The loss of those we love: A sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oby the Rev. Anna Doherty

I take comfort in the fact that the earliest Christians struggled, just as we do, with the loss of people we love.

For the Thessalonians, as we hear in our second reading this evening, people’s concerns about their loved ones…

extended to the coming of Christ at the end of time.

Because of course, for the earliest of Christians, they believed that Christ would return to reign immediately…

…and as soon as these early Christians found themselves waiting longer than anticipated for the return of Christ…

…the more they began to worry about those faithful who had died before Jesus’ return.

Would the faithful departed still be included in God’s new creation?

Even more difficult, perhaps, the Thessalonians wondered about how to continue to live the life of faith, as they waited…

…to be reunited with the people they loved.

The questions of the faithful in Thessalonica are the same questions we have now.

How do we persist in faith, trusting in God’s promise of resurrection and new life…

…even as we we miss deeply, the ones we love who have gone before us?

Part of the reason we commemorate the faithful departed is because we believe, as people of faith…

…and as Episcopalians in particular, that all of God’s people are considered to be saints of the church.

And the generations of the saints of God, the great cloud of witnesses, dwell in the presence of God throughout time…

…and that we too will dwell with the saints when the time comes for us to stand in the presence of God.

We commemorate those who have died because we believe they are holy…they are with God.

We too will be with God, and with them.

We will be reunited with the ones we love, as surely as we are God’s beloved people.

Because of this, we do not grieve, as Paul writes, as others do who have no hope.

We have hope, we have faith, and we have God’s promise to us that we will dwell together in the presence of God.

It’s not a question of if we will be reunited with our loved ones, it is simply a question of “when”.

But the “when” can itself be difficult.

For the Thessalonians, Paul’s words about Jesus’ triumphal return, descending from heaven to the sound of God’s trumpet…

…and taking up to heaven those who are left alive to meet the Lord in the air was meant to be comforting.

For us, it can either sounds strange, or at its worst, it sounds frightening,

like some might be left behind, or separated from the ones they love.

What if this is the “when” we are waiting for?

Do we really need to wait for the second coming of Christ, to see the ones we love?

As I mentioned earlier, this description of Paul’s is meant to be comforting

because the Thessalonians believed that Christ would return in their lifetimes.

They didn’t think they would be waiting that long to meet the Lord in the air.

We now think a little differently, as Christians generations later.

But more than simply reflecting a different sense of timing, I do believe that the comfort of Paul’s words apply also to us.

As Paul describes Christ’s descending to earth in triumph, he makes an explicit challenge to imperial Rome.

Christ is described as arriving with precisely the same pageantry and fanfare

that would announce the arrival of imperial messenger or the emperor,

an event that was often accompanied by a declaration of euangelion, “Good News.”

For Paul to describe the Good News of Christ in exactly the same way is less a literal description of what will happen…

and more meant to convey that the promises of God are backed by a power even greater than Rome.

For us, generations later, we still rely on the power of God, a power greater than any earthy one.

As time marches on and we seek signs that God has not forgotten us, that we will not be left behind, that we will not be separated from the ones we love…

there is great comfort in the assurance that the power and promise described by Paul’s scenario is real.

Short of Christ coming down from the sky, how do we know this promise is real, real enough to offer us the hope we need to get by each day?

Everyone’s experience of this is different, but I believe that there are signs of God’s presence all around us.

I tend to see it in the little things, rather than in the end-of-the world scenarios.

As today’s letter from Paul says, we receive encouragement from one another, as people of faith.

Whether it is a card, a hug, or our gathered prayers for strength and assurance in our grief.

We give thanks for the wonderful memories that sustain us, and the new ones that we create together every day.

And we pray together, we worship together in the presence of God, just as we are doing now.

As one biblical scholar says, it is through these small things, lived day by day,

that the presence of God becomes more and more real to us, even more seen and felt.

As real as Christ coming out of the sky, and gives us hope to face each new day with courage.