Advice at a Funeral

rapture diagram
Credit: Richard Masoner

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

We want you to know what happens when people die so you won’t be sad like the heathen.

We believe that because Jesus died and returned to life. We also believe that God will bring back to life people who have died while believing this about Jesus. Here’s a message from God: When Jesus comes back from heaven, those who have already died will go to heaven first, and then those of us who are still alive will go to heaven next. Jesus himself, at the chief angel’s trumpet signal, will come down from heaven. First, the dead will rise. Then the living will float away into the clouds with Jesus forever.

Tell yourselves this story to make yourselves feel better.

The catch of course, besides the whole story being patently ridiculous, is that the schedule for all this happening gets revised every few years. (In 2011, every few months.)

We can give Paul credit for trying to be pastoral. But theological explanations (even good theology) is cold comfort for those who are mourning a real loss. Paul would have done much better if he’d gone to be with his friends at Thessolonica instead of giving them this story and instructions to tell it to each other. Job’s friends are no comfort to him as they drone on and on about how death and disaster are a case of divine punishment. And neither is the well-meaning reassurance often given at funerals that “God wanted Grandma to be with him now.” (Why is God all of a sudden so selfish?)

There’s nothing wrong with believing in an afterlife. It’s a charming idea. But even if there is, the technical details are not appropriate at funerals. And it does no good to say to someone, “Don’t be sad.” People need to feel what they feel. You’re much better off following Jesus example and weeping along. But only if you really mean it. Otherwise being there, saying you’re sorry, and keeping in touch after the funeral day crowds are gone are much more supportive responses to death and loss.

Don’t Wait for Paul

princess waiting
Photo credit: Etolane

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

You don’t need anyone telling you how to love each other: God has already taught you that, and you’ve shown your love for your fellow followers throughout Macedonia. We want you to continue in this way, and to live quietly, mind your own business, and do your work as we instructed. Behave yourselves around outsiders, and don’t beg.

Keep your head down and don’t do anything that would call attention to yourself. It’s good advice if you’re under fire and trying to wait things out. Which as we shall see in the rest of this chapter, is exactly Paul’s strategy.

But again, this is a major shift from what Jesus was doing. When Jesus said the kingdom is near, Jesus meant that as a call to engage in the world, not to withdraw. Similarly, Paul means “love for your fellow followers” primarily as financial support for mission churches. Jesus, on the other hand, advocated loving your enemies, which often meant “misbehaving” in the eyes of the general public. Healing on the sabbath. Staging a teach-in at the temple. Challenging people’s ideas about who is acceptable.

Paul’s strategy is to hunker down and wait for the end of the world, like the helpless princesses waiting for prince charming to come to their rescue. Compared to what Jesus was doing, that’s pretty easy. The trouble is that more than 2000 years on, much of the church is a rather bitter old maid, and it’s pretty clear nobody is coming to the rescue.

Jesus’ strategy is to take an active part in bringing about the end of the world as we know it. The good news: we don’t have to wait for the church to figure that out to do it.