f you were here last Sunday evening, you will recall that I spoke of how in these weeks leading up to the arrival of Advent the lectionary cycle of readings takes us into material which asks pressing question about where this world of ours is headed; questions of life and death, of crisis and judgment, and of what I called the culmination of time and history.
Well, here we are again, on the second last week before the season of Advent, with two challenging texts, both written into the a context of rising crisis.
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We heard a reading from the 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians, in which Paul voices his concerns over the fact that in the church community in Thessalonica some of the members are not pulling their weight: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” It is pretty clear that this strikes Paul as being a deep, deep problem. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” he writes, sounding rather more like a work gang boss—or maybe like Donald Trump on a particularly grumpy day—than like a minister of the Gospel.
And then from the Gospel according to Luke, we have these words from Jesus about a coming crisis:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
For all of the differences between these two readings, it is that context of rising crisis context that links them.
So, on Paul’s words from his letter to that Thessalonian church. What is his issue here that has him so wound up about work and idleness?
It is entirely possible that part of what is happening is that some of those Thessalonian Christians have decided that with the world winding toward its end, trivial things like work have become secondary. More pressing, though, is that those early Christian communities really were structured as communities, with goods and resources being shared in very practical—and socially subversive—ways.
But guess what? Human dynamics being what they are, some of those Christians were apparently not much committed to carrying their share of the weight, instead being quite happy to rely on the benevolence of the others. I suspect that some even felt themselves somehow entitled to ride on the coat-tails of the community. And that’s just not on, writes Paul. That’s not how the Body of Christ works.
But notice this: Paul isn’t even beginning to suggest that they should cut off the truly poor, nor that they should be indifferent to those in need outside of their own community. And were he here with us tonight, Paul wouldn’t be looking at the homeless poor, or those suffering with addictions or those caught in an endless cycle of poverty and saying, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat… close down Agape Table.”
No. To the Thessalonians as to us, he’s saying “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” You are the Body of Christ, so act like it.” With the reality of persecution in and in face of the rising crisis, you must be the Body of Christ. And that holds just as strongly in times of relative comfort and social accommodation; maybe even more so.
Again, there was nothing particularly comfortable or accommodating about being a Christian in the 1st century. As N.T. Wright observes, we need to be clear that these verses from the Gospel according to Luke are “emphatically and specifically about the fall of Jerusalem, not about the end of the world.” What Jesus spoke of did in fact come about; Luke’s earliest readers were more than familiar with everything of which he spoke, and many of them had been persecuted, arrested, and dragged before government officials. Not that this material doesn’t still have much to say to us, and much to ask of us. As Wright goes on to say,
“(This) may of course be taken as a model for all living that peers into an uncertain future, needing to trust in God when everything is crashing down around one’s ears. The Church in many parts of the world lives with wars, rumours of wars, purges and persecutions on a daily basis; those of us who don’t should read passages like this in prayerful family solidarity with those who do. A church not being persecuted should also, sometimes, ask itself why not.”
“A church not being persecuted should also, sometimes, ask itself why not.” That really is quite an extraordinary thing to say, particularly in a context in which we tend to see our religious freedom as being categorically good. But I think that Wright is on to something here.
Our sisters and brothers in the ancient church—along with our sisters and brothers who have been pressed against the wall across the ages—share with us this death/resurrection faith. We are one with them, joined across time and history as members of the one Body of Christ. It is just that while Luke’s original readers understood both words in that phrase “death/resurrection”, all too often a church that lives its life in a context of social acceptance and religious freedom is really only able to think and speak in terms of “resurrection.” It is a church that very happily sings its alleluias or its praise choruses, but isn’t entirely sure how to sing laments; a church that rushes madly past Good Friday to celebrate Easter; a people hesitant to remember that the birth of the baby in Bethlehem resulted in Herod sending death squads in to slaughter babies; a church that risks falling into the trap of telling the wider culture that what the world most needs is yet another strategy for general improvement, be that personal or social.
It is pretty hard to be such a safe and domesticated church in the kind of context into which Jesus is speaking in this passage from Luke; a context in which this faith can only be embraced as something worth dying for. Literally.
“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
To truly be a resurrection people—to be enfolded in the grace that is resurrection—means to learn to speak truthfully about death. It is to learn to tell the whole story, and to sing both laments and alleluias. And it is to trust that words and wisdom will be given us, and that between our lives and our deaths lies the death and life of Jesus; that our deaths are made safe in his.