November 8, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

“Grieving with Hope”

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest piece of Christian writing in the Bible. Scholars figure that it was probably written around the year 50CE, about 6-8 months after the apostle had founded the Christian community in Thessalonica, and about 4 months after he had been forcibly removed from the city.

So you can imagine… this is a group of brand new Christians, having heard about Jesus and begun following his way just a short time ago. They had a brief time of learning from Paul while he lived in their city, working as a labourer and introducing the gospel. Later, they had a visit from Paul’s young co-worker, Timothy, who visited them and went back to Paul with an encouraging report.

But this faith is completely new to them, and I can imagine that questions arose in their minds and hearts on a regular basis. Thessalonica was a large city on the Aegean Sea, the largest city in the Roman province of Macedonia, and an important centre for trade. About 100,000 people from all walks of life lived there, and the folks who heard Paul’s preaching and formed a Christian community there were primarily Gentiles.

If they had been Jews, they would have had a little more background in terms of an understanding of who God is and the expectation of a coming Messiah. But for Gentiles, everything in this faith and way of life was completely new. And after only a few months, they are now isolated from the mentor in the faith. Much more isolated than any of us have been during this pandemic with all our options for communication and connection even during these strange days.

In order for Paul to keep in touch and give encouragement and support to the Thessalonian Christians, he writes them a letter. He wants to offer pastoral care to a congregation that is in some distress and looks up to him for exemplary leadership and guidance.

In the portion of the letter that we read today, Paul is responding to a question and concern that has arisen in the community. At first glance, it looks like a theological question. They’ve likely learned from Paul and Timothy about the promise that Christ will come again at the end of time to usher in the new creation and the fullness of God’s kingdom. And they clearly believed that Jesus’ return was imminent – so imminent that Paul had to remind them to keep up their employment in the meantime.

So, they knew that Christ was coming again to make all things new, and they were watching for that great and glorious day. But when some of their members died, the question arose: will they miss out on the blessings of Jesus’ coming? Their concerns about the fate of their community members who were dying heightened their natural grief over losing a loved one.

Paul answers their query with words of assurance that are rooted in the message of the gospel. Jesus has been raised, and he promises that we will be raised like him. Those who have died before his coming again will miss nothing, but they will be the first to experience the new life. He emphasizes the unity of the living with the dead in Christ, and assures the Thessalonians that they will not be separated from their loved ones forever.

Although most of us today aren’t expecting the Second Coming to arrive any day now, the concern about separation from our loved ones when they die is much the same. One of our deepest human fears is that of being abandoned by our loved ones, and our experience is often that death separates, relationships are severed, and hopes are dashed.

Paul doesn’t suggest that Christians should not grieve when their loved ones die. Grief is natural and normal because the loss is real and painful. But he encourages them not to grieve “as others do who have no hope.” Paul proclaims that Christians have a future that includes reunion with those who are loved but lost:

“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 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.” (verses 16-18)

Over my years of ministry in the church, I’ve had the privilege of proclaiming such encouraging words many, many times. I think of the liturgy shared at the graveside when I get to say: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we release our sister to the mercies of almighty God.”

Those are powerful and wonderful words… “In sure and certain hope…” And I know, as I say them, that they don’t wipe away the pain and sadness of the loss. They don’t make the grieving stop. But they do encourage people of faith (even faith the size of a mustard seed) to grieve as people who have hope in God and the promises we have in Jesus Christ.

Here’s how one commentator explains it: “The death and resurrection of Jesus assures believers of their rising with Jesus into eternal life; he is the means by which God achieves their salvation. Hence our grieving, though real at present, is shrouded by the comforting blanket of Christian hope.”

The last eight months of the Covid-19 Pandemic have been difficult in many ways, and grief has been a significant part of the experience of many people. Although people die every day, we are aware that as of yesterday 10,475 people have died from Covid-19 in Canada. We’ve experienced devastating outbreaks in care homes, sometimes with people dying in isolation without family being able to comfort them. Younger people have died too, cutting short promising lives and hopeful futures.

