Anyone who has lost a loved one knows how challenging it can be to really believe this. Our Prayer Book says it well: “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death” (BCP, p. 507). Some days are better than others. And depending on where we find ourselves in the process of grieving, our loss can sometimes feel overwhelming.
St. Paul is no stranger to the struggle with loss and grief. For in this morning’s Epistle lesson, we hear him offering words of comfort and hope to grieving Christians who belong to the church in Thessalonica.
Thessalonica was a port city of considerable size and with great political and economic influence. It was a center of the Roman imperial cult. It was filled with temples dedicated to the Greek gods. And as one writer notes, “on a clear day one could … see Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, rising high into the heavens across the harbor.” It must have been a majestic sight!
When Paul writes this letter, the church in Thessalonica is less than a year old. So these are very young Christians who are struggling to affirm their identity in Christ in a pagan culture hostile to their faith. Everywhere they go, pagan gods and the pagan lifestyle renounced in baptism confront the Thessalonian Christians. It’s hard to live in a world in which temptations to idolatry and immorality are constantly thrown in your face.
But while the Thessalonians may be young in their faith, they’re also resilient. Paul alludes to a persecution they endured. And he praises them for holding fast through trials and suffering.
But there’s a problem. Some of the Thessalonians have died. We don’t know if they died in the persecution or due to other causes. But we do know that these deaths have shaken the faith of these Christians in ways that perhaps even persecution did not. It’s a very human thing, isn’t it, that we can endure so very much, but losing people we love cuts to the core of our hearts.
Add into the mix the fact that the Thessalonians believed that Jesus was returning at any moment to set all things right, and the stage is set for a crisis. These early Christians fully expected that they would experience the Second Coming in their lifetimes. It could be today or tomorrow, or next week, next month, or next year. But Jesus’ return was imminent. It’s much easier to endure the sufferings of persecution when you believe that your liberator will soon arrive. But when loved ones start dying and there’s still no sign of Jesus’ return – what were they to make of that? Were their loved ones forever lost?
It may not be easy for us to put ourselves into the mindset shared by the Thessalonians. For not many Christians today live each moment expecting the return of Jesus. Yes, we believe it when we say in the words of the Nicene Creed that Jesus “will come again in glory.” That is a core tenet of our faith. And it is the foundation of our hope for the future fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world. But that’s probably not on our minds when we’re going about the daily tasks of life.
Even so, there are parallels in our experience with the confusion and grief of the Thessalonians. There are times when we, too, experience life’s changes and chances in ways that burst the fragile bubble of our self-sufficiency and shake the foundations of our faith. Times when pain and loss catch us off guard, perhaps even overwhelming us.
It’s precisely at those times that Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are not dead letters from a distant past, but words that are “living and active” and true (Hebrews 4:12). They are addressed not only to Christians who lived almost 2,000 years ago, but to Christians in every time and place. They are addressed to you and to me.
Here’s what Paul says to us:
“My friends, we want you to understand how it will be for those followers who have fallen asleep. Then you won’t grieve over them and be like people who don’t have any hope. We believe that Jesus died and was raised to life. We also believe that, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. … Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 18).
Paul’s words of comfort stand in stark contrast to the views of his day. As one writer notes, “In face of death the pagan world stood in despair.” The words of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus are representative. “There is hope for those who are alive,” he wrote, “but those who have died are without hope.” A popular epitaph on tombstones of the day sums up the prevailing attitude: “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.” Such were the rather Stoic attempts in that day to stave off the fear and grief that surround the reality of death.
By contrast, Paul wants us to live without fear and free of the weight of grief. He wants to reassure us that those who have died remain in God’s care. And so he lays out a vision of hope in which death is no longer the final end, but rather the doorway to new life.
“We believe that Jesus died and was raised to life,” Paul says. That’s not just one belief among others, an interesting opinion, or a conviction that’s nice to affirm but that doesn’t really affect anything or anyone else. Because if the belief that Jesus died and was raised to life is true, if God really raised the dead Jesus from the grave with a body that is no longer subject to disease, death, and decay, then something akin to overturning the law of gravity has been unleashed into the world. Death is no longer a one-way, dead-end street. And every person baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection shares in His victory over death.
So what happens to persons who die in Christ? Paul addresses that concern by using the metaphor of falling asleep. This is so very important, because it reassures us that those who have died are not lost or annihilated. Just as sleeping persons are temporarily separated from the activities of waking, conscious life, persons who have died are separated from the activities of bodily existence. They are at peace in the presence of the Lord. And with all the faithful departed, they await the last great day when all who believe in Christ are bodily raised from the grave into a new creation that knows nothing of suffering, sickness, death, or decay.
St. Jerome summed it up so well when he wrote:
“Thus when we have to face the hard and cruel necessity of death, we are upheld by this consolation, that we shall shortly see again those whose absence we now mourn. For their end is not called death but a slumber and a falling asleep. Therefore the blessed apostle forbids us to feel sorrow concerning those who are asleep, telling us to believe that those whom we know to sleep now may hereafter be roused from their sleep. And when their slumber is ended, they may watch once more with the saints and sing with the angels, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men of good will.’”
Following the lead of St. Paul and St. Jerome, when we remember loved ones who have gone before us, we can do so trusting that they are safe and at peace. We can be confident that God will complete the work begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus by eradicating mourning, crying, and pain. And we can live in the joyful expectation of reunion with those we love but see no longer.
 Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 147.
 William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians Revised Edition (The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 203.
 Gorman, ibid., p. 160.
 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IX: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, edited by Peter Gorday (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 87.