Lectionary Commentaries for November 12, 2017
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13

Susan Hylen

The expectation of Christ’s return is central to Christian living.

Although many Christians today consign talk of the Last Day to the realm of eccentric individuals with cult-like followings, the message of this passage suggests otherwise. The lives of Jesus’ disciples are to be shaped by knowledge of his return.

Like the other Gospels, Matthew is clear that the timing of Christ’s return is unknown. Although Jesus speaks of signs of the end time (Matthew 24:3-35), he goes on to say that no one but God knows the day or hour of its arrival (Matthew 24:36; see also Mark 13:1-37). In this sense, the Gospel’s view differs strongly from that of modern sages who claim to predict Christ’s second coming. Matthew states clearly, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).

The unknown timing of the Son’s return makes readiness essential. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is sandwiched between two passages that emphasize preparation for the master’s return. The prior passage, Matthew 24:45-51, contrasts the “faithful and wise slave” who is at work when his master comes (Matthew 24:45-46) with the self-indulgent slave who mistreats others and is surprised by the master’s return Matthew (24:48-50). The passage that follows this one, Matthew 25:14-30, is a parable in which the master entrusts his property to his slaves and expects their diligent investment of it. Both parables emphasize the actions of the slaves in the absence of the master. Their faithfulness is known through what they do when he is away.

The bridesmaids parable also points to the importance of readiness. Its last verse, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” points readers toward a message of watchfulness. It suggests that the foolish bridesmaids were not sufficiently prepared.

However, the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach.

What is distinctive about this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.

In this parable alone, the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay. If the groom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong with taking one’s lamp full of oil to meet him. But the wise disciple packs a supply of oil, knowing that her wait may be unpredictable.

It is difficult for many of today’s disciples to be anything like the bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because we have stopped waiting. We give little thought to Christ’s return, let alone what we should do to prepare for it. If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier to imagine ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. This is not necessarily something for which modern Christians should be chastised — after the passage of two millennia, we have grown accustomed to the master’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly. Nevertheless, there may be something we can gain from the parable’s perspective.

The parable asks us to imagine ourselves as those who wait for the groom’s return. When the groom comes, the wedding feast may begin! The age-old promise of the marriage between God and Israel (for example in Hosea 2:16) will come to pass. Speaking as one who has already realized the promises, the prophet Isaiah writes, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11). The prophet sees a restored Israel, where human unfaithfulness has faded away, and is replaced by righteousness and praise.

This is the wedding the bridesmaids await. Another voice proclaims the promise this way: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). The bridesmaids await not only the groom but the removal of pain and suffering. The wedding feast initiates the reign of God’s justice and mercy, the realization of all the hopes of Israel.

To act as wise bridesmaids is to affirm our faith in the coming Christ. Doing so shows our trust that God is a God of justice and mercy. The eschaton encapsulates the ideals of God’s reign. It is the vision against which we judge our efforts in the meantime to live according to God’s principles. It is a vision of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness without which our world appears very bleak.

The wise bridesmaids keep the vision of Christ’s return, and all that it stands for, alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:18-24

Margaret Odell

Today’s readings revolve around the theme of the Lord’s coming.

In both Amos 5:18-24 and Matthew 25:1-13, people expect salvation. In Amos, the Day of the Lord is to be a day of light and brightness. In Matthew, it is the highly anticipated wedding banquet, the moment when Christ returns to claim the beloved people as his bride. In both cases, there is a startling reversal of expectations.

In Amos, the people who wait for light will experience only darkness, while in Matthew some will be excluded from the wedding feast. In both cases, grace becomes judgment, and preachers must figure out how to go about the left-handed task of dismantling the gospel. While I leave it to others to consider why that must be so in the case of today’s gospel reading, I will argue that in Amos 5:18-24, the prophet must demolish false expectations so that his audience can recognize the gifts God has already given them and thereby come to participate more fully in the means of their salvation.