The grieving process has been complicated in these months as well, whether the cause of death was the Coronavirus or something else. Funerals have been postponed, limited to small numbers, or livestreamed for friends to watch from far away. Some of our usual ways of comforting and encouraging one another with our presence, our hugs, and our sharing of tears and laughter have been severely limited by the current situation.

And death has not been the only cause of our grief in these days. I saw a presentation earlier this week by the Rev. Tim Purvis who is the Associate Secretary for Ministry and Church Vocations of our denomination. Reflecting on the many pastoral phone calls made over the last several months from church offices to Presbyterian leaders across the country, he noted that we are experiencing a lot of grief. In addition to the deaths of loved ones, community members, and fellow Canadians, there is the grief arising from many other losses in our lives.

There is the loss of opportunities to gather in community – whether that is gathering for worship and fellowship in our churches, gathering with friends and family in our homes, gathering for social connection, celebration, and encouragement in difficult times. This is a deep loss that most of us are continuing to experience to some degree.

The inability to celebrate major milestones including birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations has also been a significant loss. And even though we’ve had to accept it and adjust, the grief is real for young people who didn’t get a graduation ceremony and a prom and all the things they were looking forward to as they completed one stage of life and moved on to the next.

The postponement of major planned events like weddings and travel are also causing us grief. And though we may console ourselves that we will get to do them later, the loss is real and painful for many.

And besides all those big things, there is the disruption to our ordinary routines in our daily lives – coffee and a chat with friends, Sunday dinner with the whole family, occasional visits to family members in another city, participation in sports and clubs and choirs and so many other activities that had to be cancelled or radically adjusted because of the pandemic.

It seems to me that the first step in healthy grieving is to acknowledge the loss and to become aware of how we have been affected by it. In a recent church meeting on Zoom, Andrea Perrett, convener of our church’s committee for Presbyterian World Service & Development invited us to consider three questions. And the first one was “What has Covid-19 taken from you?”

Each of us should consider that ourselves, because although we’re all going through the same pandemic, we’re being affected by it in different ways. And if we haven’t considered the losses we have experienced, we may not even be aware that we are grieving. Maybe that’s why so many of us are feeling more tired, run-down, and weary more often than usual. Grieving is hard on us, even before we name it and acknowledge it.

But we must not stop with just naming our grief. As Paul encourages us, we do not need to grieve as others do who have no hope. In her reflection with us online, Andrea asked us to consider two more questions. The next one was, “What has remained the same for you during Covid-19?”

In other words, we not only acknowledge our loss, but we also look for the blessings of God in the midst of our grief. What relationships, connections, and routines are giving us stability and security in these days? If nothing else, can we see that God has not changed? God is present, and faithful, and guiding us through our darkest valleys.

And then, the final question: “What has Covid-19 given to you?” What are the unexpected blessings you’ve experienced in the midst of this adversity?

For me, it’s been a lot of discovering that I could do things that I didn’t know I could do. It’s provided opportunities for connecting across distance and reaching out beyond our usual boundaries. When it comes to First Church, it has revealed the faithfulness, adaptability, and resilience of our congregation, and pushed us into even greater caring for each other and for the community in which we live. Most of all, because of all the continuing uncertainty, it’s been teaching us to trust God day-by-day and not to worry so much about tomorrow.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that no matter what our present circumstances, as God’s people we have the gift of hope. Using the pastoral query posed by the Thessalonians about their loved ones who have died as a point of departure, Paul proclaims an important message that goes well beyond the theological question about what will happen to us when we die.

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary summarizes that message in this way: “Persevere in the faith; God in Jesus Christ will triumph. Together, we will be with Christ, which means not only that death will not be the final word, but that neither will evil or injustice or suffering. We will all live together with the arrival of the Lord of heaven and earth.

“The vision shared by this passage is finally a gift to the community for the mutual care and comfort of one another, in order that we might stand firm in the midst of fear and anxiety,  with hope in the power and promises of God through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

As Paul suggests, let us continue to encourage one another with these words.