Rev. Mark Schaefer
Trinity United Methodist Church, Annapolis
November 3, 2019—All Saints Sunday
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Grief is often a problem for Christians. We don’t always know how to deal with it. Sometimes we imagine that we’re not supposed to feel grief at all; that as Christians, we’re always supposed to be triumphant and happy. A colleague of mine—an ordained minister—was once told that if she’d just had a little more faith, she wouldn’t feel so sad. She was told this at her mother’s funeral.
Christians sometimes are under the impression that Christian faith and grief aren’t really compatible.
That’s curious, of course, because there’s a long history of dealing with grief in Christianity—from Jesus’ weeping over the grave of Lazarus to the disciples’ grief after his death to the grief being experienced by many of the early Christian communities.
II. THE TEXT
Grief forms the background to the First Letter to the Thessalonians that we read from earlier. In that letter, Paul is dealing with a very real problem in early Christianity: the delay of the Second Coming of Christ and the anxiety that many had about their loved ones getting to participate in it.
See, it was now almost two decades since Jesus’ death and resurrection, enough time that some in those early Christian communities were dying of old age or other reasons without having witnessed the second coming of Christ. Would these departed dead miss out on the Kingdom of God? What would their fate be in the plan of eternity?
So, Paul begins to explain:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
Those who have died are not left out of the plan of salvation—when Christ returns, he “will bring with him those who have died.” Paul continues:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.
That is, just because we will be alive when the Lord returns does not mean that we will have any advantage compared to those who have died.
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 alive, 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.
On the contrary, when Christ returns, the trumpet shall sound and the dead will be raised. The living will be caught up together with the dead to meet the Lord in the air, after which all will be “with the Lord forever.” Therefore, encourage one another with these words.
Now, these days, when you hear this text it’s usually being used as a proof-text for the Rapture (it isn’t) instead of what it’s primary purpose is: to encourage those who are grieving that their loved ones are not left out of the plan of salvation. Paul is many things, but first and foremost, he’s a pastor, writing to his congregations and attempting to meet their needs. And the Thessalonians are grieving.
III. GRIEF AND CHRISTIAN FAITH
And that’s why it’s important to explore another way that this text is sometimes used: to tell people not to grieve. Because I think that’s the exact opposite of what Paul’s letter is trying to do.
As I noted earlier, contemporary Christianity is not always great about grief and loss. There are a lot of people who assume that if you’re a Christian, then you should be immune from grief and sorrow. You should always be happy. Not even death should make us sad.
But that’s not really honest, now, is it? Death does make us sad. And that’s okay.
A. Honesty About Death
When I think about our attitudes toward death in this country, I cannot help but think of a famous sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this sketch, John Cleese comes into a pet shop run by Michael Palin. He has a complaint: his parrot is dead.
The shop owner denies that the parrot is dead, insisting merely that he is resting. After going back and forth with the customer over whether the parrot is dead, the shop owner insists once again that the parrot—a “Norwegian Blue”—is likely just “pining for the fjords.”
The customer responds:
Mr. Praline : It’s not pinin’, it’s passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he would be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians! It’s hopped the twig! It’s shuffled off this mortal coil! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This…. is an EX-PARROT!
What I like about this sketch is not only that it’s funny, but that it reveals a real truth about our culture. We don’t like to talk about death directly. John Cleese’s little rant at the end is wonderful because of the number of euphemisms he employs to say “is dead.” He could have added a few more:
Kicked the bucket, gone to his great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, late, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, expired, in a better place, or the most common one: passed away.
Now, of course, it is not only death which we have euphemisms for. There are all kinds of things that we don’t talk about directly—sex, bodily functions, etc.—but it seems that we have special difficulty speaking about death.
Which is strange for us—especially those of us who are Christians. The Bible itself is pretty blunt about the reality of death. At the core of our faith is the proclamation of Christ’s death.
Of course, for Biblical people, the reality of death was ever-present. Much the way it was around us a couple generations ago. It used to be the case that when people died, they died at home. Their bodies were cleaned and cared for by the family, before the corpse was taken away by the undertaker so that after the funeral, it would be buried in a coffin in a grave at the graveyard. Now, people die in hospitals. When they die, the family is whisked out of the room. Hospital staff prepare the body, and then the body is transported to the funeral director who places the loved one into a casket so that after the memorial service it can be interred into a plot at the memorial garden. Why it’s almost like no one has died.