Amos 5:18 begins on a note of mourning. New Revised Standard Version’s “alas” translates the interjection hoy, frequently found in laments for the dead. Amos thus begins his argument by suggesting his audience is already dead. What’s killing them is their desire. So often we associate desires with temptations to idolatry, or to baser passions like lust and greed. But here the desire is for salvation of a thoroughly Yahwistic kind.

Commentators frequently point out that Amos is the first to refer to the Day of the Lord, and while it remains difficult to be exactly certain what it was, there is general agreement that the expression originated in Israel’s holy war traditions and was closely associated with the idea that God fought for Israel against its enemies. The Day of the Lord was thus a day of deliverance. Israelite faith in YHWH was rooted in YHWH’s commitment to their safety: they commemorated YHWH’s mighty works of old, and they continued to expect YHWH’s aid in the future. Their desire, then, is thoroughly orthodox, if we can use that term of ancient Israelite religion. The people eagerly await the coming of their God, the one who has saved them so many times in the past.

But Amos asks, why should you desire this day? Getting ahead of himself by saying that it will be a day of darkness, not light, he then fleshes out his concern by way of a simile drawn from his everyday pastoral experience. Amos 5:19 presents a vivid picture of a man escaping one danger, a lion, only to be met by another — a bear, and then finally reaching the safety of his house, where he is bit by a snake. We can almost see the man panting with relief as he steadies himself against the wall. But instead of reaching safety, his world goes dark. So also for the Israelites: Instead of the anticipated brightness of God’s appearing, there will be only darkness. For these people, then, there is to be no hope, no life, no gospel.

Where Amos dismantles hope in God’s future deliverance in verses 18-20, God himself speaks in verses 21-24, and it becomes clear that the relationship is already severed. In highly charged emotional language, God declares that God “hates” and “rejects” every aspect of Israelite ritual — the solemn festivals, offerings of sacrifice, even music, presumably the sounds of rejoicing and thanksgiving for Gods’ mighty acts of salvation. All of the language employed here is drawn from the priestly activity of making technical and impersonal rulings on specific instances of individual sacrifices, prayers, and offerings; here, however, the divine declaration becomes a sweeping rejection of any and all attempts to approach him.

As in verses 18-20 the ritual is not rejected because it is improper, or false, or because it is offered to other gods. The problem is the absence of justice and righteousness; and without Israel’s commitment to these things, there can be no relationship to begin with.1 God’s repudiation of Israelite ritual thus ends with a double imperative: take away the noise of your singing, but “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Given its placement in the overall scheme of God’s rejection of Israel, it is difficult to know whether the waters of justice and righteousness are presented as an alternative way to approach God, or whether they are already waters of judgment. That ambiguity is the point; the waters are both. Martin Buber has drawn attention to the way in which the word pair “justice and righteousness” always refers in the pre-exilic tradition to divine activity. At the same time, he notes, the spheres of justice and righteousness are not solely God’s concern. Rather, “the divine righteousness desires to continue its operation in a human righteousness, and … man’s fate depends on whether he submits to this will or denies it.” YHWH establishes justice, and depending on the human response, it can become God’s ongoing, life-giving presence in the world, or it can pile up into a flood of destructive judgment.2

Drawing on Martin Buber’s insight that justice and righteousness are primarily a gift of God to which Israel must respond, Jörg Jeremias points out that for Amos and all the prophets, the word pair “justice and righteousness” are not “behavioral goals, but rather primarily gifts from God which Israel can allow to flourish, can support, or can obstruct, indeed (Amos 5:7; 6:12) can overthrow.”3 Amos 5 and 6 underscore the many ways in which Israel has already rejected God’s gift of justice — has hated it, in fact (5:10), thereby turning its sweet benefits for the community into the bitter wormwood of judgment (5:7; 6:12). Yet the fact remains that justice and righteousness are gifts of God. While it might be tempting to say there can be no salvation without justice and righteousness, it might be more accurate to say that for Amos, justice and righteousness are Israel’s hoped-for salvation, and they have been present all along.


