Departed Saints and the Coming Kingdom

A Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13*


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, Who Is, and Was, and Is To Come, the First Born from among the Dead. Amen.

There is no denying it: the days are getting shorter – even if we hadn’t “fallen back” last night. Nature drove this point home rather starkly for a few hundred thousand of us in north Georgia as we spent Thursday without power. By 7, it was dark enough that I was reaching for oil lamps to illuminate the dinner table – a far cry from the long days of summer when Suzanne and I could take long strolls until 9 or 9:30 at night.

For two millennia, the Church has incorporated this natural cycle into our calendar, using the long nights as an expression of our yearning for Christ’s birth and return in glory – the themes of Advent, which we will mark in a month.

The Thessalonians were living in a time of increasing darkness. Like all early Christians, they lived in the full expectation that Jesus would come back at any moment, like a thief in the night. For centuries, the Jewish prophets had spoken of a coming day of the Lord when the divine warrior would march across the land, the entire earth would tremble, and God would restore Israel while wiping away all avarice and greed.

For three years, Jesus preached of a coming Kingdom of Heaven; his sermons were full of apocalyptic imagery in which the mountains cry out, the last are made first, the first are made last, and the unjust and unprepared are cast out into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Saint Paul and the early Christians to whom he preached were convinced that Christ would return to usher in the Kingdom soon – as in, don’t bother getting married, don’t try to sell your house, don’t start binge-watching any long shows because Jesus will get here before you finish.

But as the faith spread, it bumped up against the Roman Empire and its competing story of self-styled good news, an imperial gospel of peace through military conquest which proclaimed that Caesar was in fact the son of a god. The Empire and its residents had little tolerance for this upstart religion coming out of a far-flung and uppity province. In last week’s reading, Saint Paul alludes to the “suffer[ing] and shameful…mistreat[ment]” he suffered at Philippi.

It was not the empire-wide throw-them-to-the-lions persecution of popular imagination, but Paul and his fellow ministers faced enough resistance to end up in prison on a regular basis. Feeding in to this were certain Jewish leaders who saw these “heretical” Christians as a risk, inviting the wrath of the Roman Empire – and were more than willing to take violent action against them to avoid confrontation with Rome.

The early Church was caught between a rock and a hard place, persecuted by their fellow siblings in Abraham on the one side and the Empire on the other. Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, probably the oldest piece of writing in the New Testament, is written at the very beginning of this history of persecution. Paul is imprisoned, writing to a people who are staring out into the darkness, yearning for Jesus Christ to return in radiant glory but confronting a world shrouded in pain, suffering, and sin.

And much like 2020, then it got worse.

In the shadow of imperial oppression, living into the delayed reality of Christ’s return, two decades after Christ’s ascension, and only a few years after the Church in Thessaloniki was founded, the first Christians began to die.

What happens to those who have died before Jesus comes back?

What will happen to them?

How can they be saved if they have already died?

As we’ve read through this epistle over the course of the month (with a few more weeks to go), Saint Paul offers light in that darkness: Christ has conquered the grave. As he puts it in next Sunday’s reading,

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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died….For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, 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….

Death cannot thwart God’s work of salvation. Though we may be swallowed by the darkness, the light of Christ will pierce the shadow of the grave.

Ours is a faith of life conquering death, of light piercing the shadows. Ours is a faith of hope in new life through Christ. How, then, are we to live as a people of hope? In the world darkened by sin, what does it mean for us to live as children of the light?

Sisters and brothers, it takes so little light to expel the darkness. A small wick fed by oil or melting wax is enough to illuminate an entire room.

In Advent, we will light candles on the wreath to expel the darkness as the flames break through the shadows. Four small candles drive away the darkness.

During the Great Vigil of Easter, we light the Paschal candle, proclaiming in the Exsultet, that great prayer and hymn, that the light of Christ “is not diminished even when [it is] divided and borrowed.” Passing that flame from candle to candle, the night becomes bright as day.

At Baptism, we light a taper from that same flame, quoting Scripture – Christ’s teaching that we should let our “light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Beloved, God is giving us the grace to be that light, to be a fore-glimpse of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world, a bright flame driving out all darkness. Saint Paul tells us to be awake, to watch for it – but also to be that light, to drive away the darkness. Let us therefore “lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and [radiant] glory.”

A time is coming when all tears and pain shall be wiped away, when wrongs will be set to right, and the darkness shall be vanquished. But dear ones, God is already at work in and through the Church. Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians and us that we are destined to live with Christ; that new life begins in the waters of Baptism. That new life is sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ given for us in the Holy Communion. That new life is callint us in humble service to Macon, to Georgia, to the world.

By God’s grace, we are being made into that new Kingdom, erupting forward into this world. Our hands are being used to wipe away tears. Our mouths are being used to proclaim the Gospel. Our lives are being used to put the Gospel into action. Our light is being used to drive out darkness.

God has given us the grace; let us use it! We can hide it under a basket, or we can use it to further God’s work of salvation in the world! We, having all of the grace – in fact, more grace – than we will ever need, are being called to bring our light – little though it may seem – to illuminate the darkness of the world.

Amen.


* Yes, November 1st is All Saints’. No, we did not celebrate it on this day. One of the reasons I joined the ELCA was because of the fidelity to the traditional liturgy of the Church but the wisdom to grant pastoral discretion when changes need to be made. As we re-start services broadcast over FM radio in our parking lot, we have alternated weeks to give us time to make adjustments. The timing worked out such that November 1st was a streamed service rather than in person, and it seemed pastorally advisable to exploit the recent tradition of observing All Saints’ on the first Sunday after November 1st when we will be together in person (if confined to our cars) again. This homily also takes up the entirety of the 1 Thessalonians cycle for Year A.

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