This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on November 19, 2017.
The passage before us presents two unique and challenging sermon opportunities that could be intertwined into one sermon. The two primary themes, grief and eschatology, are rarely healthily considered from the pulpit leaving more questions than answers. Hopefully, with this text, some sense of hope can be found in the congregation through careful exegesis that sheds light on God’s goodness even in death.
The congregation at Thessalonica were grieving. Faithful members of their congregation had passed away, and the church was concerned the deceased would tragically not be saved or not be able to participate in Christ’s second coming if they were dead at the Parousia. Setting the theology aside for a moment, it would be wise for the preacher to examine the effects of grief on a family and how that also correlates to a church who loses someone dear to the church. We need to give the congregation permission to mourn and lament in those kinds of difficult days. It may be prudent to search the lament Psalms for an example of how to pray in the deep distress of death. It is worth noting that death can be a sensitive topic because all of us have faced it at some level, but just because it is a sensitive topic does not mean we should stay away from it. Our common experience of death can be a springboard into the full life of the Gospel.
The theological concern is muddy, but cannot be overlooked. The difficulty seems to be that at some level the church thought that the dead will not be able to participate in the 2nd coming of Christ. Paul certainly challenges their concept of afterlife, however 1 Thessalonians 4:16 stands in tension with 2 Corinthians 5:8. The first saying the dead will rise with Christ, while the second says that when you die you are immediately with Christ. There is a certain mystery about who we are and where we go at death before the Parousia that the church in Thessalonica is wrestling with just as the people in our pews. The sermon needs to carefully address those concerns by showing the hope of the Gospel and sovereignty of God. It may be most important to remind the congregation that the church in Thessalonica is fearful. If nothing else, we do not have to fear death because Jesus Christ has already overcome death and God is in control across history.
A second sermon theme is part II of the first sermon. An answer to the grief of death is the eschatology of Scripture. There is great hope in the end that Christ will surely come again (4:16) and all Christians will overcome death once and for all (4:17). This eschatological hope will resonate with the church, particularly if we lean on passages like Revelation 21:4. The difficulty in this text is verse 17. This is the rapture verse. We cannot ignore it from the pulpit, and we cannot ignore all the bad theology and eschatology often associated with it. The preacher must give a clear and comprehensive idea of what the rapture is and is not even though the text itself is allusive. The best place to start may be the phrase “to meet the Lord in the air” rather than “caught up.” “To meet” has a specific connotation of meeting a dignitary, like the President of the United States of America coming to town. The preacher could note the lordship of Christ rather than imaging church members floating through the air. Preachers need to handle eschatology from the pulpit, if we do not our church members are going to find absurd answers elsewhere.
There is a secondary issue that can be raised with either the grief or eschatology sermon that could prove fruitful. Paul is writing this section specifically to correct bad theology and eschatology in the church. It may be good to note that many of us in the church have, at best, incomplete theology. We are constantly learning and growing in our faith. Some of the theology we thought true 20 years ago has proven false, and we need to acknowledge our limited capacity to understand and live in grace. The preacher could pose the question of what happens when we believe wrongly about eschatology. What if we believe in an end-times timeline that turns out to be false? What happens if we believe the rapture will look one way but proves to be another? What happens if we believe Jesus will come back in our lifetime like the early church did? The preacher can encourage the congregation to be imaginative, but responsible with this conversation. This may be a good time to lay out what we know for certain about eschatology, which is very little, and what we hypothesize about eschatology. When all this points to the sovereignty of God, we are doing well as preachers.
First Baptist Church San Antonio
Tags: Grief, Eschatology, Rapture, Poor Theology