1. Jörg Jeremias, The Book of Amos: A Commentary, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 102-103.

2. Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith ONew York: Collier, 1949), 100-102, esp. 102.

3. Jeremias, Amos, 104.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Dennis Olson

God had commissioned the Israelite leader Joshua to accomplish a two-part mission: 1) to conquer the Canaanites (Joshua 1-12) and 2) to settle the Israelite tribes in their allotted territories (Joshua 13-22).

In Joshua 24, it is time for this old leader to offer his last words of instruction and the renewal of Israel’s covenant commitment to their God before he departs this life. Several pieces of background are important to understanding the significance of these final words of Joshua.

The promise of the land of Canaan
Much had been at stake in this mission to get Israel settled in Canaan. God’s reputation as a promise-keeper was on the line. Over several centuries of time, God had promised the land to Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 15:17-21; 17:8), Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5), Jacob (Genesis 28:1-4, 13-15), Joseph (Genesis 48:3-4, 21), and Moses (Exodus 3:7-8). There had also been a failed attempt by Moses to bring Israel into the land of Canaan thirty-eight years earlier that had ended in disaster (Numbers 13-14). Joshua had a heavy burden to get this right.

God’s holy war against Canaan
God’s initial instructions for Joshua’s holy war (Hebrew herem) were designed to cleanse Canaan of all non-Israelites and eliminate all temptations to worship other gods: “you shall not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

Such words reapplied over the centuries have had real consequences in the history of God’s people, often tragic and disastrous. These horrific genocidal directives rightfully trouble us. They seem to run contrary to so many other biblical texts (for example Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:1-9, Matthew 5:9. 38-39, 43-48; 26:51-52; Romans 12:9-21; Colossians 1:20; 3:12-15) in which peace, non-violence, turning the other cheek, loving enemies and “living peaceably with all” are upheld as God’s ultimate will and purpose for humanity and the world.

Joshua’s incomplete and failed mission
We can’t resolve these thorny theological and ethical issues here. But the important point for understanding Joshua 24 is that Joshua had a clear mandate to wipe out the Canaanites completely. Yet, at the end of his life, Joshua had failed. The Canaanite prostitute Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:22-25), the Canaanite clan of Gibeonites (Joshua 9:22-27), and many other Canaanite towns were not conquered and thus allowed to remain living in the land.

A few texts in Joshua do speak of an accomplished and total conquest of all of Canaan (Joshua 11:23). Other assessments, however, have a disappointed God complaining to Joshua that “very much of the land remains to be possessed” (Joshua 13:1). God had reassured Joshua that God would somehow finish the job later (“I myself will drive them out” — Joshua 13:6). In the end, however, even God would not complete the conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:22-36; 2:19-3:6). Remarkably, God ultimately abandoned his own original holy war plan to wipe out all the Canaanites. Instead, God permanently allowed the Canaanites to continue to live among the Israelites in the land “in order to test Israel.” God thereby consigned the holy war strategy to the dustbin of history, a rejected way forward.

The land as gift, remaining in the land as vocation
Another important theme in understanding Joshua’s farewell speech in Joshua 24 is the recurring reminder to Israel that the conquest of Canaan was never based on Israel’s inherent moral or religious superiority over the people of Canaan. The Canaanites had lost their land because of centuries of wickedness and injustice against their own people (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 9:4-7; Psalm 82).

So why did God give Canaan to the Israelites instead? Simply because God had made a promise and chose to keep that promise out of love for God’s people, Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 10:15; 32:8-9). The land was pure gift (Deuteronomy 8:11-18; Joshua 24:13). And just as the people of Canaan had lost their land because of their wickedness, so Israel should remember that it too could lose the land if they forgot the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). Eventually, Israel did perish from the land — the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE (1 Kings 14:15-16) and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 21:10-15). In each case, God declared the reason: “because they have done what is evil in my sight.” With this all in the background, we turn to our text of Joshua 24.

