St. Paul writes to the the congregation in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) that he does not want them to be uninformed. He speaks of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ; because Christ died and rose again, we too will rise from death since we are his people. Paul calls death “sleep,” and Christ will rouse us from this sleep when he returns in order to be with him “always.”
Thus, Paul says that he does not want us to be uninformed about the future that awaits us, so that we do not grieve as others do who have no hope. That is, we are not to grieve as do those for whom this present world and its trappings is all there is and who can’t bear to be separated from it.
You know these people. They believe we are here by accident. They believe the world is here purely by chance. They believe there is no purpose and, ultimately, that there is no lasting meaning or plan for this world. They believe that might makes right. This sort of false theology has permeated our culture and we are beginning to reap the sad effects as death expands its reign over the land.
This sense of hopelessness is seen most vividly in the death of those with no hope. You’ve gone to funerals where there was no hope, just mourning. Just sad faces looking at a picture of the loved one they’ve lost to death. These are those for whom death is the final word and which is not just a sleep, but the ultimate finality. This sense of hopelessness is what Paul is writing to prevent.
For, we need not mourn like those people do, because we do have hope. We hope in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We place our trust for the fulfillment of this hope in Jesus Christ. It is he who has conquered death and the grave. It is he who died and yet lives. It is he who is returning for you, for us, and for all his people. Because with Jesus Christ, death does not have the last word, it doesn’t get the final say. Jesus is the Word of God who accomplishes all things. He is the first and the last; there in the beginning of creation and there at the end for the resurrection of our bodies and the restoration of creation.
So, we grieve not as those who have no hope, but rather as those who do have a hope. We are saddened at the loss of our loved ones to death. We are upset when illness and age takes its toll. We mourn when those whom we love most dearly are separated from us, even as they are separated from their bodies by the grave. And yet, we have a hope which surpasses death.
And it’s a concrete hope, because it’s anchored in Jesus Christ who has defeated death. You were baptized into his death and resurrection. You’ve already died and risen with him. And so when he returns you will live with him for eternity as you inherit the land he has prepared for you: a restored, perfect creation, enjoying a perfect communion among humanity, between humanity and God, and between humanity and all the rest of God’s creation.
But, all this lies in the horizon. It’s coming one day with the rising of the sun and the victorious, glorious return of the Son of God. We don’t know when it will be, and so we are called to watch and be faithful. It may come in our lifetimes, it may come after our lifetimes while our bodies are burned up into dust or lie buried in the earth or sea. But, the day is coming, because Christ has promised us that he will be with us always. So, keep your lamps always lit and wait for his coming (cf. Matthew 25:1-13).
And when he comes, all the Church will be united with him. Heaven and earth will come together then, God again dwelling directly with his people. We have the first fruits of this heaven on earth even now, through God’s Word and Sacraments where He comes to His people and dwells among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. But, on that last day, God will no longer use these mediated means of grace to come to us. Instead, He will come to us directly, and we will behold our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ face to face.
No more death, no more sin, no more evil, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, no more hurt. Just God and His people dwelling together in perfection for eternity. This is our hope. This is the horizon we look to. We gaze past death to this future day when our hopes will be fulfilled, our faith will be made perfect, and our love will find its source in Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Image: Icon of Second Coming (also used for All Saints Sunday). Christ is enthroned in the center surrounded by the angels and saints, Paradise is at the bottom, with the Bosom of Abraham (left) and the Good Thief (right) holding his cross. Greece. Around 1700 Wood, gesso, tempera. Size – 34.5 x 27 cm Private Collection. Bibliography Sotheby’s: Icons, Russian Pictures and Works of Art. London, 1991, p 155. By Anonymous, Greece – http://ikona.orthodoxy.ru/icon.php?source=source36/53, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3229269 )