Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be a festive occasion celebrating Jesus Christ’s sovereign rule over all Creation. But to be honest, today’s Gospel reading lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we were threatened with the Outer Darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This week, we get the threat of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not much of an improvement!
Now, I maintain that there is, in fact, Good News in this Gospel reading. But it takes some work to find it, mostly because it takes some work to figure out what Jesus is talking about. The reading is deceptively simple. You might be tempted to sum it up as follows: serve the needy and go to Heaven; ignore the needy and go to Hell. And preachers for the last century or so have, in fact, taken that interpretative route. But the meaning of today’s reading is not so clear. There are two issues with the language of the text that greatly affect its meaning, and they have been a bone of contention since the 3rd Century: Issue #1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and Issue #2) To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “the least of these who are members of my family”?
All Saints’ Day is a “principal feast” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. It is one of the seven feast days when I bring out the incense—much to the dismay of a couple of you! Rightly, it should be celebrated on November 1st. But the prayer book allows churches that cannot adequately keep the feast on November 1st to celebrate it on the following Sunday. And so, here we are, gathered together to remember all God’s holy people: the official saints found in the volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the unofficial parish saints for whom we have prayed during the last 12 months.
Now, some parishes prefer to remember the unofficial saints on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, in a “separate but equal” celebration. But I am firmly against making any such distinction. Pastorally, it may make sense, but theologically, not so much! So on this day, we celebrate the blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul, as well as our own St. David A., St. Barbara J., and St. Margaret W.
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.