Our removal from daily contact with death has removed our ability to talk about death honestly. And that is something that we need to do.
B. The Necessity of Grief
First, to assist in our grieving. Today is All Saints Sunday, the Sunday on which we celebrate those who have died in the faith before us. It is a time when we remember the vision of St. John the Divine, who wrote in Revelation of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” The great “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before us in Christian faith and who have died. The Saints.
But it is also a time when we remember those who have died in the past year. And it can be a time when feelings of loss, pain, and sorrow are still very keenly felt. When memories of loved ones who have died can come streaming back and bring with it all the pain that we felt. I submit to you that it is at times like that that talking around the issue does no good at all. Part of any grieving process is in coming to terms with the object of our grief. The first step toward healing and wholeness is in facing the reality of our circumstances head on.
That is why it is so important to avoid all the trite sentimentality that hides the reality of death. In our own desire to avoid causing harm to others, we engage in platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “they’re smiling down on us” or other things that are seemingly designed to distract us from the pain.
If any of you is at my funeral, please don’t say, or let anyone else say, anything like, “I’m sure he’s in a much better place now” or “I’m sure he’s smiling down at us” or anything like that. Please just say—if you feel the need to say anything—“Mark Schaefer is dead.” I would consider it a personal favor.
IV. SINCE WE BELIEVE
But there is another, deeper reason we need to be honest about death. We need to be honest about death if we are to keep our faith from being nonsensical. We need to be honest about death if we are truly going to appreciate the power of the resurrection.
In Ancient Israel, there was not a real belief in life after death. By Jesus’ day, many Jews believed that on the last day, with the coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the Reign of God, that the dead would be raised to new life—they would be resurrected. But belief in the resurrection did not imply that death was any less real. Belief that one day God would raise the dead to new life did not lessen their appreciation of death. Indeed, their faith was defined by the reality of death. As is ours.
Because we Christians do not believe that Jesus “passed away” on the cross. Jesus died. A real death. In the words of the ancient creed, “He descended into hell”—a way of saying, he descended into the realm of the dead—he was among the dead.
Jews did not believe in a separation of body and soul. That was a Greek idea. Jews believed that human beings were psychosomatic wholes—body and soul were one. There was no way to get around death. You couldn’t euphemize your way out of it. You couldn’t say, “Well, the important part still lives on.” You couldn’t say, “It’s okay, Peter, I’m sure Jesus is in a better place”. All you could say was “Jesus is dead.”
German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that when Jesus died on the cross, it was not the death of the human Jesus only, but a death of the divine Son of God. That is, Christians believe that the Son of God—one of the persons of the Trinity, one of the community of God’s innermost being—became flesh and dwelled among us as the human being Jesus of Nazareth.
Moltmann says that when Christ was crucified, it was not only the human Jesus who died, but the divine Son. There was a death within God’s innermost being. That God knew death within Godself. That God took death into God’s very being and suffered that death within. And that for God that death was not any less real than any death that we experience. The absence, the loss, the pain.
But we all know the story does not end there. We know that on the third day, God raised Christ from the dead. Not just the divine Son, but the human Jesus. A restoration to bodily existence. A stunning reversal from the fortunes of death. For, it is only in contemplation of the awesomeness, the mystery of death, that we truly understand the power of resurrection. It is not something that happens naturally. It is not the same thing as our spirits flying off to some other parallel dimension or plane. It is not the same thing as immortality. It is not really even life after death. It is life out ofdeath. That out of the midst of death, life emerges. New life. Resurrected life.
This is the hope that Paul refers to when he says that we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope…” He is not promising that we will not grieve—only that we will not grieve in the same way that others do, but that we grieve with hope. As Paul would say to the Corinthians in another epistle, Jesus is the “first fruits” of those who have died. His resurrection is not an isolated incident, but that we, too, will all see Resurrection together—and this is our hope.
It is with that hope, then, that we are able to face death. Not as something to be talked around. Not as something to be glossed over. Not as something that has lost its power. But as something real, something true, something powerful, that nevertheless is not the final word.
We all here will die. The death rate will remain the same: one per person. But we can face death without fear. We can face death with hope. Because we know that God has not given death the final word—love has the final word. Death is not in control of this world, God is. Death may be our destiny, but it is not our eternal fate: resurrection is.
Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated to us a radical reversal. And in that radical reversal is hope, a powerful hope. And a reminder too, that not even death—a reality which we all must face—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 • But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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 alive, 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.