Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Hope in the Resurrection
13 Brothers and sisters, we really want you to know what is happening with Christians who have died. We don't want you to grieve, like those who don't have hope in the resurrection. 14 If we believe Jesus died and rose again, then we can trust God will join those who have died with the risen Jesus.
15 With the power of God's word, we can state the following: We who are alive when the Lord returns will not go to heaven before those who have died. 16 For, at his command which will sound like the shout of an archangel or the blast of God's trumpet, the Lord will come down. Then, he will raise up Christians who have died. After that, he will take the risen and those of us who are alive to meet with him in heaven! At the same time! That way, we will always be with the Lord. 18 Encourage each other with these words of hope!
13 We certainly did not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those sleeping (in death), so that you might not grieve, just as the living not having hope. 14 For if we believe that JESUS died and rose (again), so as well, through JESUS, God will lead (those) having fallen asleep (in death) with HIM. 15 For we say this to you in the word of the LORD, that we, the living, the ones having been left behind for the parousia of the Lord, certainly will not precede (those) having fallen asleep (in death), 16 for the LORD himself, with a command, with the shout of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven, and the dead in CHRIST will rise up first, 17 then we, the living, the ones left behind, will be taken up with them at the same time for a meeting with the LORD in the air. Thus we will always be with the LORD. 18 So, encourage each other with these words.
4:13, 15 "certainly" indicates the presence of a double negative ("not...not") in Greek. The double negative adds emphasis.
4:15 "parousia" is a theological term that refers to the Second Coming.
4:16 " with a command, with the shout of the archangel and with the trumpet of God" These are three different images referring to the same event, not three successive events. In other words, the command and the angel's pronouncement and the trumpet blast are all the same sound.
4:17 Many Christians refer to this verse to support their belief in the "rapture." They hold this "rapture" will be the first in a series of events that marks the end times. However, in context, this verse simply refers to an "ascension" of the just after the Last Judgement. In other words, Paul was using a parallel between Jesus and his followers. What happened to Jesus after his death and resurrection will happen to the faithful at the end of time.
In the salutation of 1 Thessalonians, Paul praised the community with the three theological virtues:
2 We always give thanks to God about you, bringing (you) to mind in our prayers without end, 3 remembering your work of faith, (your) labor of (unconditional) love, and (your) patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the presence of our God and Father.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Our past studies have focused upon the faith of the community, a devotion that withstood the opposition of the city leaders and the local synagogue. Paul focused the theme of love in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. Finally, he addressed the theme of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. But, unlike the general faith of the community, and the overall instructions to love each other, Paul had a particular issue that caused controversy in the Thessalonian church: the fate of deceased Christians.
Jesus will come back soon, Paul taught the Christians at Thessalonika. He will save the faithful from God's wrath and bring them to heaven. But, what happened to loved ones who died before the Second Coming? After all, the claims of early Christian missionaries were not coming true. The return of the Lord was not as immanent as first thought. Some Biblical scholars think that this delay was used against the local Christians by opponents. "Your Lord isn't returning," the opponents could claim, "so your religion is bankrupt."
How could Paul answer the concerns of the Thessalonians? Paul used the analogy of sleep for death, implying that death was not an end, but a transitional state. The Christian dead lay "asleep" in their tombs, just like Jesus did for three days. This parallel between the experience of Christ and that of the faithful was merely a corollary to one of Paul's central themes: a literal interpretation of the phrase "in Christ." According to Paul, the neophyte had been joined (in a very real way) to Christ in his death and resurrection at baptism. From that point on, the life and future of the Christian was interwoven with that of the Savior. If the Christian who died with the Lord and rose in his new life passed away before his return, their death somehow reenacted the experience of the Jesus before his resurrection.
Notice the language in 4:14. God would raise up those who died in Christ with Christ. In other words, those who experienced the death and resurrection of the Lord in baptism (those "in Christ") would be raised up to live with him. The language of ascension was also present. Just as Christ ascended to the Father, so would the all the faithful, those alive on the last day and those risen from the dead. [4:16-17]. Paul seemed to imply this final ascension was the last act of the end times, not the first, as some Christians assert. After all, the final result of the Second Coming would be a full realization of unity between Christ and his faithful. In the end, what Paul meant by the phrase "in Christ" would become fully present. [4:17b]
As the liturgical year comes to an end, we focus our attention to the return of the risen Christ. And to those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We who live in Christ, whether alive or dead, hope in his final appearance. Then, death will not be an end or even a transitional state. It will be destroyed. But, even more important, we will be united with the Lord in ways unimaginable.
Reflect on your experiences of death. What funerals or wakes have you attended? What hope did they inspire in the resurrection? If you could plan your own funeral, how could you encourage hope in the resurrection?