(This is the part where you say, Wait, what?)
Attend, little children: in this passage, Paul is trying to solve a pastoral problem. Jesus told his followers (more or less): “I will return before any of you die.” Yet some of those same followers were dying, and no Jesus. What gives? It’s an important question still today, but even more so in Paul’s day, when belief in resurrection was not widespread. Most people thought that life after death—if there even was such a thing—was a cold, dark, loveless existence. So, you know. Like Duluth.
At the same time, resurrection was a central tenet of Christianity. As Paul says, if you don’t hope because of Christ’s resurrection, you have nothing. So to ask about the dead was both an emotional question: Will we be forever separated from our loved ones? And it was also a faith question: You told us Jesus was coming before anybody died. That’s clearly not the case. ‘Sup with that?
Paul’s answer to this is essentially: don’t sweat it. If Jesus has the power to return and save you, he has the power to save the dead. He consistently refers to the dead as “the sleepers” in this passage. They’re alive, but asleep while they wait for Jesus. When Jesus does come (there’s no “comes back” here), they’ll be in the front of the line to be brought to him. Then come those of us who are living. Here, Paul adds a rhetorical flourish:
Then we who are 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.
Yep, this is where the idea of the Rapture comes from. Jerome used the word rapere to translate Paul’s Greek. It’s the Latin word for what a raptor does: a sudden snatching or seizing, catching something up by force. That’s the sense used by the tribulation-minded: that God will suddenly snatch up into heaven the chosen ones, leaving you chumps behind.
Rapere, though, as you may have guessed, also gives us the English word “rape.” It meant at first basically kidnapping a woman, with or without sexual assault. Later it came to refer specifically to the latter part of that equation. That’s not what Paul meant, there’s nothing like that in the original. In the Greek, the word usually had a negative connotation: it’s the word you’d use to describe snatching something out of somebody’s hand, or grabbing something away by force.
But Paul apparently means something more positive: being caught up into heaven, God laying hold of you and plucking you out of the world of sin and death. Is this a literal belief? No, not exactly. It’s a mystical vision, similar to ones recorded in Paul’s other letters. The important part is the comfort it conveys: nothing in life or in death can separate you from the love of God in Christ, as he says in Romans. Whether or not it literally happens the way he describes it is of secondary importance, at best.
The literal interpretation given by people like Tim LaHaye has all-too-often been used to keep people in line. Do the right thing (as we, your social superiors interpret it), or you won’t get caught up by Jesus on the last day. This is a completely vertical cosmology. To cite Bob Marley, “most people think great God will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high.”
But while Paul promises that this vertical relationship with God will work out in the Thessalonians’ favor, he ultimately roots his word of comfort in the horizontal relationship with Jesus in community. Before his appearance on the last day, Jesus comes into the world again in how the Christian community lives and acts, exactly why so many of us are disgusted by Moore’s religious defenders.
It’s not an accident, then, that Paul concludes this passage with instructions for the church to comfort one another. Nor is it accidental that he concludes the letter with this exhortation:
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
While Christians wait for Jesus’ final return, our business is to be making Jesus real in the world, to anticipate his coming in our lives and our bodies. Much of that work is to extend the horizon of Jesus, to gather as many into the loving arms of the body of Christ so they too can be caught up in him when he comes. Paul says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds.” There’s no qualifiers there. To paraphrase one of my commentaries, anyone who desires to be with God will be with God—is already with God. The job of the church is to recognize that truth and to give it as much substance as we can.
This, finally, is where those harmed by sexual abuse come in. There is no shame, there is no violation, there is no assault or diminishment, that can prevent God from loving you. Jesus came into the world to reconcile it: to put relationships right with justice and equity, and to draw all people to God. If it doesn’t matter if you’re living or dead, it certainly doesn’t matter if you’ve been harassed, or molested, or manipulated, or raped. God believes you. God sees you in ultimate dignity and worth. God loves you and wants to draw near to you in love and comfort. You too will have life. You too will have love. You too will be blessed, redeemed and made whole on the last day when the trumpet blows and the archangel calls.
Our job as the church is to be ready for that moment by making sure you’re ready for that moment. The job of the church is not to get you to behave like a good little Christian should, but to get you somewhere you can receive the grace to be offered.
So to all those victims of abuse out there: I believe you. I see you in dignity and worth. I want you to be a part of the body of Christ. At least, I do those things as best I can. In the meantime, as we await Jesus’ coming, I pray forgiveness for all those times I have failed you, and for strength to do better. Amen and the end.+ + +