Today's text from 1 Thessalonians is the fourth lection in a series of five consecutive Sunday reading through the New Testament's earliest extant writing.
Given the opportunity to work through an entire writing like a letter of Paul, many preachers may already be preparing their fourth sermon on 1 Thessalonians. If this has not been the case, however, this section of the first letter to the Thessalonians designated for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost is certainly deserving of its own focus.
First, it is here that Paul specifically addresses a major issue of concern for the recipients of the letter -- what will become of the members of the community who die before the parousia. This is a very real problem for the Thessalonians, and Paul's response represents the pastoral nature of the issue. Secondly, as such, we are afforded a glimpse of both the theological concerns with which early believers in Christ wrestled and therefore, the role of Paul as pastor, not as the systematic theologian that we often assume him to be. Paul's ability to interpret the meaning of Christ into the contextual and situational matters of his congregations should give preachers pause for reflection while also pointing to the breadth of theological issues of concern as Paul works out the implications of the "gospel of God" (2:2, 8, 9) without even mention of justification by faith. Third, it is this text that narrates what most of our parishioners understand as "The Rapture." A sermon on this passage can provide an opportunity to:
Then, their story truly can be our story.
The sections of text appointed for the lectionary up to this point have not included readings from chapter three or the first part of chapter four. When last we heard from 1 Thessalonians, Paul reminded the congregation of his own work to support the ongoing mission of proclaiming the "gospel of God." He also urged the congregation to "lead a life worthy of God," and offered additional thanksgiving for the Thessalonians' reception of God's word (2:9-13). In the rest of chapter two and the first part of chapter three, Paul expresses his desire to be with the Thessalonians in person. The remaining verses of chapter three are devoted to Timothy's report about his visit which is the impetus for Paul's correspondence (3:6-13). In chapters four and five of the letter, Paul appeals to the Thessalonians to live according to the faith they have already exemplified. This faith is the grounds for encouragement to and steadfastness in living a life pleasing to God (4:1-12), a life that they are already doing but that they "should do so more and more" (4:1). 4:13 marks a shift in emphasis to the coming of the Lord as the very real expectation of the parousia in Paul's lifetime comes to the surface. If preaching only this Sunday on Thessalonians, the preacher should consider extending the pericope through 5:11 as 5:1-11 unpack the implications of the parousia (see commentary for next week).
What now appears at the forefront of Paul's discussion is the concept of hope, first mentioned in 1:3. While Paul calls upon the familiar triad "faith, hope, and love" in 1 Thessalonians, the last two are reversed (faith, love, and hope) as hope is lifted up. In 4:13, Paul draws upon this "steadfastness of hope" (1:3) as the source from which the Thessalonians will draw comfort, encouragement, and faith in the face of their loss.
Their hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ (1:3), but specifically in the imminence of Jesus' return. This is a hope that is not a generalized or ethereal category but a concretized hope in the specific promise of the resurrected Christ who will come again. This is a hope that is not simply a future wish, but one that lays claim on life now, that makes a difference for how life is lived and what is at stake. In fact, it is hope that distinguishes believers from others. Paul then describes the basis of this hope−that Jesus died and rose again (4:14). In Greek, the condition that begins 4:14 is a condition of fact or reality, best translated, "for since we believe." This creedal statement grounds the hope of the return of Jesus in what Jesus has already done and, therefore, makes the imagery that follows not wishful fancy but the comforting presence of Christ.
In 4:13, Paul indicates that what follows is not new information for the Thessalonians. It is what they already know, what they already believe, and what they have already been promised. But the reimagining of the coming of Jesus is the comfort and consolation they need at this particular time in the face of death. It is important to note that Paul is not saying the community should not grieve. On the contrary, grief is the expected emotion when faced with the painful loss of a loved one. At the same time, the grief of the believer is grounded in and defined by hope. This interconnectedness of the profound emotions of grief and hope is a mark of a community who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. As surely as God will bring those who have died, by the word of the Lord, those still alive will join them and will never (strong future denial) precede them. The term translated "left" is used in Thessalonians 4:15 and 17 is the only reference in the entire New Testament. The coming (parousia; cf. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15: 5:23) of the Lord is stated emphatically with the pronoun ("the Lord himself") and by the apocalyptic language that follows. The images are thoroughly apocalyptic (angel, trumpet of God, clouds), and it is important to remember that the primary function of this genre was comfort and encouragement in times of great distress or persecution.
What happens next is not the tribulation of those left behind, but the union of those who have died with those who mourn their passing. This unity is underscored by the term hama which means "at the same time" or "together" and the preposition syn ("with"), "together with them" (4:17). The use of syn here recalls verse 14, "God will bring with him those who have died," and will be used again at the end of the verse, "and so we will be with the Lord forever." All will be "snatched up" ("seize," "carry off") toward a meeting with the Lord in the air. The final verse of the pericope for the day emphasizes the meaning of Paul's vision. This is about comfort (parakaleō), which is the purpose of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, what the Lord provides and will provide even in his absence, the function of apocalyptic, and that which the community gives to one another. At the same time that Paul offers this extraordinary vision of consolation, he locates the act of consolation within the community as an ongoing (present imperative) expression of hope.