I Thessalonians 4.13-18
A group of terrorists breaks into a church in France kills a priest in the middle of a worship service.
A report comes out that by August 8th, we have already used up all the resources that the Earth can regenerate in a year, as we burn past a sustainable amount of resources faster than we ever have before.
In our own country, in our own state, a day at the water park leads to the tragic death of a 10-year old boy.
You don’t have to look far to determine that we live in a world of death and danger.
Psychologists watching my generation grow up were worried that we would be harmed by the repeated viewings of continual violence of Tom and Jerry or the Coyote and the Roadrunner. While that may be true, it seems as though our children’s generation must be even more harmed by the repeated continual violence that they see in real life, sometimes real time tragedies around the world. One can now simply Google “terrorist beheadings” in order to receive in .65 seconds a lifetime of nightmares.
The effect of this pervasive death and danger is that many of us walk around with what has been called an existential despair. Difficult to pinpoint, we have a sense of overwhelming dread and despair that impacts the way that has an effect on our mental and physical health. Some psychologists have gone as far as to claim that the violence that we have experienced has caused an entire generation to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They point to the accessibility of violent images, gun violence, reports of terror around the world, global environmental disasters due to climate change. It is enough to cause psychological damage on a generational scale. We might counter that children are resilient, as they indeed are. But as the research from Adverse Childhood Experiences shows us, they are also suffering effects that we might not even know about for decades.
We live in a world of death and danger, and it results in an existential despair that many of us simply don’t know how to deal with.
While the scale and accessibility might be new to us in our generation, we are certainly not the first generation to face the realities of death and destruction. Indeed, 2,000 years ago, Paul and the church he began in Thessolonica struggled with many of the same psychological and metaphysical fears that we deal with today. Fear of death and danger is as new as your Facebook feed, but it is as old as time.
In today’s passage, we read of a world that was struggling with the reality of death. A few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul and the church he began believed that the return of Christ was imminent. They thought that Jesus was around the corner, coming back to establish his kingdom and bring with him the promise of eternal life without the reality of death. But then, in the church of Thessalonica, a beloved church member died. And then another. And then another. And on the heels of the expectation that Christ was coming back soon, the natives got a little restless. They began to nervously ask Paul what this means. Would these who have died be resurrected at Christ’s return? Had they failed to hold out long enough, and thus lost their chance? And, for the Thessalonians, they, too, began to despair.
So Paul responded to their concerns with his passage. He gives them this exhortation: Do not grieve as those who have no hope.
And for many who have read these words since, it has only compounded the despair that they feel about death and grief. For many have read these words and concluded, “Then Christians don’t need to grieve. They don’t need to be sad. In fact, grief is a failure of faith because Jesus has wiped away every tear. Cheer up, Christian! Swallow your grief and believe!”
Of course, the end result of such conclusion is that those who are already having a hard time dealing with their grief simply find it compounded. Because now, not only are they struggling with painful grief, but now they can’t even talk about it, lest you be considered a weak Christian. And the existential despair is simply more desperate.
But here is the good news, church. Paul didn’t preach a Gospel of more death and more despair. He preached the opposite!
First, it is ridiculous to say that Christians should not grieve. It is like telling us that we should not breathe. Grief is human. It is required as a part of being who we are. Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson have written a powerful book titled, All Our Losses, All Our Griefs. And they say that to be human is to grieve. If we lose something, anything, we will grieve its loss. Even when someone takes the last Munchers out of the box, there is measure of grief. Anything that we love, and then lose, we grieve. Of course, not all grief is equal, and it does not hurt as bad when we lose something we love a little as it does when we lose a parent or a child to death. But loss is universal, and so grief is universal. Grief is normal, and to invalidate those feelings is unhealthy and will end up causing them to surface in other ways at other times. They don’t go away until we grieve in healthy ways!
