Even before Jesus was born, the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar, was called “Savior of the World.” In the Greek and Roman understanding of salvation, salvation was about being saved from the perils of life by the gods or by a powerful benefactor, such as Caesar. The Romans were not alone in thinking about salvation. The Jews of the time had their own understandings of salvation. In the First Testament there are numerous ideas about salvation each sharing in common the intervention of YHWH in some way or another. One of my favorite meanings of the Hebrew word for salvation is “to make roomier” or to create more space. [Heaven will never be crowded.]
When Paul writes what we call his first letter to the church in Thessalonika, he is, no doubt, mindful of the salvation-talk around him. Most scholars believe that this letter is one of Paul’s earliest writings; perhaps reflecting Paul’s first way of talking about the salvation that Christ brings. Paul is responding to a question that the Thessalonians have asked. If we who are alive will be raised with Christ, what about those who are dead? Here’s Paul’s response…
We each have our own understanding of salvation and that is why I like Paul’s later words, and I would say more mature words, to the church in Philippi, “work out your OWN salvation with fear and trembling.”
We hear in today’s scripture that Paul is working out what is for him his earliest understanding of salvation; God in Jesus Christ will save us from death. Salvation from death was a big issue for some early Christians. Death was all around them. People hanging on crosses along roads as warnings to obey the Empire. People dying from hunger and disease. A horrifically high infant mortality rate. Is it any wonder that Paul’s message appealed to many? “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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” How encouraging do you really find these words?
AND…Time passed. Those who were left died. Even Paul died. So the understanding of being saved from death had to change.
“We are a resurrection people!” We proclaim this as Christians. It is at the heart of our religion. And yet, as people of the resurrection, we tend to ignore the state of being that precedes resurrection: death. We are quick to cry out, “New life!” while quickly passing over, “old death.” The grim reaper, cloaked and hooded in black, carrying a scythe. It’s been said, “In life, only two things are certain: taxes and death.” In death, nothing is certain not even life; a Lazarus has yet to appear on Oprah telling about his exploits in the afterlife.
Nothing is more terrifying for some people than death. Death, more than any other condition or experience in life, pushes us into the very heart of things. One moment there is life. The next moment there is…nothing. What do we make of this as human beings? Is the end of our life the equivalent of an ant being stepped on; one moment crawling along, the next squished? “Surely not!” we cry out. Our very consciousness and awareness of “The End” must count for something.
The poet James Laughlin has a wonderful poem titled “The Junk Collector” that engages this very thought. “What bothers me most about / the idea of having to die / (sooner or later) is that / the collection of junk I / have made in my head will / presumably be dispersed / not that there isn’t more / and better junk in other / heads & always will be but / I have become so fond of / my own head’s collection.” Where will the collection of junk in our heads “go” when we die? Most polls show that around 80% of Americans believe in an afterlife. Somehow, some way, our junk remains with us even when we die. Think about it: garage sales and flea markets in the afterlife. Heaven for some. Hell for others.
Today most Christians believe that salvation from death means that after we die we will live forever in God’s eternal realm. Of course we must remember what my uncle said about such a state of heaven. He declared, “If I have to listen to the heavenly host singing constantly, than I’d rather not go to heaven!” Or, I have heard many folks say, “The alternative to Heaven just sounds more fun!”
I did a funeral for an elderly woman in Noblesville who everyone considered a saint in the church and in the community. The first time I met her was when I offered to give her a ride to one of her many meetings. She first scolded me for knocking on her front door when I should have come through the open garage door and walked right in. I settled her in the front seat of my minivan and began our drive. A pastor is always challenged in a call like this. How best to begin a first conversation with a parishioner whom you do not know? She saved me from another mishap by saying, “Eric, you’re probably the pastor that’s going to do my funeral.” Okay. “I have one request: do NOT say, ‘I have gone to a better place.’” This profound and loving Christian did not believe in an afterlife. She believed that in each and every moment of life we are SAVED FROM death in order to live into the line in the Lord’s Prayer that “God’s will may be done on earth” while we are alive. And, oh, how she was alive!
Perhaps another turn to the poets is in order.
Antonio Machado – All things die and all things live forever; / but our task is to die, / to die making roads, / roads over the sea.
Yehuda Amichai – If now, in the middle of my life, I think / Of death, I do so out of confidence / That in the middle of death I will suddenly think / Of life, with the same calming nostalgia / And with the distant gaze of people / Who know their prophecies come true.
One of the reasons those early Jews, who would later call themselves Christians, thought that Jesus Christ would save them from death comes from their own story in scripture. Jesus was seen as the Passover lamb. PASSOVER! The formative event of the people of Israel was used as a way to tell the story of Jesus. Remember what Passover meant to them? What happens when the angel of death passes over your door and death is once again kept at bay? You LIVE! You live for another day!