Dead Christians live forever – Monday, 22nd week in ordinary time – 1 Thessalonians 4: 13- 18

Dead Christians live forever- Monday, 22nd week in ordinary time – 1 Thessalonians 4: 13- 18

Written in 50 AD, the letter of St Paul to the Thessalonians is the earliest written book in the New Testament.  Thessalonica was a port city in Macedonia, modern day Greece. The city took its name from the wife of Cassandra, a general of Alexander the great.

This city was important for economic, commercial and political reasons. Its harbour and Roman highway contributed greatly to the wealth of this commercial centre. This city also housed a Jewish population and a synagogue. It is here that Paul arrives during his second missionary journey in 50 AD.

Paul courted controversy where ever he went. He was not one to water down the message that he himself had received from the Lord. He wore his convictions on his sleeve and doing so does not always win you the Nobel Prize.

Paul’s mission thus far, has been stormy, to say the least. He has been expelled from Philippi which was no more than a hundred miles east of Thessalonica and now arrives in this bustling city which had a Jewish population large enough to warrant the building up of a synagogue.

As what will become his characteristic trade mark, Paul will go first to the synagogue where we know that he preached at least for three weeks till I riot erupted among the Jewish population.  Three weeks was all it took for some Jews to be threatened by the popular message of Paul. Along with Paul, his companion Silvanus was also expelled; it is from here that they go to the city of Beroea.

While in Thessalonica, Paul has success with the Gentiles whom he converts to the faith.  It is to them that he has occasion to write to, a few months after he has left the city.  Being expelled from the city and unable to minister to them, Paul sends Timothy in his stead while he himself moved on to Corinth.

It is in Corinth that Timothy joins Paul bringing with him the good news about the situation in the Church in Thessalonica but more about a vexing issue that had cropped up in the minds of the Gentile converts.

It is in response to this that Paul writes to the Thessalonians, the first of the New Testament texts. What then seems to be the problem? Paul had preached of an imminent return of the Lord; Jesus’ Parousia or second coming; when He would judge the living and the dead. Since Paul has left Thessalonica, a few converts have died and their seemed to be no indication that the Parousia would take place. What then would happen to these dead brothers and sisters?

 Their infantile faith is plagued with a thought from the past.   Gentile culture had various beliefs in the afterlife and resurrection was not top of the charts. These new converts were now torn between their Gentile mind set and their Christian faith in the resurrection.  Characteristic of the Gentile mind set with regard to the afterlife was their lack of hope and Paul feels compelled to remind them that they should not ‘grieve as others do (reference to the Gentiles) who have no hope.’ (1Thes 4: 13)

Paul affirms their creedal belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus which the Thessalonians have no problem accepting and hence should have no problem accepting that through Him and with Him (the great doxology at mass) the loved one of the Thessalonian community would be raised This is not a promise that Paul is making but is the very promise of ‘the word of the Lord’ (verse 15-17).

Verse 17 tells us that Paul still believed that the Parousia was imminent for he affirms that “ we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

We must acknowledge here, that the language used to describe the Parousia is apocalyptic terminology which is largely symbolic. Symbolic language points to a greater reality and hence the description used for the end times is not to be taken literally, like many fundamentalists do.

One cannot downplay the missionary zeal of Paul, the champion of the Gospel, in all of this. In reading this passage, we see a man on fire with the burning desire to make Jesus know to the whole world. A zeal and fire that perhaps needs kindling in the hearts of many Christians today.

Fr Warner D’Souza

With inputs from the JBC

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