This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with a reference to the day's gospel reading Matthew 25:1-13. It was delivered at a service for Remembrance Sunday.
Pity the poor preacher this morning, please.
Our texts for today deal with the subjects of the Second Coming of Christ and the future resurrection of believers who have died in Christ. If you want the very short version of what these texts are about, that's basically it. You can go home now, if you like.
Now, these two doctrines are not quite the hottest of hot topics in the Christian world, but if I'm not mistaken, I think that there are two broad schools of thought about them.
The first school of thought is the literal one: the body that Jesus had in his life was resuscitated and came back to life. And at the second coming our bodies will be resuscitated and come back to life. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the school of thought which seems to see both the Second Coming of Christ and his and our Resurrection as some great metaphor of meaning. These things are not something that thoughtful modern people actually believe in (says the second school of thought), but rather we see them as powerful tools or symbols in the Great Human Search for Meaning.
So what does a thoughtful, modern preacher make of these doctrines? (Well, I strive to be thoughtful, anyway!)
First I want to begin by pointing out that the purpose of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians isn't to give them a description of the Second Coming of Christ but rather to encourage them that those who have died prior to Christ's Second Coming aren't going to miss out on any of God's blessings in the coming Kingdom of God.
In this, his earliest letter, it seems that Paul expects to be alive when Christ returns. And I think it's also probable that Matthew also thought that the Second Coming would be something that their generation would see in their own lifetime. So, although other allegorical interpretations of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins might inspire us and are also perfectly legitimate, I believe that it means what it seems to imply: be on your guard so that you will be ready when Christ returns to earth again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The only problem is that, with the benefit of over 2000 years of hindsight, we know that Christ did not return to earth during the generation of his peers. And we, like every generation since then, have had to grapple with the fact that Scripture seems to believe that Jesus would return in the lifetime of his own generation. So how can we make some sense of these things: of the Second Coming and the future Resurrection of believers?
Describing Colour to a Blind Person
Tom Wright, currently the Bishop of Durham and an internationally-respected bible scholar, provides a helpful framework, I think.
He asks a very interesting question: How would you describe different colours to a person who was born blind with no residual sight?
You might say that Red is a hot, hard colour. You might say that Green is a cool, soft colour. And you might say that Yellow is a dissonant, prickly colour. In describing these colours to your blind friend, both of you would be absolutely aware that these descriptions are extremely inadequate. But we might agree that, as inadequate as the are, the descriptions provide some way of trying to describe the indescribable.
So, just as it would be incorrect for a blind person to insist that yellow does not exist because they can't see it, so too it would be equally incorrect to insist that yellow is 'literally' prickly or dissonant. Yellow exists but cannot be described to a person without sight, nor can that person grasp the fullness of the colour yellow.
Resurrection and the Second Coming
I think that this way of thinking is a helpful tool to use when trying to imagine the resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.
Because the assurance of resurrection into the Kingdom of God of all who have trusted in Christ is a key doctrine for our faith, so I want to try to grapple with it. It is a key narrative of the Christian faith that when the Kingdom of God finally comes, then God will put all wrongs to rights and grief will turn to joy. But I can't tell you exactly what either of these things mean any more than a blind person can explain the fullness of the colour yellow.
Nevertheless, I have a belief, trust and hope in God that we will some how be transformed into the fullness of what we were meant to be from before the beginning of time. (Resurrection) And with that same belief and trust and faith, I believe that God will bring all creation into the fullness of what it was meant to be (The Second Coming of Christ, The Kingdom of God)
To use the classic symbols, our future resurrection life will be lived in the Kingdom of God.
How God will work his purposes out, I don't know. And I don't think that the apostle Paul knew either - that's why we are disciples of the Christian Faith and not disciples of the Christian Explanation.
Today's scripture readings weren't actually meant specifically for Remembrance Day because they are the internationally-agreed readings for this Sunday.
Yet, I think that there is a connection between these readings and Remembrance Sunday. Whatever we believe about the necessity of war in this world, I believe that the bible tells us that there will be no war in the coming Kingdom.
The bible also most certainly tells us that war and death are not part of who God is.
There are people and regimes in the history of humankind that are willing to use war and murder as tools to gain an advantage over other human beings. They think that it is their willingness to kill and to murder that sets them apart and gives them real power. But, through Christ, God has said that there is actually no power in death because all things will be raised to new life in his Kingdom.
For Christians who watch and wait, this is our joyful hope.
For the forces of evil and those who rely on the power of death to define who they are, the coming Kingdom of God is their ultimate demise.
My prayer this morning is that, as Christians, we are encouraged by the hope that God is a God of life. May we pray for peace, work for peace, and look forward to the coming Kingdom of God. Amen