Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Monday, July 18, 2011
God is the God of the Living, Part 1 - by Clint
It was 15 years ago today that my father, Buck Hale, died. I was sitting next to him, speaking with him, and he passed away so quietly that I didn't even realize it for a few moments. I was blessed to have him in my life, on a regular basis, for nearly 27 years. In the past 15, I have learned that I wish he had stayed around for many more. I could use his wisdom on many occasions. However, I do not despair, as one without hope. So, on this 15th anniversary of his death, I offer the first installment of a discussion on death and the Return of the Lord.
“But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:31-32; NKJV). These words of Jesus indicate a fundamental difference in the view of death that Christians are to hold, compared with the view of non-Christians. Just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for many years when Moses (and later Jesus) referred to them in the present tense, so all Christians are to be considered “alive” in Christ, as evidenced by his statement that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). However, physical death is a reality that is common to all people, including the Christians in Thessalonica. The Apostles’ teaching that death had no power over the Christian seemed contrary to the experience of these Christians, who saw their beloved brethren succumb to physical death. Therefore, doubt entered their thinking, and they were concerned about the Christians who had died. This is understandable, as “the hour of death is terrible for everyone." St. Paul addresses their concern by reminding the Thessalonians that Christians still had the hope promised, regardless of the death that had been experienced. In fact, he chose to refer to physical death as “sleep,” indicating that there would be an “awakening” from that state of sleep. Those who had “fallen asleep” would precede those who were still alive, when the Lord returns! Truly, St. Paul presents God as the God of the living, not the dead, for those who have been joined with Christ can never truly die.
While it is apparent that in this life each person will face death, unless the Lord returns before that death occurs, the ultimate perspective must be focused upon the eschatological reality that Christ will return. This is not to say that Christians can know the exact time of that return, as Elder Cleopa clearly pointed out: “the true Church teaches, equally with the Apostle Paul, that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night and that no one knows the day or hour…" Yet that return will happen, as promised by both Christ and St. Paul. In fact, St. Paul’s words are based upon the foundation of the words of Christ. The Church has “faithfully awaited the return of her Lord," based upon the promise of the Angels in Acts 1:11. When that day occurs, all will be transformed, transfigured by the holiness of the Trinity. That is the reality that St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to keep in mind.
Humanity was created for eternity and Christians should not view death as an end, but the beginning of that eternal life. In fact, the Church teaches that though the spirit leaves the body at death, leaving the visible world, it does not depart from the Church. Rather, the person goes to “be with the Lord” (Philippians 1:23), as St. Paul himself desired to do. So St. Paul instructs the Thessalonians to not despair for their departed loved ones, but to focus on the Lord’s Return. The departed would return with the Lord, having already begun their participation in his eternal glory, to share that glory with those who remained. These words were intended as a comfort for those who had lost loved ones, realizing that the separation was only temporary, with the view to an eternal reunion.
St. Paul uses the opportunity provided by the doubt and fear of the Thessalonians to move the discussion to the more detailed topic of that ultimate Return of Christ. He begins this portion of the discussion with the aforementioned description of the unknown quality of the timing of the return. The imagery of a “thief in the night” is used, just as it had been by Christ Himself, and the Apostle John. Carrying the image further, he warns against complacency. After a period of time, some might begin to waver in focus, not keeping the eventual return in mind. It would be easy to think that Christ might never return. Yet St. Paul cautions against this mentality with his reference to “peace and security,” which is an indication that nothing is happening. The truth is that the day will come suddenly, without warning.
Yet for all the terminology referring to a thief and the warning-less appearing, St. Paul reminds his readers that they are not to be caught unaware. That unexpected Return of Christ is only in reference to the heathen, as Christians are prepared, regardless of when that return occurs. They are Children of the Light, and not of darkness, indicating that they can see what is coming (1 Thessalonians 5:4-6). In this, St. Paul makes an interesting and important comparison with the idea of being “asleep”: There are those who are “asleep in the Lord,” who are not truly dead, though their spirits are separated from their bodies. They are present with Christ and participate in his Glory and will return with him when he comes. However, there are many who are still living in the flesh, but who are “asleep,” not recognizing the Glory of Christ, and destined for “wrath” at his return (1 Thessalonians 5: 6-7). Christians are reminded to be of those who are “awake,” destined for salvation. Interestingly, St. Paul says that whether “we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). So the two types of “sleep” are compared and juxtaposed. To be “asleep,” yet alive in the Lord, is a place of honor, while to be spiritually “asleep” is a precursor to wrath.