“An Apocalypse of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1st and 2nd Thessalonians are almost universally considered the earliest New Testament writings. They’re also acknowledged as authentically Pauline. Paul writes them to a very new Christian community in a town that has proven rather inhospitable to the gospel. When his missionary work infuriates some prominent Thessalonians, Paul slips away under the cover of night and begins to preach in Berea in northern Greece. Further angered by Paul’s actions and success, the same Thessalonians hunt Paul down and persecute believers in Berea.
Throughout his earliest letters to oppressed and nervous communities, Paul tells people to expect Jesus to return at—literally—any moment. And apparently, those Thessalonians who have escaped or survived persecution begin to worry about loved ones who had died while the wait dragged on. Will they have missed on the promises of the gospel?
In 1Thessalonians, Paul seeks to calm the people’s fears and to renew their faith that God has neither abandoned them nor destined them for wrath. (1Thess. 5:9) In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, Paul assures the people saying that when the Parousia occurs, “the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1Thess. 4:16) I’m not sure how Paul knows that, but I do share his awareness that his words alone won’t bring peace to anxious hearts. The time for experiencing a gospel life is not in some utopian future. It is now—fully and intentionally engaged in the painful struggles and realities of the moment.
Listen for God’s Word.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (NRSV)
Scholars classify Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians as apocalyptic writing. Many people associate the word apocalyptic with images of an end-of-days Armageddon when good and evil finally settle the score in a violent, bloody showdown. Literally, however, apocalypse means a “revealing” of truth. As such, apocalyptic literature is, at its heart, a genre of hopeful proclamation and invitation.
Over the centuries, however, Christian preachers and teachers seem to have found that terrifying people into professions of “faith” is quicker and easier than the long, slow work of cooperating with an often frustratingly patient Holy Spirit who encourages and builds up disciples through more gracious means. Never captured in a conversion date written inside the front cover of a Bible, the Spirit’s work is a lifetime of life-to-death-to-resurrection-to-new life transformations.
While Paul’s own conversion may have been dramatic and traumatic, he also seems to know that because his experience is the exception, it calls him to an exceptional ministry. To try to force extraordinary experiences on others inevitably results in manipulative, even abusive evangelism—and, therefore, manipulative and abusive religion. Such religion, the religion of demagogues, uses apocalyptic language to scare people into thinking that the end of the world is near and that the only way to avoid destruction is to make an immediate profession of faith and then to equip themselves for preemptive destruction of enemies. Only then will leaders—armed more with desperate rightness than holy righteousness—say to their people, Now “there is peace and security.” And yet that, says Paul, is precisely when everything falls apart.
The calamity is not something God inflicts as punishment. It’s something people bring upon themselves by “falling asleep,” by abandoning the sobriety of a more gracious apocalyptic life—that is, a Jesus way of life, the way of bringing “justice and righteousness” to the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast.
Ironically enough, and sadly enough, worldly demagogues often find more than willing support from religious demagogues who not only participate in the destruction, but do so in God’s name. Recall the cautionary tale of a “Christian” university president who whipped up his entire student body into a rapturous mass of drunken, narcoleptic fury by calling them all to arm themselves so that they could, with God’s blessing, “end those Muslims.”1
That’s not peace and security, says Paul. That’s death.
Instead of preparing for fearful violence, “Let us keep awake,” says Paul. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
This is remarkable. To a persecuted community, Paul says, Yes, there is suffering and pain in this world; but it’s not the result of God’s wrath. Nor does God call us to inflict wrath upon others—especially in God’s name!
Paul knows this all too well. Remember what he did before his conversion: He made a living by persecuting Christians in God’s name.
To Paul, since we’re here to receive, inhabit, and share the redeeming grace of the realm of God, living the faith, hope, and love of Jesus is the wakefulness of the Christian life.
That’s just a whole lot easier to proclaim than it is to live, isn’t it?
To understand the dissonance between the path to which God calls us and the paths human beings tend to follow, let’s look again at Paul’s image of sobriety. Self-serving motives and emotions can overwhelm and possess our brains. Waking up, like sobering up, is difficult and often painful work, because it requires the death part of the process of life-to-death-to-resurrection-and-new life. Ask anyone in recovery. Sobering up is a way of life. It’s not the moment one quits the addiction.
I’m going to sing a song for you. I’ve sung this song in worship before, and it’s the story of an apocalypse of grace, a sleepwalker’s death to himself and the beginnings of his resurrection where he recognizes that encouraging others and building them up is to receive, to inhabit, and to share the redeeming grace of God’s kingdom.
The song leaves the story unfinished. It leaves the new-life story for us, the hearers, to pick up and live for ourselves, and for the sake of others.
Comfort of a Creed
w/m Allen Huff ©2020
Adam went to church most every Sunday
To thank his lucky stars for God above,
God helps those who help themselves, he heard the preacher say.
Now let’s sing a song of happiness and love.
In the parking lot a ragged man approached him.
Can you spare a buck for a piece of bread?
Adam stared right past the man disgusted.
I’ve got no change, so I’ll pray for you instead.
Oh, but all of us are hungry until all of us are fed.
Love is more than thoughts and prayers; it’s everything we share.
And compassion is the greatest gift to neighbor and to self.
We’re all in this together; if we share heaven, we share hell.
That night within a dream a thin hand beckoned,
Hollow eyes searched only to be seen.
To the sound of his own groaning Adam wakened.
In ceaseless tears he poured out all his grief.
He killed the fatted calf for familiar faces,
He gave to those deserving of a gift.
But when came the beggar dirty or the wino wasted,
He closed his heart and mind and clinched his fist.
In the morning at the mirror, Adam looked into his face.
He saw hunger in his own eyes and loneliness in his gaze.
He knew he’d starved himself when he denied his neighbor’s need,
And traded true religion for the comfort of a creed.