1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
13 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. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Caught Up in the Clouds
This sermon might get me in trouble. My grandfather, while a latecomer, joined Facebook this year. I, also, started a blog–notesfromthepastorsoffice.com–which automatically posts anything I wrote on Facebook. By the transitive property of geometry, my grandfather has access to everything I post to my blog. Since I post the transcripts of my sermons on my blog, he will get this sermon.
I lived with my grandparents for a good portion of my childhood. I would also work in their business–a dry cleaners–for a substantial part of my childhood. My point is that they were very influential in my development and growing up–and they were very interested in my spiritual development. So much so that I believe my grandma–other than to satisfy my incessant demands to go with her–took me to choir practice at her church in the hopes that I would pick something up by osmosis.
They did listen to and watch a lot of Christian radio and television. WFRN out of Elkhart, Indiana and WBCL out of Fort Wayne were always on in the car. I don’t really like contemporary Christian music now, but I loved it then. So often, the day would end with grandpa flipping the television to TBN for some preaching. He would flip the footrest up on his recliner and ingest what these television preachers would preach. I can remember Charles Stanley being one of their favorites. I also remember grandpa enjoying Jack Van Impe. He enjoyed him so much so that I also remember seeing Jack’s books showing up every once in a while around the house.
I never much paid attention to it then, but I remember the titles and subject matter now and–after having watched the show–the Van Impe’s were certain of many things, but the Rapture was their favorite. My grandpa and I haven’t had much time to discuss the subject lately, so I am not too sure if he still believes the Rapture is coming. That’s why I said I might get into some trouble. I may have some “splainin’ to do” come the next family get-together.
Honestly, the idea of Rapture doesn’t play very deeply into United Methodist theology. John Wesley never spoke on the subject, only really ever preaching on what happens when the time comes for Christ to return. Given that the idea of the Rapture is fairly new–having its roots in the beginning of the 1800’s–this is not surprising. John Wesley was more concerned with the implications of salvation upon our living in the here and now. If he were to have believed in the idea, one might assume his teachings on the Christian life would already prepare one for any possibility.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t United Methodists–or any other mainline Christians–who don’t believe in Rapture theology. The great thing about United Methodism–or Christianity in general–is that there is room for multiple ideas about the non-essentials. And in that, I believe, lies the key to this. If the Christian life is properly lived out, there is no need to do any extraordinary planning or preparation for an event such as is described with the idea of the Rapture.
While it isn’t an exact correlation, planning and preparation for the Rapture is kind of like the planning and preparation that goes into the Ham & Turkey supper. I say there is no exact correlation because one is preparing for an event which you can only know so much about what will happen until the day comes, and the other is an event which you can only know so much about what will happen until the day comes–with food. Think about it. With the Ham & Turkey supper, if you have ever chaired the event before, can–and is most certainly–a stressful and gargantuan undertaking. You have to make sure there is enough food, and enough of the right kind of food. But not too much, as you don’t want to have a lot of food that will go bad. There is lining up all the workers. The workers have to line up all their workers. You have to have plans to set the church up and tear it back down again. All the while, you worry about everything going off without a hitch–and planning for the hitches that happen. The day comes and everything ends up being alright, but the “getting there” was incredibly onerous.
Whether you completely understand the idea of Rapture or not, it can also be an onerous thing for which to prepare. The clip we watched was from the Left Behind movie trilogy. It isn’t about the preparation as it is the aftermath, but it certainly got plenty of people in the mindset that they must be ready. That, then, leads us back to the Wesleyan idea of the Christian life being a life lived already attuned to God and the life God calls us to.
If you are still confused about the idea of Rapture–and I still am a little fuzzy about it–we can look to this morning’s passage to being the process of un-fuzzying it. And when we look at this passage, we must first look at the relationship which Paul had with the church at Thessalonika.
Paul loved this church. He loved it. Theologians regard this to be the situation, and it is evidenced by the language he uses in the letter. Earlier, Paul is attempting to console the believers there because they are experiencing conflict within and bad teaching from without. They are conflicted in the beliefs which Paul taught them, which is causing them to be in conflict with each other. Being that Paul loved them so much, he finds it incumbent upon hisself to calm them. He uses the image of the father to calm them and assure them they will be alright. He uses the imagery of the mother to sooth them. He uses the imagery of a nurse to assure them they will be cared for. Paul loves this church and wants them not to fear, but hope.
