Do Paul’s words still solace today?
by Lauren F. Winner
Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
For Sunday, November 6, 2011: Year A – Ordinary 32
Someone in the Thessalonian community died before Jesus had returned—that’s the situation that occasioned this portion of Paul’s letter.
That’s Not Supposed to Happen!
One can imagine the Thessalonian wife or child or husband, not only beset by the sorrow of loss, but also knocked down by theological confusion—this wasn’t supposed to happen. That new widow or widower insisted—the Lord is returning, he was going to return so soon, before anyone could take ill and die.
In the face of this Paul offers comfort—calm, steady comfort. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”—even those who died before Jesus’ return.
I suspect the Thessalonian mourners found Paul’s words very solacing indeed.
The Impulse to Console
The impulse to offer consolation to mourners is with us still.
Sometimes we manage actually to comfort people when we open our mouths. Especially when words like “I guess God needed another angel in heaven” (I did actually hear that once, in a hospital) don’t come flying out.
In America, a whole genre of consolation literature developed, especially taking off, for obvious reasons, during and after the Civil War. Rather than mourn ceaselessly, the bereaved were urged to should look forward to eternal, happy heavenly reunion.
Eternal Life is Good
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, for example, comforted zillions of Americans with novels like The Gates Ajar and Beyond the Gates. These novels assured readers that their beloved brothers and husbands, felled in battle, were enjoying themselves in a heaven that looked remarkably like Victorian America but better! In Phelps’s heaven, Leonardo Da Vinci gave art classes and Beethoven regularly rolled out new oratorios.
Resonates and Jars
Many an American funeral sermon has been preached on Paul’s words of comfort to the Thessalonians. Ministers have typically read those words and then preached words of hope—and urged a moderate, restrained grief.
But today, the Thessalonian question both resonates and jars.
Like the Thessalonians, we wonder, too, about grief, death, and the whereabouts of our dead beloved. And yet, the context of our wondering is quite different. No parishioner has ever come to me, beset by grief, perplexed because they had expected Jesus to return before mom died. Rather the question is Mom wasn’t a Christian. I’ve been taught to take comfort in the certainty that Christians will live again after death; but that doesn’t really comfort me now.
The Hardest Question
Is there comfort to be found in this text (or is there something implicit here that is decidedly anti-comforting) when the dead person I’m worried about had no interest in Jesus at all?
Lauren F. Winner is a deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God, and, soon, Still: Noted on a Mid-faith Crisis.