The elderly lady listened courteously as the investment counselor on the phone told her of the future benefits and long-term growth available with his investment plan. Tiring of the sales talk, she finally interrupted the caller, "Honey, don't talk to me about future benefits and long-term growth," she said. "I am 94 years old, and at my age, I don't even buy green bananas!" That is one way to think about the future.
Then there was the elderly gentleman who, on his 99th birthday, was interviewed by a young news reporter who was curious about his longevity. The interview over, the reporter said to the elderly man as he was about to leave, "I hope to see you again, sir, on your 100th birthday." The old gentleman carefully looked the young reporter over and then said, "I can't see any reason why you shouldn't, young man, you look healthy enough to me." Perhaps how we think about the future has less to do with our age than our frame of mind.
I tell these stories to begin our thinking about what Paul writes to the Thessalonians in our New Testament text. I always feel a bit uneasy whenever the biblical text gets too specific about the future. In particular, there are these New Testament passages that make it quite clear that Paul and many of the early Christians were quite convinced that they did not have long for this world. Indeed, Paul and many of his contemporaries apparently believed that the world itself--at least as we know it--did not have long to go. They were expecting "the day of the Lord", a day of judgment, a day when the Lord Jesus Christ would come again.
Biblical scholars are widely agreed that Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul's existing letters. If so, then it is also the earliest written document in the New Testament. It is the earliest written expression of the Christian faith. There may be passages in other writings that existed earlier, but none that existed in their present form. We have here a glimpse of what was on the minds of some of the earliest Christians. They thought the day of judgment was imminent, that Christ would soon come again.
In another writing, one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians, there is a passage where he relates the tradition that has been handed down concerning the Lord's Supper. The words of this tradition have become our words of institution, often spoken in some form whenever the Lord's Supper is observed. At the conclusion of this passage, Paul declares to the Corinthians, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" [I Corinthians 11:26]. Why "proclaim the Lord's death"? Isn't the Lord's Supper a communion meal with our risen Lord? Shouldn't we be proclaiming the resurrection?
Well, it seems that Paul had found a problem among the Corinthian Christians regarding the meaning of the resurrection. These Corinthians as a whole were not eagerly or anxiously awaiting the coming of the Christ. They must have thought that the party had already started, that whatever was going to happen had already happened. Paul is trying to get them to understand that there is another chapter yet to be written. The world is not yet redeemed. Salvation is not yet accomplished. God's final and complete reign has not yet been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So the Lord's Supper should serve as a reminder of death, with fullness of life yet to be awaited in the coming of our Lord again.
As I say, all of this makes me uneasy, because it hardly seems to fit the way we look at the world today. This early Christian expectation has obviously not come to pass. Here, almost two thousand years later, we know that Paul and those who believed with him were wrong in this expectation. So, the question in relation to a text like this: What sense does it make if Paul was mistaken?
The irony is that this ancient text, with its anxious but mistaken expectation of an imminent coming, may be especially well-suited to speak to us in our time. For we, who are not inclined to think that the world is going to end any time soon, nonetheless have a tendency to live as if there were no tomorrow. Whereas Paul and the early Christians, even though they were not very sure about tomorrow and were rather confident that this world as we know it would be ending rather soon, nonetheless believed that it was very important how they continued to conduct their life together.
I say, we have a tendency to live as if there were no tomorrow. That is perhaps exaggeration, but it is truthful exaggeration. The truthful part is that we often pay little heed to the future consequences of our present actions. It is not just that we live for the day, it is that we do not think all that much about the implications of our actions for others. This may not seem true, may not even be true, for most of us as individuals, but it surely seems true for us as a people. Some of the evidence comes from our economic and political life. A few examples:
--Once again, statistics released this past week show that Americans have one of the lowest savings rates of any of the industrialized nations.
--Despite the recent rash of gun violence by children, against parents and teachers and children, does not seem sufficient to implement real, effective gun control.
--Recent news about Indonesia, India, and Pakistan serve to remind us how little attention we typically pay to these nations whose citizens comprise over 1/5 of the world's population.
