The Questions We Don't (Or Won't) Ask
It has been a lot of fun getting to see what you all are thankful for on the chalkboards throughout the church. Last Sunday they began to fill up and with Wednesday night dinner and the preschoolers this week there is not much space left on those boards. Things like shelter, food, us your pastors, you all the church, swimming pools, haircuts, and friends all garnered praise from you. The giving thanks boards are a snapshot into who you are as individuals and who we are as a community. While most of us can rally around giving thanks to things like food, shelter, and family, other things on those lists, the individual, the personal thanks offered, when added to the other thanks offered, shows that this community is as diverse and they come. In churches we tend to focus on the diversity we have when it comes to theology and politics, and lately it has seemed that those things are more divisive than unifying so to see that the great diversity in your lives and then adding it all together has been a great thing to see. And I am thankful to get to see it.
We have different backgrounds, different places of origin (some are from the South, some are left-coasters, and we have some yankees), we like different kinds of hot beverages (those who drink coffee, those who drink too much of it, and those who probably need more). We cheer for different sports teams and support different non-profits and social causes. Some go to salons and some go to barbershops. We are a diverse group of people and yet we can rally around giving thanks. And I give thanks for the diversity of things this church is thankful for. It would have been easy to see “faith, family, and friends” written 500 times on those boards and yet you all gave it thought. And from the handwriting, along with proximity to the floor, I can tell that the most honest thanks shared came from our kids. For that I am truly thankful.
Well, it is week 2 of our sermon series titled ‘Giving Thanks.’ As I just mentioned, you all have done a great job thinking about what you are thankful for and I look forward to what is shared on the chalkboards over the weeks to come. The Lectionary, which we use to organize our preaching here at Mount Olivet has shifted towards the end of times at this point in the year. Beginning last week and continuing through Christ the King Sunday at the end of the month our scripture texts begin looking towards what will be when the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, occurs. The text we just read might seem like funeral texts more than anything else but it offers us insight into the early Church, the theological and political diversity they had, which like today caused differences of opinion (imagine that, Christians have been disagreeing on doctrine for more than just the past few years). On the surface I want to give a sarcastic ‘geez, thanks’ to the texts but when we look deeper into them, learning about the people to who this pastoral letter is addressed the sarcasm is peeled away.
The early Church was conflicted on things like baptism, the conversion of Jews verses the conversion of Gentiles, and things like what to do during persecution. Was it OK to lie about your conversion to Christianity in order to save yourself or did you need to fess up and face whatever came your way? These are not uncommon issues for the church today. Who can be baptized and when is still up for grabs, how we welcome outsiders into the community is still a question for most congregations, and when times get tough we have to discern if the church is really being persecuted or if it just a time where things are not as easy as we would like them to be. These disagreements were and are not over little things. They were not arguing over the placement of the baptismal fount, the volume of the band during worship, or whether or not the new associate pastor was completely full of it. And our text today highlights one of the conflicts or questions, that sounds more diplomatic, that the early Church faced.
Early Christians, those who converted to the faith within the first generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, fully expected Jesus to return within their life time. After all, Jesus told his disciples he would return and because he did not give an exact date, time, and location, it would seem safe to assume that it would bee sooner rather than later. If I tell you I want to grab coffee with you or that I am coming to visit you while you’re in the hospital it would be a safe to assume that we would have coffee with one another before you died or that I’d visit you in the hospital while you were still there. Now I am not Jesus, but I think it was fair for the early Church to make this assumption. But when they started to die before Jesus’s return, questions began being raised, rightfully, and this portion of Paul’s letter addresses those questions.
If I die, or my newly converted Aunt Betty dies before Jesus’ return, what happens to us? Jesus promised he would return, the Kingdom of God would be fully reigning, and believers, we, them, would be taken with him on his departure. So if someone dies, what happens? Do we miss out on the parousia and at same time miss out all the good things that come with that? Are we not fully restored? Do we miss out?
