Rector's Blog: Waiting for Jesus
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Dear Paul, you told us that Jesus was coming back. You said he’d be coming back and making everything right. Jesus isn’t back yet, and things aren’t all right. Oh, and also people are dying. People who believed in Jesus, believed that he was the savior, and believed that he’d be back to make things right, are dying even though you said they’d be saved. We’re scared, Paul. This is not how we thought salvation would look. We are going to keep being Church for now. We aren’t giving up. But we are scared, and a little confused, and we’d love for you to visit as soon as you can and help us understand. We know you’re busy, Paul, and if you can’t come visit right away, that’s ok – but please send us some kind of instructions or guidance, pretty much anything you’ve got, because having faith is hard. We know we believe in Jesus, but we’re still sad and would like some hope.
The Church in Thessalonica
Ok so I wrote that, and not the Thessalonians. We don’t know what they wrote to Paul, we only know how Paul replied. But his reply made it in the Bible, and we call it 1 Thessalonians. It is, from what we can tell, the earliest written document in the New Testament, so it gives us a sense of what was on the mind of the first generation of Christians. And it turns out they were worried about dying. While hundreds of people had seen Jesus after his resurrection and before his ascension into Heaven, none of those people were in Thessalonica.
The Thessalonian Church was far from Jerusalem, and when St. Paul planted it, he taught the new Christians that they were living in a sort of in-between time: Jesus had died and been raised up, had walked among them once again, and then ascended. But, Paul taught, Jesus would be coming again in glory and wonder to bring about a final act of reconciliation that would make all things right. The problem was Paul had no idea how long they’d have to wait for that Second Coming, and neither did his new Church. So, they were waiting. Like maybe Paul meant Jesus is coming back next Wednesday and I won’t have to pay my water bill or worry about the dishes.
And, honestly, maybe Paul did mean that. It certainly seems based on some of the things Paul wrote that he thought Jesus would be back within his lifetime. The expectation of many early Christians was that they’d believe in Jesus, and then he’d show up and keep them from dying and make everything better right there and then, and their troubles would be over. And, of course, that did not happen.
The people of the Thessalonian Church must have been scared. It’s clear they were confused about how Jesus was helping them if people were dying and their lives were still hard. It’s clear they were dismayed not to have actually seen Jesus at this point, and that they wondered if they ever would. It’s clear that they still loved their community and wanted it to be ok. This in-between time was wearing on them though.
We know how they felt. Don’t we?
This is an in-between time, and it is making us really uncomfortable. We want our faith to make everything better, we want Jesus’ salvation to be immediate and to take away our suffering. That’s not how salvation works, of course. It’s not how salvation has ever worked, but we keep dreaming of it. And, I don’t really blame us: We are in the midst of radical change and uncertainty, and it’s scary and painful. We are still sorting through the trauma of the last 18 months, and contrary to what some would have us believe, the pandemic isn’t over. The pandemic isn’t over. The pandemic isn’t over.
We know it will be someday, but we don’t know who we will be or what our lives will look like in that time.
This week, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, in a sermon to the Bishops of The Episcopal Church, called this moment in our shared life a “Narthex Moment.” Narthex, you see, is the fancy word for church lobby. It’s the place people pass through before heading into or out of the church. It’s the transition space. Bishop Curry said, “We are living in a narthex moment, between the world we knew and whatever is being born.” And as usual, he gets it.
Jesus hasn’t come back – at least not in that Second Coming magnificence with trumpets and angels and clouds sort of way. Paul tells us not to worry, but rather to keep being community. In the in-between time, in the Narthex Moment, Paul tells the Church to “encourage one another and build each other up, as you’ve already been doing.” This is how we see Jesus here and now. This is how we live in hopeful expectation. We do it together. We build this community.
None of this looks the way we thought it would. But has it ever? If we wait for Jesus to make it all better before we step out in Love, we will never step out in Love. If we wait for the Church to “get back to normal” before we commit ourselves to it again, we will never commit.
Friends, we are still a community. We are a still a church. We still belong to each other. And our marching orders are still the same as they’ve always been, the same as they were at the founding of the Church itself: To bear one another’s burdens, to love one another as we love ourselves, to pray and sing and worship and recognize God’s loving presence everywhere. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is very present in this world. God is here and working. Christ’s power can be seen and experienced here and now. The way we take care of each other, the way we serve this world as it is – that's how we’ll know it. That’s how we’ll see God.
Link to the homily by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at this week's House of Bishops meeting
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