Now, we come to our passage and Paul is addressing more conflict. The false prophets have come teaching poor theology, and it is hurting and fracturing the fragile Thessalonian church. The claim by the false prophets is that those people who have already died will not be present in heaven when Jesus returns. Imagine you are a child–or new believer–heard the gospel and the award which awaits us upon the completion of our troubles. I go ahead and tell you that you can go there, but you won’t see anyone who had gone before you. What’s the first question that kids tend to ask when they first start asking about heaven? Will fido be there? Will Mr. Jones be there? Will grandma be there? The false teaching they had heard riled them, and Paul had to set them straight–a desire enflamed even more by his love for them.
What does Paul say in response to their fears? He paints a picture of those who have gone before being swept up in the air to join the the great cloud of witnesses. Of course, Paul spices up his language by claiming further that trumpets will blow, those who have died will be raised first and other end-times related phrases and understandings. The passage is essentially Paul painting a picture which says, “don’t worry, you will see grandma.” The point of his description can be clearly seen in the last verse of this passage, when he says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” For the most part, the picture Paul paints is pretty encouraging–especially for those who are still new to this thing called Christianity. These are words of comfort and encouragement.
Everyone saw the clip earlier, right? Does the picture painted for you by the filmmakers sync up with what Paul says? Does Paul describe a God-forsaken hellscape where sinners are left to fend off the anti-Christ? No. But 1800 or so years after the birth of Christ, a few guys began to take a new look at how we consider the end of times. They came up with the Rapture. Nowhere is the word found in scripture. The same idea Paul is espousing can be found in a few other places in scripture–kind of. Daniel, Matthew and a few other minor and fleeting references to something that resembles different parts of the Rapture. It isn’t something we hear referred to over and over and having a huge place in any given portion of scripture. There just isn’t much evidence for such a thing as the Rapture.
This is not to say I do not believe Christ will come again. In fact, I preach against this idea of the Rapture because I believe it flies in the face of much of the hope we are supposed to have in that event.
The actual problem with the Rapture is how we react to it. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have made plenty of money from the idea of the Rapture. I sort of see those movies like I do movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. Those are action movies set around a very horrific event. They are thrilling movies with big stars, and they make a ton of money in the Box Office. Left Behind is a book and movie series based upon the aftermath of the Rapture. It is an horrific event and that made plenty of people pay attention, makes a lot of money, but doesn’t hold much water when you compare it to scripture.
How, then, are we supposed to understand Paul’s words to the Thessalonians?
It was at some time in my studies of this material that I remembered something I learned at Local Pastor’s Licensing School–a training program for pastors who have yet to complete seminary. In our preaching class, we covered Psalm 23. I think–and did not take time to do a vast follow-up study to confirm my thoughts–that the hebrew used in conjunction with the “the valley of the shadow of death” is more active than the english lets on. Instead of God just “being with us,” this verse is an indication that God reaches down into that valley to rescue us. In other words, God snatches us up from the dangers surrounding us.
Paul was a Jew. He was a self-admitted “hebrew of all hebrews.” The understanding of God I recounted in the last paragraph would not have been foreign to him. Could Paul, desiring to comfort the church he so loved, have meant to portray a hope we have in God that we will be “caught up” with Christ? Not a Rapture, but the hope that all Christians have that God fulfills a promise to us once this life is over.
The Rapture is a theology which mixes bad theology with a profit motive. If you scare enough people, you can get them to buy all the crap you hawk on the subject. The Rapture is not part of the historic Christian orthodoxy. It is a proof-texted theory which has a scant basis in scripture.
I believe that Paul is referring to the hope the Thessalonians–and us–can have that God will fulfill the promises he has made. If we are “caught up” into anything, it is God’s promises that God will be with us at all times and in all places. Whether it is at work, or when our work on earth is done.
And thanks be to God for that! AMEN!