Monday, December 15, 2008

In Which I Prove I Can Read The Bible

I was reading Pastor Dan's sermon, from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28, and thought I would read the section immediately preceding it.
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. 12But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.

There is much in this particular passage about which to comment, but verses 9-10 strike me as interesting in light of a couple things. First, the words in question: "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."

For one thing, I think it is important to note the way Paul ends this particular passage, especially in light of the way he has been using "awake" and "asleep", not just here, but in other passages as well. He uses "asleep" as a metaphor, or perhaps euphemism might be a better word, for death. Here in this particular section, however, he seems to be using it as a metaphor for attentiveness, considering the close use of drunkenness. Christians, he seems to be saying, are those who are aware that the arrival of the Kingdom, the final consummation of God's Divine Plan, is not something that can be figured out from some hidden itinerary or schedule. Precisely because we are those who are aware already of the coming renewal of all things, made real in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we should live our lives as those awake to all the new possibilities provided by God.

Yet, Paul understands that there is no "must" in God's vocabulary. Grace leaves room for all sorts of real life messiness. He urges the Christian community in Thessalonica to support those who work, to "encourage" (not harass) those who are idle, and in all things to support and lift up one another. Yet, even as these urgings are written, even in the very middle of them, we have that wonderful turn of phrase, "awake or asleep".

This is not a slip on Paul's part. Nor is it of little consequence in light of both the former and latter parts of this particular epistle. Indeed, I think this is a demonstration of the heart of Paul's theology, the reality of God's grace. Because the cross is always lurking in the background of Paul's thought - our suffering and Jesus' suffering are an integral part of the same process, the same Divine plan of encounter and salvation and grace - it might be thought that his urgings and exhortations to his fellow Christians might be thought of as a new set of laws or rules necessary for being real Christians. Yet, Paul is wise enough and cognizant enough and human enough to remember that we human beings fail all the time. He acknowledges these very failings in his own life in another, later, epistle. So, even as he remonstrates the Thessalonican Church as to how it is to live together in both discipline and love, he recognizes that human love and life is fraught with pitfalls and traps; so, he puts that little "or asleep" in there, not only connecting the living and the dead, as in an earlier use of the metaphor, but those who are not as attentive as others, who fail on occasion (as we all do). In short, Paul leaves not just a little wiggle room, but a great gaping maw for the grace of God to cover the myriad failings he knows the Christians in Thessalonica will have.

Would that there were Christians today who would remember this. Grace is there whether we are awake or asleep, living or dead, attentive or distracted. If it wasn't it wouldn't be grace, and God wouldn't be the Father of Jesus Christ.

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