Here in Crafton Heights, we’re spending the weeks after Easter reading through Paul’s letter to the little church in Thessalonica. Our hope is that this, the first record of a community’s lived response to the resurrection, will help us grow in our ability to respond faithfully. Our scriptures were I Thesssalonians 4:13-5:11 and Acts 1:1-11.
So, have you sent your cards out yet? Gotten the shopping all done? I know, there’s so much to plan for, so much to do. And Thursday is just around the corner!
Thursday. May 9. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s Ascension Day. It comes every year, 40 days after Easter. I can’t believe…you…you…you didn’t forget my card, did you?
OK, I’m making light of the fact that of all of the days in the Christian Year, Ascension isn’t the one that springs to mind as the one with the biggest party. But it is an important day nevertheless.
On May 9, we will commemorate the fact that Jesus rose into heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead. You heard that part of the story described in the reading from Acts. More than whatever historical significance it may have, however, is the theological importance of this day.
On Ascension Day, we remember that the God who came to us at Christmas is the God who returned to heaven after the resurrection. Or it might be more accurate to say that on Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God, in Christ, became human. And on Ascension Day, we are reminded that Jesus of Nazareth, the man who embodied the fullness of the Divine, re-entered eternity and the heavenly realms.
If you were with the disciples, watching Jesus being taken up into heaven, I have a hunch that at least two questions might spring to your mind. A broad, general question, might be, “What next?” A more specific enquiry might be, “What about us? We’ve left everything, we’re here to build this kingdom…and what should we do now?”
The disciple’s experience was essentially this: Jesus came and called them. He talked to them about the Kingdom, and right away, they said, “You’re gonna overthrow the Romans? Awesome! I’m in! You can count on me, Lord.”
And Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The disciples replied, “OK, we can work with that. It’s bigger and better, right?”
Jesus’ answer was essentially, “You have no idea. You cannot imagine how big it is.”
They watch him die. They meet him after his resurrection. They see him rise to heaven, where the message is, “I’ll be right back.”
“Great!”, they say. “We’ll be here.”
OK, here’s a little tip: let’s say that we arrange to meet down at Hanlon’s for lunch. If I get a text from you saying, “I’ll be there…” and you show up, say, ten minutes late – we have no problem at all. If you get there thirty minutes later, well, I’m gonna be a little torqued, to be honest. And if you don’t show up for two thousand years? Yeah, we’re going to have issues.
But that’s what’s been happening to the first generation of Christians. They believed in Jesus. More than that, they were totally sold out to him. They’d given up everything to stand behind him. And he died. That’s terrible! But he was raised. That’s amazing. And he left, saying that he’d be back. That is whatever superlative is higher than amazing.
Except now, two decades later, he hasn’t come back. My family is changing. The old ones who remember him are dead, and the younger ones have never met him. My friends – people who have been hoping to see him again – are dying. These people looked to the promise. They believed in this “kingdom” business and gave it all they had. Where do they stand now? How am I to live with the fact that they died, and I may be next?
Paul says that there is good news. The first part of that is that these friends who have gone on before us – they are “asleep”. That’s the word he uses. Jesus died (apethenon), but we will fall asleep (koimithentas).
Think about that for just a moment. What is sleep? Isn’t sleep a surrender to the things that are beyond my control? Isn’t it a sort of a mini-death – an experience that is as close to death as we’ll know before we actually die ourselves?
Every night, at some point, I give myself over into the darkness. I lose myself and have no idea that anything is occurring at all, only to awaken and discover that the world has continued to turn in my absence. I turn on the television and discover that the stock market in Asia has plummeted, for instance, or that the Pirates won on the West Coast. When I sleep, I acknowledge that the world goes on without me.
Paul says that we can experience death as a kind of sleep. Our absence from Jesus and from a relationship with him or with others is as temporary, as reversible, and perhaps as restorative as is sleep. Don’t worry about the friends who have died, he says. They’re sleeping. They’ll be back, too. And he ends chapter four with a word of hope: “therefore, Comfort one another with these words.”
Great! I love good news. I want to be comforted.
But we don’t get to rest in this comfort very long before it’s all blown out of the water. We’ve got trumpets sounding and angels and archangels descending…dead people rising, Jesus coming like a thief in the night…people crying out as if in childbirth… I don’t know about you, but that’s not very comforting.
One of the worst things I ever did as a young man was watch A Thief In The Night. This is the story of Patty Jo Myers, who thinks of herself as a Christian, but suddenly encounters a world gone crazy. Her husband and Christian friends have all disappeared and there’s a massive world government building up and people have to have the “mark of the beast” tattooed on their bodies…It turns out that Jesus has taken all of his real friends to heaven and the others are left behind with the antichrist. If you’re too young for that, maybe you know something of the Left Behind series of books and movies. If you don’t know that, then think of I Am Legend or Outbreak or The Day After Tomorrow or Fail-Safe…Just about every “end of the world” story that you know is written in one way or another to scare the living daylights out of you.
Look at what Paul is saying here. He doesn’t know how Jesus is coming back, and he doesn’t know when. How could he? But he knows what is going to happen: Jesus will establish his reign and rule for eternity. And he knows why it is going to happen: because “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation”. And most importantly, Paul knows that it is going to happen.
And, interestingly enough, when Paul is talking about all of this, he is not saying, “Look, do you see this stuff that’s coming down? You better hurry up and shape up…” He says, “You are children of light.” He doesn’t say, “try to become children of light” or “convince your friends to be children of light”. He says, “you are sons of the light and sons of the day…” This is not a threat that if we don’t all of a sudden change who we are, the returning Jesus is going to get even crankier. It’s a plea for us to live as who we are. “You are children of the day”, he says, “So there’s no need to act like you can’t see. Live into the life that God has given to you.”
And at this point, maybe you find yourself stretched to the point of incredulity. You’ve been polite for fifteen minutes, but really, this is getting out of hand. I mean, it sounds like I’m up here telling you a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Trumpets? People flying around the sky, wearing togas or something? Clouds and angels?
Listen: Paul is not writing a documentary here. The point of this passage is not to convince us of some sort of spectacular event, or cosmic fireworks, or heavenly reality show.
This is an outburst of praise and encouragement describing one way to see what Paul and the church believe to be about the most amazing and encouraging truths of all time: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
That is, the church has said for two thousand years, the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
That is the lens through which everything in your life and in my life needs to be viewed: That Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Because if that is true, thanks be to God, then my life can have meaning, direction, and purpose.
And if that is true, thanks be to God, then I can grieve my losses and nurse my wounds and confess my sins even as I trust for some sort of newness and wholeness.
On the day that my baby is born: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
On the day that my best friend dies: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Do you see? It’s not a cartoon. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a fable designed to scare me into some sort of fearful cringing. Paul concludes this section by repeating the same words he used at the end of chapter 4: “Therefore comfort each other with these words…”
For you, for me, and for the Thessalonians – there will be challenges and pain. There is brokenness and addiction and fear. This is a reality in which many of our friends find themselves right now. But this current pain does not define us. No, you are “children of the day.” Even when it’s dark outside, you are children of the day. Thanks be to God for this indescribable mystery: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Amen.