Joshua’s farewell speech: rooted in God’s love (24:1-13)
Joshua invites all Israel to the town of Shechem in the central highlands of Israel. Joshua reminds them of the long history of all that God had done for Israel: the promises to the ancestors, the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and God’s provision through the wilderness (Joshua 24:1-13). Although much of this section is deleted from the lectionary reading, these verses are important. They testify to God’s grace, mercy and unmerited love of Israel which forms the reason for Joshua’s call in verse 14: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” Reverence and obedience to God are the primary ways by which God’s people give thanks to God for the generous gifts of life and freedom God has already given.

We will serve the LORD! No, you won’t! Yes, we will! (24:14-21)
Joshua urges the people to put away “the gods of the ancestors” and “serve the LORD.” Speaking on behalf of his own household, Joshua declares: “We will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). If the other Israelite household are unwilling to follow the example of Joshua in serving the LORD, then they are free to “choose” among multiple other foreign gods, whether Mesopotamian gods (from “beyond the River [Euphrates]”) or “the gods of the Amorites [Canaanites]” (24:14-15). It doesn’t matter which other god they choose; they will have broken the sacred covenant bond between them and their one true God.

The Israelites respond to Joshua enthusiastically: “We also will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:18)! Now the reader might expect Joshua at this point to say, “Great! I’m delighted to hear you’re on board!” Instead, Joshua sternly replies, “You cannot serve the LORD!” God is jealous for your love, and God will not forgive you endlessly and without consequence. If you forsake God, God will “consume you, after having done you good” (Joshua 24:19). The people urgently answer back, “No, we will serve the LORD” (24:21). The elderly Joshua seems to have a longer view of these matters based on his long experience.

You are witnesses against yourselves (24:22-25)
Joshua proceeds to a formal ritual of renewing the covenant relationship between the Israelites and Israel’s God at Shechem. The people’s own words of unfailing commitment to serve God alone would be written down (Joshua 24:26) and remembered as “witnesses against you (24:22).” The Israelites’ words of assurance to Joshua at Shechem echo the words of an earlier generation spoken to Moses at Mount Sinai. There too the Israelite had spoken with enthusiasm, “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7)! Israel, however, quickly forgot its commitment and broke its covenant with God. They worshiped an idol — a golden calf — and thereby came dangerously close to endangering any future with God (Exodus 32:1-35; see also Exodus 33-34). Joshua had been present there at Sinai (Exodus 32:17). He had heard these insincere assurances from the people before.

Joshua knew all too well what Moses also knew (Deuteronomy 31:27, 29). The future of God’s people in the land depended ultimately not on the people’s sincerity, faithfulness or obedience. No, ultimately, the future depended on God — God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, God’s powerful word, God’s transformation of the heart. Israel would suffer severe consequences for its centuries of forsaking God (exile from the land). In the end, however, God would bring Israel back to the land not because of who the people were, but because of who God was…and who God is.


Commentary on Psalm 70

Kelly J. Murphy

In a letter dated May 15, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents from prison: “I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.”1

Earlier in the same letter, Bonhoeffer wrote, “One of my predecessors here has scribbled over the cell door, ‘In 100 years it will all be over.’ That was his way of trying to counter the feeling that life spent here is a blank … ‘My time is in your hands’ (Psalm 31) is the Bible’s answer. But in the Bible there is also the question that threatens to dominate everything here: ‘How long, O Lord?’ (Psalm 13).”2

Like Psalm 13 with its opening imploration (“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” [Psalm 13:1]), Psalm 70 is an individual lament that begins with an urgent entreaty for divine intervention: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O LORD, make haste to help me!” (verse 1). In Psalm 70, the psalmist cries out to God for deliverance from enemies, who “seek my life” and “desire to hurt me” (verse 2). The psalmist asks that those people “be put to shame and confusion” and “be turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2). Although Psalm 70 includes a moment of hope (“Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’” [verse 4]), the psalm immediately returns — and ends — with a call for God to act: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!” (verse5).

