Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
These words, which introduce today’s New Testament reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), find their way in one form or another into every funeral that I do (which means, I must confess, that I sometimes end up sharing these words more often than I’d like). I highlight this passage, because it reminds us that our grief is appropriate. The fact that we believe in Jesus and the resurrection life he offers does not mean that we shouldn’t mourn the death of those we love. If we felt no pain of separation, after all, we might have reason to question the authenticity of our love in the first place. No, our faith simply means — as the passage says — that we “do not grief like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” For those who have placed their trust in Christ, death is not the end. So, we can grieve now, while looking forward to a grand reunion later.
It’s worth noting, however, that Paul isn’t really addressing in this passage the grief that his Thessalonian brothers and sisters felt over their own sense of loss. He was addressing the grief that they experienced over the fear that their departed family and friends might have “missed out” on the resurrection. This letter, you see, was written during the earliest years of the Christian movement — at a time when many were looking eagerly for Christ’s immediate return to usher in the kingdom of God. When folks started dying before Jesus came back, it left the living to wonder: Will our deceased brothers and sisters miss out on a new heaven and a new earth in which all things are made new?
But as Paul goes on to assure the church: “We who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (verses 15-16). There is an indestructible and glorious life coming — one that “swallows up” our own sense of loss in victory and that “makes good” on God’s promises to all those who have lived in grace-inspired hope.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words,” Paul concludes. May we be encouraged today — and may we share that encouragement — as we allow God’s Word to remind us that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.