Lectionary Year A, Proper 32. Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
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. (1 Thess 4.13)
In this text from our second lesson, Paul reminds us that Christians are people who have hope in the future. Not the anemic hope that everything will somehow turn out ok but the robust, eschatological hope that God will win and that fear and death will lose. I mention death because Paul is writing to a church where death has shaken hope in the future. The early Christians in Thessalonica appear to have believed that Christ would return soon, and now that some believers have died, theire hope is shaken. What of their beloved dead? Will they be saved as well? What if those now living die before Christ returns? Will they be saved as well? Paul, as one of their pastors, addresses these fears by saying that the Thessalonicans don’t need to despair: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Th 4:14).
Christianity is faith that is as much about the dead as it is about the living. The church, like Israel before it, believes that it is for the generations past, present and future. Through its feast days All Souls’ Night and All Saints Day (which some congregations are celebrating today), we remind ourselves that we are united with the great cloud of witnesses, with those who, as the old prayer book puts it, have gone before us in faith and fear. The church also looks forward to new generations, in its sacraments of baptism and marriage, trusting that the future is in God’s hands. Because we believe that the generations are united across time in God’s creation, and because we have hope in what God will do from the here and now to the end of time, we do not fear the dead. They, like the living and those yet to be born, are part of the church.
For the last few weeks, the lawns of houses around me have been transformed into mock cemeteries as meighbours decorated for Halloween, surely the biggest spending holiday behind Christmas. In the popular idea of Halloween graves and the dead are accessories, part of the fun of a good clean scare that ties into our ancient fear of the dark and things going bump in the night. But under all that, I think, something more profound is going on. How a culture sees (and even fears) the dead is an index of its outlook on the future, particularly whether it sees the future as a thing to be dreaded or longed for. When our society fears a future where the dead are walking around eating the living (something pop culture calls “the zombie apocalypse”), that to me is a sign that something is badly broken in our hopes for and views of the future.
I mention zombies because it’s slowly dawning on me that I have acquired a reputation around the base as “the zombie padre”. I don’t think “zombie padre” means that I’m not shambling about uncertainly and moaning (except after morning PT, maybe) but rather, I gather, speaking confessionally, that it has to do with my well-known enthusiasm for that grotesque and quite trendy subgenre of horror movies.
Very briefly, the zombie genre, as developed by film directors such as George Romero, assumes that virus (or similar explanation) causes the dead to rise and become mindless, flesh-eating and remorseless threat to humanity. Because the zombie virus is highly contagious, the numbers of zombies rise exponentially, overrunning civilization and leaving the few human survivors hunted and scattered. The Walking Dead, a TV series currently running on AMC, is perhaps the best contemporary example.
I enjoy the zombie genre because it’s viscerally as well as intellecturally scary, tapping into many of the conscious or subconscious fears of the anxious time that we live in. The fear of civilization falling apart quickly and disastrously (see the interview with Niall Ferguson in today’s Globe and Mail) seems very real as our economies and legislatures seize up and our leaders appear helpless and bereft of vision. The idea that one’s family and neighbours could turn into ravenous killers evokes recent memories of ethnic cleansings around the world, and haunts the increasingly rancorous political and social discourse we see in the national life of our US neighbours. Finally, the idea of the numberless zombie horde surely points to our own fears that the human race, now at seven billion and climbing at a rate called “more bacterial than primate” by scientist Edmund O. Wilson, will outstrip and devour the resources of a limited, fragile planet. So while I enjoy the zombie genre as drama and as pop culture, I also think that it has something profound to say about our culture’s fear that we have failed. Our culture doubts that much is meaningful, fears the future, and senses that death is greater than life, and this is why we need to hear the gospel of Christ.
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, is a gospel of meaning, of life’s triumph over death, and of hope in the future. The gospel story of Jesus’ life and work is a story about God’s commitment to the world he created, and his determination to see that his creation continues to be good. The gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection tells us that the kingdom of death, which the zombie genre both celebrates and fears, is made powerless by Christ’s rising from the dead. The gospel’s promise that Christ will come again is about hope, because it promises us that the future, however dark it may seem, is in God’s hands and is therefore safe.
Both our second reading from 1 Thessalonians and our gospel reading from Matthew point to the future and to Christ’s return. We call the return of Christ the Second Coming or the apocalypes, from a Greek word meaninhg “revelation” or “unveiling”. Some Christian churches, like the ancient Thessalonicans, still place great emphasis apocalyptic theology, combing the Book of Revelations and other texts for signs and indicators of when the end times will occur. My own thinking on this is, to paraphrase what C.S. Lewis said about devils, that it Christians should neither think too much of these things or too little of them. The future is in God’s hands, the dead are safe in God’s keepings, and are lives are to be lived in faith with the aid of the Holy Spirit.
What all those means for those of us in between the past and future, in the present of the church, is to be worked out along with the rest of our Christian lives. Our gospel reading from Matthew 25 is a difficult one in that it can be taken as a call for a heightened vigilance which, like terror alerts, are difficult to sustain over time. What it does clearly say is that Christ, the bridegroom, shall return and shall know those who believed in and waited for him. As Holly Hearon notes in her commentary on our second lesson, Paul advises the Thessalonicans to continue to do the little, everyday things of Christian life:
For myself, I find this hope in the little things rather than the apocalyptic scenarios. Nonetheless, they are things that are also identified in the letter: in the encouragement we receive from one another (4:18; 5:14); in the practice of praying without ceasing (5:17) so that I learn to live in the presence of God; of discovering some way of giving thanks, regardless of the circumstances (5:18) because this helps me to see God at work in all circumstances; in not becoming complacent, but keeping awake even when I would prefer to numb my senses through alcohol, mindless television shows, or shopping sprees; in attempting to discern what it means to live by the grace and peace of Christ so that I may hold fast to what is good and abstain from evil (5:22-23).
Through these small things, lived day by day, the power and presence of God becomes real, as real as Christ coming down out of the sky, and offers me hope to face each new day with courage.
There will be days when the future, including death, will be scary, when our atavistic fears and impulses will be strong. In my first parish, I served a church beside an ancient(for Canada) country graveyard that could still be scary when I was alone there at night. On those occasions I would sometimes find myself whistling the fine Christian hymn “For all the saints”, and was particularly encouraged by this verse:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
If, as some might say, Christianity is merely hopeful whistling in the graveyard, then I would counter by saying that there are worse things to whistle.