--Projections of a burgeoning budget surplus are increasing pressure to cut taxes and funding of social programs rather than paying down the national debt or investing more in the health and education of future generations of adults Americans.
In our public life, and in our private life to a degree I fear we are not willing to admit, we live as if tomorrow is never going to come. In so many areas, you would think we had never heard Ben Franklin's familiar dictum: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Long-term political solutions are those policies and practices and programs that will last until the next election. Beyond that, few seem to care. In fact, some pundit on public radio this past week predicted that the coming election will offer little excitement or change. People are not mad about anything, and so they are not blaming either political party. They seem satisfied with how things are going. Unfortunately, many problems and situations must be neglected and ignored to purchase and preserve this satisfaction.
The irony of our situation is this, that while we do not share the expectation of Paul and many of the early Christians concerning the imminent end of this world as we know it, an expectation that proved mistaken, Paul and the early Church seem to have had a much more realistic grasp of the basics of human existence in the world, of its perils and opportunities and demands.
On the one hand, Paul recognized that human history bears profound moral significance. Whatever happens does not just happen. It bears upon other events, it bears meaning, it belongs to the darkness or to the light. And all is subject to the judgment of God. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night," he says. Was he really wrong about this? Not at all, if we regard the meaning of what he says without being distracted by the specifics of what he expected. The point is that divine judgment enters into human history. There will always be a reckoning. And it always comes unexpectedly, when people and nations are thinking otherwise. "When they say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them," Paul warns. It is hardly coincidental that "peace and security" was a propaganda slogan imprinted on Roman imperial coins. Paul is stating his case that although everything seems fine, and perhaps when those who are most enthralled by worldly powers are least expecting it, history becomes most vulnerable to the judgment of God. There is surely a warning here for our circumstance and time.
In short, it may be we who are wrong to have no sense of an imminent judgment. It may be we who are most mistaken if we think that everything will be just fine. While we are busy realizing our capital gains and watching our pension funds grow, we may be blind to events far more portentous to our future and the future of our world. My point is not that the world is going to hell in a handbasket while we are not paying attention--though it can be argued that we are about to conclude what has been the most awful century in human history. None of us really knows what sort of future lies ahead for our world. What is disconcerting to the point of being ominous is how little most of us and our fellow citizens seem to care.
For Paul, on the other hand, there was not only reason to care about the future. There was more than enough to do in the meantime and in anticipation. The concluding exhortation of his letter contains some phrases that are real gems: "Be at peace among yourselves;" "hold fast to what is good;" "encourage the faint hearted, help the weak;" "see that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all." We need to be clear and honest here: these instructions are not a blueprint for reforming and transforming the world. They do not envision any program or economic or political reform. They are linked immediately only to the cultivation of life in community. But they take seriously the impact and importance of individual lives upon one another. They are all tied to the actions Paul enjoins as response to God: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." And they are all tied to Paul's future expectation: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
What is lacking for so many in our current situation is any sense of the ultimate meaning and importance of how we live, or any sense that how we live is our response to God. We have a strategic sense of our existence, a sense of how to get from here to there, of how to "get what you want out of life" so to speak. Like astute politicians who have a sense of what it will take to win the next election, we have a sense of what it will take to accomplish our particular projects and goals. We know how to build up resumes, plan careers, and structure relationships so that we make each step along our way. But do we have the sense of God's claim upon our lives?
Perhaps we need some words from our ancient past, such as the instruction and exhortation we find in our Old and New Testament texts, to remind us of the ultimate context of our existence. It really does not matter whether our time is long or short, whether we have only today or tomorrow or a full lifetime to make good the occasions of our relationships to one another and to realize the truth of our life in God. What does matter is that we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves alone. What matters is that we take seriously the moral significance of events in history, and thus the moral significance of our participation in those events. What matters is that we recognize the practice of our lives as our response to God. What matters is that we strive to live out together in community that gracious yet demanding existence that has been manifest to us in Jesus Christ.
We cannot know what the future holds. But we do know how, and in Whom, we are called to live--today, tomorrow, and until the fullness of the Divine purpose has been accomplished in our midst. AMEN.