1 Thessalonias 4:13-18
There is nothing quite like a game of peek-a-boo.Â Face behind the hands, or ducking behind a chair, or through a doorâ€”a baby intrigued; then a moment of surprise or even shock; followed by a babyâ€™s laughter.Â It is a great game!
Mind you, itâ€™s not entirely a game.Â Itâ€™s actually part of a learning process in which a child, often around the age of eight or nine months, gets a grasp of what is known as â€œobject permanenceâ€â€”the understanding that when we see something, and then it is covered up, or removed, or a person leaves the room, that object still exists, that person still exists.Â Once a child gets a hold of this you can put a toy on the floor and cover it with a blanket and the child will reach for it, look for it under the blanket.Â The child will also get anxious sometimes when Mum or Dad leaves the roomâ€”still existing, but not there to be seen!Â So where?Â And for how long?
Of course the same learning that makes for peek-a-boo giggles is a developmental concept that also allows for separation anxietyâ€¦.
There is a gentle reminder of â€œpermanenceâ€ in our funeral service when, as the coffin is about to be lowered into the grave, or removed from sight for later burial or cremation, and these words are spoken:
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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul wrote these words to the young Christian church at Thessalonicaâ€”to Christians who were concerned that Jesus was taking a long time coming back.Â It is hard for us to appreciate just what it was like for those in the very first generation following Jesusâ€™ death and resurrection and ascension, living each day with the wonderful promise and an imminent sense of his return!Â Maybe, if we can draw on base childhood feelingsâ€”as we get just a bit agitated that Mum or Dad hasnâ€™t returned, isnâ€™t back in sight, isnâ€™t visible in that comforting, reassuring way we needâ€¦not quite quickly enough.
That is how the first generation of Christians waitedâ€”wavering, at times, between joyful anticipation and expectation, and natural moments of anxiety.
And the anxiety became accentuated as fellow Christians began to die.Â The waiting for Jesus of weeks, or months, became long yearsâ€¦and aging Christians began to die.Â And for the first time the Churchâ€™s pastors had to deal with questions like, â€œWhat happens to a Christian when he dies?Â What will happen in the resurrection?Â What will we be like?Â Will we be young or old?Â What will â€˜perfect meâ€™ look like?Â Will we still know everyone?Â What happens in-between, after you die, before the resurrection?â€
And the questions may come from all kinds of different thinkingâ€”about personal health, about relationships, about fears, about loved ones.
And how does the Bible answer these troubling questions?
In many ways, to be frank, it doesnâ€™t.Â (Not how we would like it to, anywayâ€¦.)Â In another way, it does so in a most direct and simple way:Â it points to Jesus.Â When you read through the New Testament you tend to come across a couple of expressions.Â For one, it talks about Christians who â€œhave fallen asleep in himâ€, that is, in Jesus.Â Â Asleep inÂ Jesus.Â It talks about those who have â€œdied in Christâ€.Â Â InÂ Christ Jesus.Â And elsewhere it talks about those who are â€œwith the Lordâ€.Â Â WithJesus.Â All of these expressions focus Christian faith on Jesus; they direct questionsâ€”even anxious questionsâ€”to considering Jesus; in relation to Jesus.
Try and imagine, again, if you can, those living in the years immediately following the events of Jesusâ€™ death and resurrection.Â The witness of Jesusâ€™ first followers to Jesusâ€™ teaching, to Jesusâ€™ miracles, to Jesusâ€™ compassion, to Jesusâ€™ sensitivity, to Jesusâ€™ loyalty, to Jesusâ€™ power, to Jesusâ€™ care; to the way Jesus included people, forgave people, welcomed those sometimes rejected by others, his generosity, his patience, his honesty, his directness, his gentleness, his wisdom, his mercy.Â The immediacy of the events for the witnesses who then spread out through the world and proclaimed hope because of Godâ€™s loveâ€”the immediacy of the events was translated into an energy and capacity to create an experience of Jesusâ€™ presence, even for those who, like the Thessalonians, had not seen him for themselves.