Parousia is one of those seminary words that you do not get to use very often and when you get to use it, you say it as many times as you can. Parousia is part of a larger theological doctrine called eschatology, or doctrine concerning the end of times. So the early Christians were not only concerned about what is to become of them should Jesus return after they’ve but they were also raising questions about the ends of times. This is some deep stuff for 11:00 on Sunday morning.
It’s not like the early Church is alone in their uncertainty about parousia and eschatology. Many of us have the same questions. Many of us have questions about these very topics, or similar theological issues, but for whatever reason we do not seek answers about them or we choose to do it on our own, afraid of letting others know that we are questioning an aspect of our faith, for fear that we won’t live up to the false exceptions we’ve put on ourselves because we think everyone else has figured these questions out and we believe that we are just ignorant for not having done likewise. We place stigma on ourselves, it isn’t others doing it, becoming afraid of learning more about the faith we claim and just go on with the notion that one day we will figure it out or that it really does not matter.
Imagine for a second if the early churches had done that. Churches in places like Rome, Philippi, and Corinth.
Imagine if the early Church had thought to themselves that one day they would figure it out or that it really didn’t not matter. Imagine if people like Paul and John and Luke (Acts) had not begun the work of figuring this stuff out.
Well, the bright side of that scenario is that we’d have less confusing language from Paul but at the same time we would not have words like parousia and eschatology. If the early church had taken our cue, Paul would have never broken down the issue like he did.
Paul is telling the Thessalonians and us likewise that no matter if it is a loved one who died a decade ago or us dying tomorrow, those present for the parousia will not precede, will not got before, those who have passed. To put it more plainly, should you die before the second coming of Jesus you will not be left behind. You will experience the grace, majesty, and presence of Jesus in his and your fullness.
This means that we can look to what is to come with confidence, not worrying about what will or won’t happen, because Christ has already sealed the deal for us. Christ has already conquered death, atoning for our sins, making us righteous before God, acting as our mediator, and ensuring that when he comes again in the fullness of his glory all will participate. Regardless if we died yesterday and Christ comes tomorrow, we are assured through the promise of scripture and the strength of our faith that we too will spend an eternity with Christ.
This promise enables us to continue the ministry of Jesus today, despite our theological differences. We can dispute doctrine until we are blue in the face but it does not erase what Jesus did for us 2000 years ago, making it possible for us to be made whole.
It’s not that we do not have to worry about the questions the first Christians worried about, because we should ask those questions and use their witness to grow in our faith but we can also look to some of the issues raised by the early Church and know that some of those issues of doctrine have been worked out through our holy scriptures, the tradition of our faith, and their experiences with the risen Christ and fellow believers.
We should feel at ease to ask these questions, to wonder like the first Church did and to explore our faith. Our baptism into the life and death of Jesus, which is what our baptism is, does not then excuse us from wrestling with questions of doctrines like eschatology or even the simple things like the Trinity (that was a joke, if you want to know more about that talk to any of our confirmands this morning). Our baptism invites us to ask the questions with confidence knowing the Christians before us have asked similar questions and future Christians will ask more.
We are not freed from asking questions or wrestling with our faith, but our faith and the faith of the early Church strengthens us as we ask the tough questions. We are invited to ask questions like “who is my neighbor,” “will I go to Hell,” or “how can I love my enemy.” The questions posed and wrestled with by the early Church serve as guideposts for us today, and with the ongoing presence of God we can continue to do the work of God, even if we have not figured it all out yet.
In continuing the ministry of Jesus today we are joining the ministry of the early Christians. We are joining their work of discernment over doctrine but also joining in their work of continuing to build the Kingdom of God here on earth today. We do not have to wait for Jesus to return to continue this work. We do not have to wait until we learn the meaning of those tough seminary words I only get to use a few times a week. We are invited to participate in the life changing work of Jesus Christ today without having to worry about what will happen to us or to those who have gone before. Jesus has already taken care of that by defeating death through the cross and an empty tomb.
So in the face of differences over doctrine, politics, and really everything else under the sun we have the witness of the early Church and Jesus himself, who invites us to participate in his ministry and because of the saints who have gone before us, asking the tough questions, we are able to participate in Jesus’ ministry without thinking that we are worrying about the same questions the early church struggled with alone. For that I give thanks.