Faith in Christ Answers Ancient Questions

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 32
November 12, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: As Paul deals with questions from the Thessalonian church, he speaks to us as well. Issues of life and death, faith, heaven and eternal life are all part of this treasured epistle.

Life is full of questions. And the questions begin almost as soon as one can talk and communicate. Ask any parent if they've ever heard their kids ask, "Why?" and Mom or Dad answers, "Ever heard it?' I've heard them asking that a hundred times a day!" Ditto for, "How come?" Ditto for, "What?" Ditto for, "What's for supper?"

Life is full of questions we can answer. Even complex questions about science or math or medicine or space travel or jellyfish or almost any other topic or field; these can all be answered with some degree of certainty, sometimes by people with PhDs.

Beyond those questions, however, are deeper questions - some might say older questions - for which the answers are much harder to come by. Anyone who has ever lost a child to illness or accident is full of these questions. Anyone who has lived through war or other man-made tragedies has these questions. Anyone who has experienced an "act of God" (as insurance companies like to call them) has these questions. Anyone who has had a crisis of faith has these questions.

Maybe you, like me, have these questions as well.

Our text from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians deals with some of these questions.

Faith answers the question, "But what about those who died?"

Paul was ministering in, preaching to and writing letters to new churches and new Christians. There were no church elders to refer to; there wasn't yet a New Testament to find answers in; and there wasn't much in the way of church experience. Some of the churches had Jewish history, but for most of the churches Paul dealt with, Paul was the "answer man." Fortunately, he was by the grace of God, up to the challenge of fulfilling that role.

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died," Paul wrote in today's passage. One of the big questions for the Thessalonian Christians was, "What will happen to members of our community who die before Christ's return?" Of course, behind that question was the next: "What will happen to me if I die before Christ's return?"

"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." (emphasis added)

These questions arose out of Paul's teaching about the return of the Lord. Twice in chapter 1, once in chapter 2, and once in chapter 3 Paul referred to Jesus coming back.1 At the end of chapter 3, Paul says, "And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints."2 No one wanted to miss out on that!

Paul said, "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."

One writer commenting on this passage said, "The sleeping loved ones who also believed in the death and resurrection of Christ are caught up into his eternal life ... [so] Easter Sunday is not a one-time event, but the beginning of a universal restoration."3 While we certainly grieve for, and miss our loved ones who die before us, we have the assurance and the hope that one day we will be reunited for eternity in heaven.

Paul has thus dealt with the immediate question about those who die before Jesus' return. But Paul is not done. He goes on to give further details of what happens next. And that brings us to ancient questions.

Faith answers the questions, "When, and how, will Jesus return?"

Some of you are probably thinking about a word (or phrase) that gets thrown about from time to time. "Rapture" or "The Rapture" fits into Paul's words, depending on your mindset. The term refers to an end-time event when all Christian believers who are alive, along with resurrected believers, "will be caught up in the clouds ... to meet the Lord in the air," as Paul put it. If you interpret all of this in a certain way, it's easy to see how quickly you can imagine people disappearing from cars and airplanes and homes. It's easy to understand how people get out charts and timelines and start to map out how everything is logically going to fall into place. You may find yourself getting into discussions or arguments about the end times "work." You may hear terms like "premillennialism" or "postmillennialism" or "amillennialism" being bandied about. You may see bumper stickers about what to do with the car the sticker is on when the Rapture comes.

Like-minded people may be making elaborate plans for how to keep their families and themselves safe during these scary times to come. Will there be a long period of tribulation? Or will believers get taken up first, and then the tribulation happens?

Remarkably, these discussions have their roots in this pastoral letter to the Thessalonian church. Did Paul have these specifics in mind when he wrote to the church? Or was he trying to allay fears and anxieties among the church members?

Listen again to what Paul said: "For the Lord himself, with a cry of command ... 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." Note that Paul then adds this instruction: "Therefore encourage one another with these words." Does that sound like a rallying cry to get ready for the Rapture? Or does it sound like a pastor giving hope considering the uncertainties ahead of them?

"Therefore encourage one another ..." That's the logical end of this chapter. Don't give in to fear and hysteria but be people of faith. Trust God, have faith and be an encouragement to the people you are with.

Faith answers the next big question

Paul dealt with the issue of those who died (and those who will die) prior to the Lord's return. He's given some indicators about what will, or what might happen, when Jesus does come back. Finally, he then hints that this reunion with Christ will not remain "in the air." Rather, we "will be with the Lord forever." Then Paul tells his readers to "encourage one another with these words," which leads right into chapter 5. And that chapter talks about how the "day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."4

But Paul tells them some of the things that might happen. Then he closes the chapter with this assurance: "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing."5

"Faith" still answers questions and boy, do we have questions!

In terms of faith, what have we accomplished since Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonian church? Two thousand years of preaching and teaching and worship and gathering with God's people, and we still have questions.

Several months ago, a lone shooter went into a Christian school in Nashville and killed three nine-year-old children and three faithful staff members, before being killed by the fast-acting Nashville Police.

People die in traffic accidents every day. People overdose on fentanyl, often having no idea they were taking it.

A pandemic swept across the world with about 3 million losing their lives to it.

Other diseases claim lives every day.

Suicide continues to take far too many people.

Why? Why do these happen?

Perhaps we will never answer the "why" question from this side of eternity, but trust in God still offers faith and hope.

Paul did not go into detail about how people died. Rather, he simply acknowledged that some would die before Christ's return. But still there is hope and encouragement. Nowhere does Paul try to scare people. In fact, in the last verse of both chapter 4 and chapter 5, Paul tells the Thessalonians to "encourage one another."

A way forward

The Thessalonians followers of Jesus raised questions that we deal with still today. Questions about death and heaven and loved ones who precede us on that path. One man who lost his son to a burst blood vessel that had never been detected or diagnosed, chooses to affirm his trust in Christ. He does this because it's the best way forward. He does this because he believes in heaven, the resurrection of the dead and life eternal. He does this because any other choice leads to despair and darkness.

"Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, as indeed you are doing."6