a sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
here’s a shift that begins to take place in the lectionary cycle of readings at this time of the church year. Having marked the feast of All Saints, the calendar now begins to draw us toward the end of the current liturgical year and toward the marking of a new beginning in Advent. The focus of the readings moves from life in what is called “ordinary time”— the day-to-day working out of the faith in the real world—toward questions of where this is all headed; toward questions of life and death, and of what in some church circles is called the “end times”, but which I believe is more aptly called the culmination of time and history.
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And so here we are, with a reading from the 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians in which Paul writes of the coming of “a lawless one” who is “destined for destruction,” and a reading from the gospel according to Luke having to do with life in the resurrection age. I’m afraid that I’m gong to leave aside the gospel reading, with its rather odd exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees—an exchange which they apparently find utterly convincing, but the logic of which tends to leave us scratching our heads—and turn our attention to the reading from 2nd Thessalonians.
It has been a couple of months since we last read from Paul on a Sunday night. As you might know, the lectionary includes three readings for each Sunday, yet here at saint benedict’s table we use only two of them: always the gospel reading and usually the one from the Hebrew scriptures. We made that decision early in our life as a worshiping community, mostly because it is really hard for a preacher to do any justice to two texts, much less three. I usually have us reading from the Old Testament, because I believe it is really important to soak ourselves in the stories and wisdom of our long Jewish heritage, but of course we can’t just ignore the epistles of Paul and the other New Testament writers.
Yet it isn’t always easy to digest Paul’s writings when they’re read aloud in short bits. Paul’s letters are just that, letters. They’re not polished statements of systematic theology, but rather occasional pieces, written to very particular communities at very particular times, and they were probably intended to be read aloud from beginning to end. The communities who sat and listened to such readings lived in the context into which the letters were written, and in a real sense were active conversation partners in those writings.
So, just a bit of context. The 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians is generally recognized as being one of the earliest of Paul’s letters that we have preserved in our bible, and some scholars even think it is actually earlier than 1st Thessalonians. There is in the letter a real sense of urgency having to do with the crisis in which the early church was living its life, and a considerable focus on the expectation of the impending return of Christ. It is pretty clear that at least at this point in his writings, Paul believed that God was about to act in a decisive way to bring all of time and all of history to its culmination, and this was something that could happen at any moment. Some of the later epistles, by the way, do take a longer view of things, and so in those letters Paul deals more with how to live in the interim; how to shape communities and how to navigate ethical issues and church dynamics.
But here in this letter, he’s really pressed by a sense of an impending crisis, and he’s very, very concerned that his little church community in Thessalonica doesn’t go off track chasing the proverbial red herring. Apparently word had begun to circulate that the promised day of the Lord had already come—I suppose they assumed it would take time for its impact to spread from Jerusalem all the way into Greece—and Paul wants to quash the rumour before it takes root. And so he writes,
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
In other words, you’ll know when it comes. That’s partly because it will be hard to miss the fact that God is bringing all things to their completion (he doesn’t say that in those words… but in Paul’s view that is simply true), but also because things are going to get worse before they get better. You’ll be surrounded by false gods, false claims, false hopes, and it will be easy to get taken in. It will get worse, more complicated, more troubling before everything is brought home in Christ… to borrow an image from one of his other letters, the birth of the new creation will come with some serious birth pangs. “The rebellion will come first, the lawless one will be revealed.”
And here’s the thing: Paul was right. Things did get worse… much worse. The murderous emperor Caligula had already attempted to have his statue placed in the Jerusalem temple, and the figure of the wildly erratic and violent emperor Nero was on the horizon. While these emperors made increasingly grand claims regarding their own power, authority, and even divinity, the persecutions would only get worse. No question that these Christians were confronted by a web of lies and hateful false claims.
And here’s another thing: Paul is right. No less now than then, his words cautioning against red herrings and misleading teaching must place a claim on us, as we sort out what it might mean to live as disciples in a changing world.
In a commentary written into an African-American church context, Cain Hope Felder makes the following observations:
The great threat within the black church and wider African-American context today is an apocalyptic this-worldliness of extremes. On the one hand, there are masses of black Americans in lottery lines, casinos, jails, and halfway houses; on the other hand, there is an increasing number of upwardly mobile blacks caught up in a mad pursuit of creature comforts, virtually oblivious to the pain and sufferings of the desperate masses. Dare one mention many of the black millionaire entertainers or televangelists who have found their apparent kingdoms on earth to the puzzlement of the poor and downtrodden. Who is the ‘lawless one’ of our times who sponsors a new kind of ‘powerful delusion?’ It might be that the rebellion of 2 Thessalonians that must come first is this very contemporary era that has spawned the meteoric rise of the ‘Christian media celebrity.’ (True to Our Native Land: an African-American New Testament Commentary, Fortress Press)
You don’t have to do a whole lot of shifting in Felder’s provocative challenge to his African-American readers to hear his words resonate in our own social context. What are the lies and illusions that we, too, easily fall for?
Now I suspect that when he was writing his letter, Paul would not have had any sense that this old world would still be groaning away some 2000 years later, but that makes his challenge no less true. And it also takes away none of the force of his words of hopeful challenge, when he writes to them—and us:
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
A hopeful challenge, and a fitting benediction on a Sunday when our attention is drawn to hard matters of life in the time between the times.