“Do not delay!” The psalm ends with a final, urgent appeal. There is no recorded divine response, no move to praise.

Of course, there are moments in each of our lives where the words of Psalm 70 could easily be our own words. Moments marked by a desire for divine intervention (and for that divine intervention to happen now, soon, without delay) and a yearning to see those who have done us wrongs shamed and dishonored. And, doubtless, there are moments in our lives when we wish for immediate help and deliverance, but hear no instant answer. In those moments, Psalm 70 provides us with a scriptural basis for lament, for airing our grievances, and for asking for help. Psalm 70 is also a reminder that we might not receive an immediate answer.

But doubtless there are also moments in each of our lives where the urgency of Psalm 70 is not our own, moments when our lives continue in a steady stream of regular days filled with regular concerns. And so, if we hear Psalm 70 read on a Sunday when our lives our rolling along as they normally do, we might not feel particularly connected to this psalm of lament. We might find, instead, that we sit and think of other things, mostly mundane (“Do we need anything from the grocery store?”, “What’s for lunch?”, “What do I need to get done this week?”).

Yet it is perhaps on those days that we might benefit most from hearing a psalm like Psalm 70. After all, the urgent cry of the psalmist (“O LORD, make haste to help me!”) is someone else’s cry. The psalm can serve as a prompt, a powerful reminder that even while our own lives might be rolling regularly along, that is not necessarily the case for everyone. Others might be hurting, calling out for help, awaiting deliverance. Others might be crying out, but hearing no response.

In his letter to his parents, Bonhoeffer briefly invokes Psalm 70, noting that “I cannot now read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the settings by Heinrich Schütz.”3 (Schütz’s “Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten” [“Make haste, O God, to save me”] draws from Psalm 40:13-17, which is repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 70). Edwin Robertson reminds us that “If our image of Bonhoeffer does not fit an anxious prayer” like that found in Psalm 70, “it is because we are among those who observe him from the outside.”4 Yet the reality was that Bonhoeffer was also asking “How long, O Lord?”, struggling with both the necessities of daily life (in the same letter, he asks for ink and stain remover, and also sends birthday wishes to someone he knows) and with his imprisonment. In one of his poems, as Robertson notes, Bonhoeffer compares how others see him (“composed, contented, and sure”) with how Bonhoeffer himself feels (“troubled, homesick, ill like a bird in a cage”).5

Psalm 70, like many lament psalms, can provide us with a voice to express our own grief, our own anger, and our own hope for divine help. It can be a way to beseech God to “make haste to help” us.

But when we hear this psalm in the moments when our own lives are going along pleasantly enough, such a lament can serve another purpose. Psalm 70 also calls listeners to stop and listen: Who around us is living in a moment where the words of this psalm are their own? Who might be experiencing anxiety and turmoil even if we cannot see it in their day to day actions? And how might we help and deliver those who are so urgently crying out?


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Touchstone: New York, 1997), 40.
2. Bonhoeffer, 39.
3. Bonhoeffer, 40.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditations on Psalms, ed. and trans. Edwin Robertson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 145.
5. Bonhoeffer, 145. For the full text of Bonhoeffer’s poem, entitled, “Who Am I?”, see pp. 145-146.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Jane Lancaster Patterson

The reading for today and the one assigned for next Sunday (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) function together to describe the nature of Christ’s longed-for return in the most vivid language possible, to help the recipients of the letter have the sense that they can actually see, hear, and trust the salvation they are risking their lives on.

Today’s reading sets forth the theological framework that will then ground the ethical counsels of 1 Thessalonians 5:6-11.

Unfortunately, the kind of imagery that supported the faith of first-century believers is problematic for 21st century Christians operating with a very different cosmology. Yet the basic Christian understandings, intuitions, and hopes that guided Paul’s pastoral response in 1 Thessalonians are still operative today, though expressed in very different terms. What follows is an attempt to open up Paul’s theological framework in a way that might offer pastoral guidance for 21st century hearers.

