Is anyone using the lectionary for Pentecost 27 this Sunday? Everywhere I look, we are celebrating All Saints (which is meet and proper). Still, I thought that this Sunday’s readings deserved some prayerful attention, and found in the epistle for this Sunday (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18) something of a bridge between post-Pentecost and the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls.
In his famous book of bereavement, C.S. Lewis, writing as N.W. Clerk, writes,
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.*
It is a beautiful and grotesquely fascinating book that wrestles with the violence of grief. If one offered Lewis the consolations of religion, it is easy to imagine him offering up his fists.
And yet Paul dares to offer the Thessalonians consolation, dares to offer words of comfort regarding those beloved of them who have died in the faith of Christ and in the hope of the resurrection, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. (1 Thess 4:13b)
But Paul is not writing about our grief. He is not writing about the pain of waking up alone, of returning to an empty house which misses its vocation as a home. Paul does not write about loneliness, about the empty womb, the heavy coffin, the silent song.
Instead, Paul offers theological comfort, not for the Thessalonians’ grief but for their anxiety regarding the salvation of their loved ones. Paul is expecting the second coming at any moment – the second coming of the Christ who came to him on the road to Damascus in a blinding light. He is waiting for that light to return and blind the world with its glory; and he has been given to understand that it will happen in his lifetime, and the Thessalonians have been given to understand that it will happen in their lifetimes. When their loved ones died, they began to wonder if they had missed it. If they had missed out on the glory, the salvation, the resurrection of Christ.
Paul’s comfort is not offered to their grief, at their anger at the violence of loss. Rather, Paul offers the theological assurance that God’s love does not run to a timetable; that salvation is not chronological; that Christ’s glory has no deadline to miss: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess 4:16)
It is not comfort to those whose wounds are raw and weeping. It is not suitable consolation for those whose grief bleeds. Instead, it is reassurance for those whose wounds have been bound up, whose hearts have begun to scar over, to knit together – not as good as new – but no longer broken open, and bleeding. It is for those who are ready and able to turn away from their own pain, their own grief, to wonder once more about the fate of their loved ones.
Lewis/Clerk complains, “What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves.” *
Paul replies (perhaps in confirmation), “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).
Neither will time.
The saints present, the saints past, the saints yet to come – all are equally beloved of God. All will live to see Christ’s coming in glory. It may not be a consolation, but it is, at least, grace. Amen.
* N. W. Clerk [C. S. Lewis], A Grief Observed (Greenwich: Seabury, 1963), 25 & 26