The difference, Paul says, is not if we grieve, but how we grieve! We don’t grieve as those with no hope…we grieve as those with hope. We still grieve. Yes, we cry. Yes, we feel guilty. Yes, we feel angry at God or the doctors or the amusement park, or all of the above. Of course, we do. But, according to Paul, when we grieve as Christians, we do so with hope! Instead of the alternative: hopeless, nihilistic emptiness, our grief is punctuated with hope.
The key to grieving with hope is what Paul calls Parousia. This Greek word is often referred to as the “second coming,” or even the “end of the world.” This passage has been cherry-picked and combined with other random passages from other places to form this idea called Rapture. It is not a Biblical term, nor do most theologians even consider it a Biblical concept, but it sure does it have staying power! For about 150-200 years, this Rapture idea has stuck.
But theologian Jurgen Moltmann insists that Parousia is about not endings, but beginnings. It is about a new creation of the world, about making all things new. Parousia is not simply a future event. It is more complex than that. It involves the first coming of Christ at Christmas – as a past event in history. And it involves the second coming of Christ – what he calls a future event in history, meaning that it will be an historic, actual event. But then, these two comings together create an eschatological reality in our current world. A new thing is happening right now!
And so the reality of that new thing does not mean that we don’t have to grieve. Of course, we grieve. We grieve because we miss the sense of eternity that we glimpsed because of that loved one, and we grieve their loss. But we grieve not out of an existential despair, but out of an existential hope. A hope that the death and destruction that has caused our pain will one day be over! Parousia is unraveling that death and destruction. It is a disruptive event – ending the old and bringing in the new.
I keep thinking of the movie The Matrix. For those who haven’t seen it, it tells the science fiction story of a universe in which all of humanity has become enslaved by Artificial Intelligence computers. Except, there is a resistance movement of humans who have figured out this diabolical plan of their computer overlords and have make it their mission to fight against the power of the machines and the Agents that represent death and destruction for the human race. The resistance movement’s goal is to tell more and more people the truth, breaking them from their cage and freeing their minds to a new vision of hope. And there is a scene that keeps playing in my mind. It happens near the end of the movie, and Neo has been killed, but then brought back to life, and the Agents of the computer overlords are shocked to see this person that they just killed standing in front of them. And, I’ll admit, when I first saw this next part, I thought it was a little cheesy. Because Neo runs and jumps into the lead Agent and disappears inside of him. And the agent stands there for a minute, and then he starts to shake and parts of his body start to flake off of him like pieces of newspaper in a bonfire. And then, he completely explodes from the inside, sending all of these pieces flying. Again, kind of corny.
Until I read Moltmann! You might not know that The Matrix has rightly been called one of the most popular re-tellings of the story of Christ in our culture in the last 20 years. It is a story of resurrection, as the central character and Christ-figure Neo is killed and then comes back to life. But it is this last image that comes back into my mind as I read Thessalonians and Moltmann this week. It is actually a powerful image for the reality of Christ’s overcoming of death! In Paul’s retelling, Christ has come back to life, and has thus assaulted the power of death and fear in our world. He has broken into our world in a new way, coming to offer a new vision and a new power to overcome that death and fear. And our current world finds itself in that pregnant moment, where there are parts of that death and fear that are flaking off. And our story of Parousia told by Paul suggests that one day that power of death and fear will completely explode, scattered to the wind and rendered useless. And while we wait for that day, here in this pregnant moment, we know that the reality of death is not eternal, but is flaking off in bits and pieces. And so we live out of this hope, with the knowledge that the very nature of death is dying. It is how we grieve. It is how we live. It is how we hope in the face of death and destruction.
And it is why when we grieve, we simply do it differently! Think about the Christian funeral tradition in New Orleans. It begins with the parade of the body out to the cemetery. The musicians that lead the parade play slow, mournful, somber music. But after the burial, the return parade plays the same hymn tunes, but now played in a manner of joy and hope and expectation, in the way that only New Orleans Jazz can demonstrate! We grieve as Christians…we just do it differently! Let us, with hearts of hope and honesty, live our lives with a fierce love and expectant minds!