A pastoral problem

It appears that someone has conveyed to Paul the Thessalonians’ concern about those who have died (literally, “fallen asleep”) before the Lord’s coming (parousia) in victory. Scholars today are mainly agreed that the Thessalonians’ concern is not so much about the salvation of their loved ones as it is about community, about whether they will be eternally cut off from those they have loved, simply on account of a slip of timing.

Construing the underlying concern as one of community actually helps to bring this whole passage into focus. The vision of Christ’s triumph that Paul develops in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is one in which heaven and earth are suddenly and beautifully reconciled in an embrace (“caught up together”) that takes place in a newly opened space between heaven and earth (“in the air”) and which will never end (“and so we will be with the Lord forever”). The image gathers together Paul’s deepest beliefs about God’s reconciling purpose in Christ (see also 2 Corinthians 5:18-21), and paves the way for the ethical counsels to follow (1 Thessalonians 5:4-24).

Paul’s understanding of his mission is to assist the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16) in fully accepting the salvation offered to them in Christ by learning to live in holiness toward God and their neighbor (for example 1 Thessalonians 5:5). The vision he paints of Christ at the parousia, gathering up the nations, is intended to give the Thessalonians courage to stay the course, in spite of earthly opposition.

Does Paul have secret information about exactly what the parousia will look like? No. What he does have is a history of mystical practices (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) that no doubt help to inform the vision he describes. His imagery is also informed by biblical literature, by the pomp of Roman military victories, by apocalypticism, and by his own experiences of God’s reconciling power at work among the communities he serves. This passage offers a view into Paul’s pastoral practice: he is willing to use all the resources at his disposal to encourage the Thessalonians to trust God entirely with their present and their future.

The parousia of Christ

The popular phrase “second coming” (the New Revised Standard Version says simply “coming,” 1 Thessalonians 4:15) is one of the most unfortunate mistranslations of the Greek New Testament. As the time has grown long since the “first coming,” there is a tendency, after two thousand years, to doubt in the whole idea of a parousia (appearance, presence), thus making Christian hope seem fruitless or delusional. The phrase “second coming” sounds like a hope for God to send Jesus again, and it implies that the time between the first and second comings is just an open space, rather than the electrically charged field of salvation that Paul saw it to be.

But the full appearance, or full presence of Christ that the earliest Gentile Christians were awaiting was grounded in their lively experiences of the power of Christ and the Spirit to bring them into right relationship with the one true God and their neighbor in righteousness and justice, in holiness and love. In other words, their partnership with Christ in their day-to-day moral decision-making was the first edge of the presence making its way into human life. They could see it, touch it, believe it, because it wasn’t solely in an imagined future; it could be seen in the transformation of themselves and their communities.

The presence they were preparing for would be the ripened fruit of what they were experiencing, a time in which, finally, God would be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). They expressed their trust and hope in this future fullness by living daily with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-13), by being built up in practices of love toward one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11; see also 1 Corinthians 8).

Bridging the centuries

Paul’s skillful pastoral response to his hearers invites an equally skillful pastoral response to the questions generated by our own communities. What Paul is seeking to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is to make ultimate realities that are beyond ordinary sight so real that the Thessalonians can entrust themselves completely to them. What is expressed as a future reality is, ethically, an expression of the ends, or purposes, of the creation. These ultimate realities are:

  • The origins and ends of the creation are in God.
  • Jesus Christ is God’s means for reconciling people to one another, to the creation, and to God.
  • God will leave no one out who desires to be in right relationship.
  • The transformational presence of Christ is known tangibly when the reconciling Christian community gathers and also when believers partner with Christ in loving their neighbor.
  • Thus, Christians live with faith in the goodness of God’s purposes, with love for the people who come into their lives, and with hope for a time when God will be all in all.

It is in living the Christian life, of seeking right relationship with God and with all, that believers in the first century and in the 21st century have actual experiences of Christ in, through, and among them. These experiences of the power to love beyond human capacity then grounds a deep thirst for the full presence of God.