1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
As best I can remember it, the comment came as part of a discussion about the media frenzy immediately following the capture of the two suspected snipers in the Washington, D.C. area. It had troubled some of the participants in the discussion that before these suspects had even gotten charged, before these presumed innocent until proven guilty people had even had a jury trial, there was this zeal on the part of every talk show to get the trial in the place where the death penalty was most severe. Then someone asked this question, “Is America’s confidence in the death penalty a result of our moral rectitude or from a disappearance of any belief in an afterlife?” Maybe we would not feel the need to be so quick to impose mortal punishment if we were confident in God’s ability to deal with an unrepentant sinner after death. Why are we so eager to kill sinners unless we really do not have much confidence or conviction in a life after death? It certainly makes one stop and think. What do we really believe about life after death? Or if we say we believe in an afterlife, what influence, what impact does that belief have on shaping what we do now? Does there really seem to be a gradual disappearance of any belief in an afterlife in the way we face death?
One minister made these observations, “In my almost sixty years of living, the reaction of society to death certainly seems to have changed. Forty or fifty years ago I don’t remember counselors sent to school when children died. Forty or fifty years ago I can’t remember seeing public shrines marking the place where a death took place. Out-pouring of grief on the side of the road with flowers, teddy bears, and toys. The kind of public memorial services which took place after the 9/11 attacks or Columbine shootings seem to me to be a new kind of approach to the presence of death. The comments made at those services all seem to talk about what wonderful people those who died were and that we will remember them, and we will live our lives now differently because we want to honor them. But seldom is heard a word about a life or world after death.”
There are still radio preachers and pulpit pounders who are preaching the simple message that where we spend eternity, heaven or hell, depends on how we respond to Jesus, so we had better accept Jesus Christ now because we never know when we will die and have to face that judgment. There are some who still talk about life after death, but what kind of influence does it have. Presbyterian Church of Ireland, when it reaffirmed its faith at the beginning of the new millennium with a statement of faith, said that the church “exists to love and honor God through faith in his Son and by the power of his Spirit, and to enable her members to play their part in fulfilling God’s mission to our world.” The statement calls its members to share life, to worship God, to go forth in mission, and to see itself as challenged with “biblical discipleship which is radical in its self-denial, simplicity of lifestyle, stewardship of money, faithful relationships, prayerfulness, concern for the world which God has created, and love for its people whom he loves and for whose salvation he gave his Son.” There is not a single mention or reference to a life after death unless you claim it in the word salvation. In the thirty years a minister has been tracking sermons from some of the country’s leading journals on preaching, there have only been three sermons published on this text from Thessalonians and one of them is one of his.
Death really is a fearful enemy if this life is all there is. Death is the end. The sniper, the terrorists, anthrax, cancer are all horrendous monsters if this life is all there is. The attack on the Christian faith for its promises of glory and joy in heaven as “pie in the sky by and by” suggests that those who make that claim do not believe in a by and by. Throughout history there have been many who would be willing to trade seventy years of trouble here for an eternity of bliss. But they want their pie now because they do not believe there is something more. Maybe it is there, but it has no influence in how we live. There are even good Christian theologians who have stopped talking about a life after death because they want to point out that heaven can begin here on earth as we live in relationship with God, and hell begins here as we suffer the loneliness and alienation from God. Don’t focus on the after death, focus on the kingdom of God in our midst now. There are lots of places where death is exalted as the ultimate. Death and taxes. Grab all the gusto you can grab for you only live once. When death comes, it is over. Finished. Nothing more. We live. We die. That is the way it is. If it happens after you’re dead, well, tough, you missed it.
That is what the church at Thessalonica was wrestling with. As the early Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and anticipating the immediate return of Jesus Christ, they were still convinced that death was the end. When you died, you were finished. They were expecting Jesus’ return, but as they waited, some of their faithful members began to die. What a shame. Those devout and beloved members of the fellowship were going to miss it. It seemed like such a pity that they had been so eager and excited about the kingdom of God, and now they had died and would not get to share in that joy. Death had grabbed them. Death had done its work. Death had destroyed them. They had been captured by the power of death and they were gone. When Jesus came to claim his own, he would take those who were living and waiting, and those who had died in the Lord would simply be left behind and taken only in the memory of those who were still alive. Death would keep making the kingdom of God smaller and smaller by taking more and more.
Oh, they knew that God had raised up Jesus Christ from the dead and that the living and reigning Jesus was going to come and bring in his kingdom. They believed in the new heaven and the new earth, but somehow God’s power to raise up Jesus did not immediately mean to them that God had the power and would use it to raise up those who had died in faith in Jesus. It is one thing to believe that Jesus died and rose again; it is another step to believe that God will bring with Jesus at his coming all those who have died in faith. What has the resurrection of Jesus Christ to do with the rest of us? Paul had to teach us that the power and promise of the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God in glory with Jesus Christ is the very reason for our hope in the face of death. It is the reason we do not grieve as those who believe that death is the end. We believe that Jesus died and rose again. We believe that God will fulfill history by the power of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated, single event, a single solitary rabbit God pulls out of the hat of death to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is a cosmic event that deflates the power of death and liberates the lives of those who live and love in Christ from the power of death. God established the power of Jesus over the authority of death by the resurrection, and when the kingdom of God comes, God will resurrect from the clutches of death all those who have died in faith and in hope and reunite the living with those who have died before. There is no preference of the living over the dead. The power of God’s resurrection will bring forth out of the power of death all those who have lived and loved in the joy of Christ. That is why Paul says we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
This is the great good news that the Christian faith has to speak to a dying world. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the faith that those who live and love in Jesus Christ will be remembered and reclaimed from the power of death when the kingdom of God comes in glory, we have very little that makes much difference. As Saint Paul says, if our hope were limited to this world only, we would of all people be the most to be pitied. Death is our enemy. Death is God’s enemy as well.
It is this message that has hope for those who were killed in the snipers’ attack, who were killed in the Columbine shooting, who were killed in the World Trade Center buildings. There is not much future in our promise to remember them. But there is a great comfort that by the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the kingdom of God, there will be a glad reunion with all those who have died in faith. The dead in Christ will rise and those who are still alive when the kingdom comes will meet and rejoice and celebrate a glad reunion. Those who are still alive will not be deprived of the fellowship of those who have already died. Our joy will be complete because it will be shared with all those whose love and blessings have meant so much to us. The kingdom of God becomes more and more important to us as it becomes more and more peopled with the people we love.
Maybe the concern with life after death only becomes important when you have lost somebody you love, for one of the most human desires is to meet again with those we love who have died. “Further on up the road, Where the way is dark and the night is cold, One sunny morning we’ll rise I know and I’ll meet you further on up the road.” That is how Bruce Springsteen sings about it in his album about the 9/11 events, called The Rising. “One sunny morning we’ll rise I know and I’ll meet you further on up the road. I’ll meet you further on up the road.” It is a rising that the Christian faith awaits as well, resting on the promises of Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead and in his resurrection has the power to resurrect us into his kingdom further on up the road.