I realize that resurrection Sunday may feel a bit like last week’s news. After all, it’s done. We’ve celebrated. Now we’ve moved on to what’s next, whether that’s Pentecost or something (slightly) less noble like the pennant race. We’ll be happy to do it all again next year, of course. But for now, we’ve got schedules to keep and other things to consider. Well, since it’s technically still the week of, let me put in one more word for the resurrection in an attempt to slow down this inexorable “progress.” I’d like to follow up on a piece posted last Friday on TGC’s blog, titled “The Neglected Resurrection,” and suggest one more reason why the resurrection must not be neglected—one more reason why the resurrection is the sort of news we must not pack away until next April. (If we do, some of us might not make it until then.) The resurrection must not be neglected because it declares to all of God’s people that death will not have the final word over us—we will rise again.
I suspect for many of us that may actually be the best sort of news to hear at the moment, especially if last year’s calendar included a funeral for a dad, a sister, a husband, or a little child. No doubt, there is much comfort to be found in the fact that the resurrection gives you new, spiritual life, that it secures your justification, and that it empowers your fight against indwelling sin. This is all fabulous news, of course. But, I suspect the best news about the resurrection for some right now may be this line Paul wrote to some of his friends who were themselves grieving a loss of their own: “[I]f we believe that Jesus died and rose again,…so we believe that God will [take] with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thess 4:14).
Paul, as you’ll remember, only spent a short time with the Thessalonians. His missionary enterprise in the city was cut short by persecution. In the few weeks following his departure, something had gone wrong in Thessalonica—not so wrong that Paul couldn’t offer the community a remarkable word of praise (1:2–10), but wrong enough to send some into a season of despair. It looks as if one of their own had died unexpectedly, perhaps as a result of the same persecution that had caused Paul’s departure—though of this we really can’t be certain. In any case, the loss raised the question: what happens to Christians who die before Jesus’ return—before the parousia? The Thessalonians’ grief implies they feared the worst. I just don’t see any other way of explaining their complete lack of hope (v. 13). (You don’t hopelessly grieve at the funeral of a dear friend if you’re certain they’ll rise again.) In a letter, then, Paul spends some time addressing this situation, offering a word of hope firmly grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul’s response goes something like this: if we believe that Jesus died and rose, then we should also believe that those who die in Jesus will be taken or raised as well (v. 14; cf. v. 16). They’ll be taken from their graves just as Jesus was. Like a shrewd theologian, Paul shows the Thessalonians that they already had the resources to address their current crisis of faith. Comfort, after all, was simply a short and necessary inference away from their union with Christ (“asleep in him,” v. 14). Like any good pastor, however, Paul realizes that their grief may need something more; perhaps he feared their despair might cloud their theological judgment. So, he gives his claim a pretty solid footnote (vv. 15–17), saying, in effect, that if you want proof of what I’m saying, how would you feel about a promise from Jesus himself ? Jesus’ words corroborate Paul’s point, promising that not only will the dead in Christ not be left in their graves—as the Thessalonians feared—but they’d be given the honor of meeting Jesus first. Then, to make sure his friends didn’t miss it, Paul adds a little coda to the citation, drawing their attention once more to his main point: they’ll not be without their loved ones; rather, they’ll be together with them and with the Lord…forever! Paul’s next and final line is, therefore, beautifully appropriate: “[E]ncourage one another with these words” (v. 18).
What this all means is that the resurrection is something we simply cannot afford to put away until resurrection Sunday rolls around again. Trouble and despair (sadly) won’t take the year off. We must preach this good word to ourselves and to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the year: Take courage. Your sleeping loved ones—who loved Jesus—will rise again just as he did. One day—one glorious day—the earth will shake with our Savior’s shout, it will resonate with the archangel’s booming voice, evil will cower at God’s mighty trumpet blast…and your loved ones will hear it and live.