Go too far and you run out of air so do we imagine this reunion will be in the troposphere, stratosphere or mesosphere?” The first Soviet astronaut, if you remember, reported back that he had disproved Christianity because he’d been all around the world and there was no God up there. That might have surprised Paul but it doesn’t surprise me and I doubt it surprised you. I think most of us have already made that translation. We don’t think heaven is literally up. A full translation to today’s world might talk in terms of a fifth dimension or a non-material realm but if you ask me where heaven is or where we will meet Jesus hereafter I think the simplest thing to say is that we don’t have the language to talk about it yet. And maybe we never will.
We can say, and I do in my version, that this present world will not last forever. That’s an established scientific fact. Paul had no science to support him when he talked about the end of the world but we do. We can be more definite about that than he was. This world is not eternal. This world will end – we know that by science – and God will come and we will be united in Christ with all God’s people forever – we know that by faith. And modern science still cannot tell us what will happen next.
After all, when the material world comes to an end, science also comes to an end. Science can explore space and time but science can never tell us what happens when space and time come to an end just as it has no knowledge of what happened before the big bang of creation. So we are as limited, in some ways maybe more limited, than St. Paul. We know an enormous amount about this physical universe but less in some ways than Paul about what lies beyond.
St. Paul could talk in quite material terms about hereafter and we can’t. We have to imagine a heaven bigger by far than Paul could have begun to imagine but our minds have no language for it.
There are, of course, people who try to tell us about heaven. There was a fascinating two part article last month in the New York Review of Books. The author of the article took on all those books out there about heaven, all those eye witness accounts based on near death experience. People, mostly, who claim they have been to heaven and come back. The author reviewed seventeen such books and treated them, I think, very fairly but he sees it as something that happens in the human brain under conditions of extreme stress that tells us more about the human brain than it tells us about heaven. After all, if you tell me you see pink elephants, that tells me more about you than about elephants, more about how your brain works – or doesn’t work – than what color elephants are.
One of the authors the reviewer deals with in this article in the NY Review of Books is a neurologist from South Carolina called Eban Alexander. Dr Alexander spoke here in San Francisco last year in an Episcopal Church and I went to hear him. I also read his book. Dr Alexander had a stressful experience, an infection that left him mostly comatose for a week with no recovery expected. But he did recover and came back to report that he had been to heaven and seen millions of butterflies and had weird vision. He came back convinced that
“Each and every one of is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend.” Right. But I knew that already. It’s in the Bible. Without butterflies. If you look carefully into Dr Alexander’s story, you find him disagreeing with the doctors who were treating him while he was having his visions. He says he was comatose for a week. They say he wasn’t. Dr. Alexander has told these doctors that his account was “dramatized” with “artistic license” to “make it more interesting.” Well, thank you; I prefer St. Paul.
In fact, of the seventeen authors reviewed in those two long articles, I found myself closest to a fundamentalist, Biblical literalist, called Gary Kurz, who dismisses all the near death experiences as nonsense. He says: “The Bible teaches clearly . . . that the only way to get to heaven is to die.”
And I’m with him. When people describe heaven and say they’ve been there, Kurz says, “Pass the bread. The baloney has been around already.”
So let’s stick with St Paul. And what does Paul tell us? First and most important: he tells us that faith changes the way we live now and faith changes the way we die. We face death with faith because we know that we will be reunited with those who have died in Christ.
John Donne put it this way,
“DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so . . .
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Death also will die and we have no reason to grieve like people who have no hope. It’s hard to generalize because social expectations vary and some people are more expressive than others, some people are raised to keep a stiff upper lip and others to “let it all hang out,” but my experience of conducting hundreds of funerals is that people with faith handle death much better than people without.
Paul says we shouldn’t grieve the way people do who have no faith. He doesn’t say we shouldn’t grieve, just that our grief is different. Death is not usually a happy time. As human life gets longer, more and more people do come to the end of a useful life span and are ready to go. I remember a woman in the last parish I served in Connecticut who was 100 years old. Her husband had died, her friends had died, and her children had died. Every time I went to see her
she told me she was ready to move on. Sure. I think that’s understandable. It’s understandable that we hear more and more about “A celebration of life” instead of a funeral service. But death remains an enemy and in the best of circumstances what we have to celebrate is not our lives, always flawed, never victorious, but Christ’s death and resurrection. If a Christian funeral is a celebration, it’s a celebration, like the service this morning, of Christ’s victory over death not our accomplishments. Leave that for the reception afterwards!
Just before we left Connecticut a young man who lived a couple of miles away and had gotten involved with drugs was shot dead one night in front of his mother by dealers who had gotten upset with him. I thought that was pretty dreadful but then I saw an announcement in the paper of “a celebration of his life” to be held at his church. I did wonder what there was to celebrate.
In the best of circumstances I’m still not ready to celebrate when someone dies. The Bible speaks of death as “the last enemy” and I’m not ready to celebrate the enemy’s triumphs. Death is a time to do as Paul said to us this morning: “Encourage one another . . .” Or in the older translation: “Comfort one another . . .” Or in my new version: “Strengthen and encourage one another” with the knowledge that death does not have the last word.
Comfort and strengthen one another with the faith that those who die in Christ will ever be in the Lord. Comfort one another with the faith that begins here this morning when we come together in Christ, as members of his body. Comfort one another as people who share a common life not only with the living but with the dead as well. We say we believe in “the communion of saints,” the shared common life we have in Christ, and that life is not ended when we die nor are we eternally divided by death, and meanwhile we share that life at the altar rail.
We share one life, the same life that opens up more fully when we die to this life. The same life that those dead in the Lord now live more fully. So hear what Paul is saying to us – not just what he said to some Thessalonians two thousand years ago but what he says to us today: “Do not grieve like others; comfort and strengthen and encourage one another with the knowledge that death’s victories are short term while the life we share is eternal.”
1. Death be not proud; the sorrow and the grief
And all the pain you cause are very brief;
You cannot hold us from our destiny
To live with God for all eternity.
We journey on, and this one thing we know:
You have no strength, no power where we go.
2. Death be not proud; the worst that you can do
Is quickly past; beyond it lies a new
And glorious day, a day of growing sight
Beyond the darkness, in Christ’s own true light
Where we will know at last the destiny,
The light of glory we are called to see.
3. Death be not proud; our work is not in vain,
God takes it all and makes us whole again,
Transforms, renews, restores to life from death
And fills us with the Spirit’s holy breath;
Thanks be to God whose love has set us free
In Jesus Christ and won the victory.
© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.