The specific question that Paul addresses is a concern that if a person dies before Jesusâ€™ return then will he or she somehow miss out on the big event?Â Paul assures them that those who are â€œdead in Christâ€, or those who â€œhave fallen asleep in himâ€ areÂ inÂ him, areÂ inÂ Christâ€”the nature of the relationship is there, is real, alive or deadâ€”in the reality of the risen Jesus, no matter what we seem to see or perceive or even fear because we canâ€™t see, or donâ€™t knowâ€¦.Â Paul asserts this emphatically to a people who are anxious and confusedâ€”(we know how that feels!)â€”he asserts this emphatically because he does not want us, in our grievingâ€”(and grieving is real; it means giving up control of a situation; it means change in a situation, in a relationship)â€”he does not want us to grieve â€œas others do who have no hopeâ€.Â Christian hope is about a certainty in something that is real, but not yet realized.Â If we are to hopeâ€”even in a time of griefâ€”if we are to hope in Christ, in Jesus, we hope based on a relationship with Jesus that is real even before we see him face to face when he comes again.
Where does that â€œrealâ€ come from?Â Not one of you here has lived at a time when Jesus has walked among us in the way that he did during his time of ministry in the first century.Â (I allow that some of you may have well heard his voice or seen his smile or known his reassurance in dreams or visions or experiences where youâ€™re not quite sure what was going on.)Â But it hasnâ€™t been, for us, like it was for the first apostles.
And yet, by faith, our hope is real.Â Our hope in Christ Jesus.Â Where does that come from in this day and age?
Of course, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.Â And the Spirit works through Godâ€™s Word, in all the variety of ways that we proclaim it; the Spirit works through the Sacraments of baptism and communion with a visibility and physicality that connects each of us personally to Godâ€™s Word, Godâ€™s grace, Godâ€™s promise; and the Spirit works through these means through the on-going day to day ministry of peopleâ€”teachers and pastors and friends and parents (and you get the drift)â€”ordinary and extraordinary peopleâ€”who help to give an experience of the concrete reality of Godâ€™s saving love and saving presence through day to day faithfully â€œbeing Christâ€ to others; being the presence of Christ in the lives of others.Â When the Bible speaks of us, the Church, as the body of Christ, it is much more than a picturesque metaphor for how Christians should relate to each other under Christ; it is a rather powerful statement about Jesusâ€™ real presence in the world today!
About 20 years ago I read an article written by an Anglican school chaplain, in which he asserted that for large numbers of young people growing up in Australia, the school chaplain would beÂ theÂ concrete symbol of God and Godâ€™s church which they encountered in life.Â While I have a much broader picture of what happens in a church school than that it was a comment which made me realise the significance of the opportunity which I have to â€œmake realâ€ and â€œmeaningfulâ€ in the life of a person the Gospel of Godâ€™s love in Jesus, which I proclaim.Â Every time I speak a word of forgiveness, every time I show some care, every time I teach or direct or counsel according to an understanding of the gracious will of God, every day I remain loyal and patient, every time I bounce back from disappointment and make a new beginning with someone struggling or in a situation of pain and lossâ€”these all give me the opportunity to make Christ real, to make Jesusâ€™ presence real.
Most of us will know well that it is a lifetime of knowing the reality of Godâ€™s love spoken and shown to us that enables us to know the real presence of Jesusâ€™ love remains, and is constant even at those moments when we canâ€™t seem to see what we trust without seeing; when our hope, our assurance in the promise is filled with an experience of knowing faithfulness in the past; when our grieving at the tomb is balanced with our celebration of the life we have known.Â Every sermon you have listened to, every lesson taught from the Scriptures, every hymn or song sung in worship, every speaking of Godâ€™s word of forgiveness, every wafer and sip swallowed, every splash from the waters of the font, every gesture of comfort or aid or encouragement or acceptance in the name of Christ has been for you, through othersâ€”Godâ€™s servants of every kindâ€”the presence of Jesus in your life in way that has taught you â€œobject permanenceâ€â€”Jesus permanence, grace permanence, life permanence.
The apostle and evangelist John put it like this in the first century:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touchedâ€”this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.Â We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
That tradition of ministry has made Jesusâ€™ presence real for us.
You are a part of that tradition.Â You know the constant grace of Jesus.Â So encourage one another with these words, and encourage people, with the word of his love, and his life, to know his presence, his permanence.Â Amen.