Dear church of those in this place “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.”
For the last several weeks of this Church Year (Series A), the Epistle Readings would have come from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. But we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Luke the Evangelist on October 18, and then Reformation Sunday on October 25, and last Sunday (Nov 01) was All Saints Day. So we are just going to hit the last couple of passages from 1 Thessalonians this week and next, but they fall in beautifully with the end of the church year and the focus on the end of time.
Last Sunday we heard about all the saints who come out of the great tribulation of this life. John saw them being received into heaven, clothed in white robes washed in the blood of Jesus, who are in heaven praising God for their salvation (Revelation 7:2-17). Today’s Epistle Reading takes a look at things from our perspective. We don’t see our loved ones who die in the faith received into heaven. That was only revealed to John. What we see is quite different. We don’t get to welcome them. We have to say goodbye to them and that is hard. We grieve our loss.
St. Paul was not able to spend much time in Thessalonica, when he established the Christian congregation there, so his letters to them are very much about encouraging them to continue on in the things they had briefly heard and learned from him, to continue steadfast in the faith until the last day when our Lord Jesus Christ will come again. One of the hardest times to do that is when we are confronted by the death of a loved one. The loss is so great that it brings about a crisis of our faith. Is there victory in Christ Jesus? Where is that victory now? Can this wound that death has inflicted ever be healed?
St Paul wrote to these Christian people the most tender and compassionate words to give them comfort in the face of death at the loss of their loved ones who have died in the faith. These are the words that we repeat to comfort each other as we are standing at that open pit of the grave to place the dead bodies of our loved ones beneath the ground. It is the hardest thing that we have to do in this life, and these are the words from God through His apostle to give you strength and hope and peace at that very time.
Gathered in the windy cemetery, huddled around a coffin precariously suspended over a deep hole, the freshly dug earth covered by strips of artificial grass carpeting, the pastor stands at the head, the immediate family close to the side trembling, the guests wanting to be supportive but afraid of intruding circle around slightly distant, the funeral staff steps back to the periphery of our vision, and as no one knows exactly what to say God gives us these words:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, 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 fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.
This is a word of the Lord to you to give you hope at what otherwise would be the most hopeless moment of life. In fact, those who do not have this word from the Lord have no hope. They grieve the loss of their loved ones without hope. There is no hope for them to see their loved ones again. There is no hope for them that death will be undone. There is no hope for them that the pain of their loss will ever be healed. There is no hope for those who grieve outside of the Christian faith.
But there is hope for you and such a great hope it is. It is a hope that comes to you from the Lord Himself, through His own word spoken for Christians like you facing this exact trial. This is God’s Word to give you what nothing else can. It is God’s Word to reveal to you the hopefulness of the situation.
We are Christians because we believe that Jesus died and rose again. We believe that He’s got this death thing under control. He’s got it in His nail-marked hands. He died and He rose again. People saw it and witnessed it and testified to it. Despite two thousand years of enemies trying to prove the contrary they have never been able to do it. There is no dead body of Jesus Christ, no DNA evidence left behind, no skeleton in the closet that they can produce to say that death always wins.
All the evidence points in the other direction. There is not only testimony in the Bible, but outside of it too in other historical writings. There is not only the word of those who saw him, but there is the manner in which they lived out their lives. They gave their testimony, not to receive honour and glory and riches and power. Rather, they gave their testimony bravely and unwavering when it meant ridicule and rejection, poverty and beatings, arrest and imprisonment and even death for them, too.
Earlier in the letter, Paul reminded the Thessalonian Christians about how the Gospel came to them. “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict...” (2:1-2). And just as Paul and his fellow missionaries suffered for bringing the gospel to the Thessalonians, the Christians there suffered also when they received it and hung onto it. “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out...” (2:14-15).
The apostles and others who saw Jesus risen from the dead spread this great news of victory and were quite willing to be killed for it, knowing that the victory is theirs in Christ Jesus. And those who heard this Gospel and formed Christian churches around the world, are so confirmed by the Holy Spirit at work in the Word of God that they too suffer persecution and death, assured of the victory that Jesus has secured over all of death.
But as the rows of tombstones stretch ever longer and the dates upon them keep count with the passing numbers on the calendar, and the names inscribed become all the more familiar to us, it is hard to keep the lamps ready and alight as we await the final day of victory (Matthew 25:1-13). For the losses are great. God had accomplished mighty things in these faithful, the very ones we know and have known. He was at work in their loving service to family and their devotion to His Church, and their work in the world. We mourn the loss of all the ways in which God was at work in them most intimately to love us.
And so, to keep our lamps burning in the darkest of hours, we remind ourselves of what we believe, i.e., our Creed, and what it testifies about the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “I believe... in Jesus Christ... who was crucified, died, and was buried. The third day He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed). “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
The eternal beloved Son of God truly became man, truly suffered and died for our sins of doubt and weakness in the face of death and in the face of much less threatening fears. He gave His body and life upon the cross in payment so that we might have our lives forever, the lives of our loved ones forever, body and soul forever. The Son of God and Son of Man truly rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures, in the exact way that they prophesied He would. And this Jesus, our beloved Saviour, is coming again in body and soul to have us all body and soul together with Him always.
When our beloved in the faith die, heaven sees them clothed in white robes. We see a white funeral pall cover a heavy casket. In heaven they have palm branches in their hands. We toss wilting flowers into a grave. In heaven they stand before the throne of God. We lay them in the ground, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. But we do so in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of all flesh. For as glorious as their entrance into heaven is (as we heard last week) even more glorious is what is in store, which will be seen not only from the vantage of heaven, but also visible to all on earth.
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we are who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (vv. 16-17).
John saw them from heaven coming out of the great tribulation (Rev 7). All who are still alive when Jesus comes again will see them from earth at the coming of the Lord Jesus. The cry will go out, waking us all from slumber. The trumpet will sound setting us all to run to meet Him. And we will not be going alone. We will not get there ahead of our faithful departed. For the dead in Christ will rise first and then we, who are alive, who are left, will go with them to meet our coming Saviour.
Death will be undone. Everything that it has taken away from us it will have to give back, and we will have it all the more glorious than before. We will have our loved ones back all the more glorious and radiant than before: their bodies freed from every spot of death and infirmity; their souls having been purified in the presence of God; their gifts all the more appreciated and acknowledged; their sins and shortcomings forgiven and wiped away; and we, too, shall be likewise changed to enjoy the fulfillment of our hope in the glory of the face of Jesus. We will be together and we will be with Him who brings us all together through His crucified and risen body. It will not be like assembling around a grave for a funeral committal. It will be like going to a wedding where we will see long lost family and friends together in joy.
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it... The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, 28).