Text from the 4th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
What’s the difference between hope and wishful thinking?
A child might say, “I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas!” A high school student might say, “I hope I get asked to the Prom!” A couple might say, “We hope our baby is born healthy.” A senior might say, “I hope the surgery works.” A fan might say, “I hope my team wins the Stanley Cup.” I don’t know; maybe, these days, the fan would say, “I hope there’s actually a hockey season this year!”
And then we come to church, and we hear a part of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonika in which he says, We do not want you to grieve as others do who have no… hope.
I can’t help but think that, as the old Sesame Street song had it, “One of these things doesn’t belong here. One of these things just isn’t the same.”
So, what’s the difference between hope and wishful thinking?
Are they the same? I don’t think so, but the way we use the word “hope” introduces a fair amount of confusion. The way we use the word “hope” makes it seem that we do frequently mean “wishful thinking.” So I think we need to approach this with some care.
As a starting point, I think it will be helpful to ask what Paul meant when he used the word. Because it’s pretty clear that he did not mean “wishful thinking!”
Paul wrote to the church in the city of Thessalonika, which is located today in northern Greece. Paul was the pastor who had started that church, but had since moved on. A situation had arisen which was raising some pretty significant questions for the membership of that church. They had written to Paul for an answer, for some guidance in their dilemma, and this letter that we call 1st Thessalonians was Paul’s response.
The dilemma was an important one for them, even if it isn’t our dilemma. Their dilemma was that, because of Paul’s preaching, they expected that Jesus was coming back any second now, to take all believers into heaven. But Jesus seemed to be taking his time in returning, kind of like waiting for the U.S. election results. It was taking forever! And because it had taken so long, some of the early believers had died. So, the church’s dilemma was, “If Jesus comes and takes us to heaven, what about those who have died before it happens? Are they lost, or out of luck, simply because they didn’t live long enough to see the day?”
Now, to be fair, I’m sure that Paul had talked with them about Jesus being with them. I’m sure he had discussed the hope of eternal life with God. I’m sure he had spent a fair amount of time proclaiming that, in the face of what God had done and was doing in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the world was doomed, the political power of Rome was going to end, that all human structures were going to decay, and the only “hope” (there’s that word!) that they had was to cling to what God had done and was doing in Jesus. I am absolutely sure that Paul talked about all of this.
But it seems that the way these early Christians heard this Good News, was interpreted as an escape from the world. They heard Paul saying that Jesus would come back from heaven by next Thursday, throw the Emperor out, bring Rome to it’s knees, vindicate all of God’s suffering people in the sight of all, and take them to be with him.
So it makes sense that they were feeling some disappointment, and therefore some doubt. Jesus hadn’t come yet; some church members had died before that final day arrived; the Emperor was still on his throne; Rome was still grinding people into dust; God’s people were still a small, insignificant, and un-vindicated band of people. Given all of that, it makes sense that they would wonder what was going on, and ask questions like, “Has something gone wrong? Has the plan been changed? Were we wrong to hope (there’s that word again!) for these things? Were we guilty of just wishful thinking?”
Paul responded, “No.” And he was right! Those things did all happen. It’s just that they happened 300 to 500 years later!
Paul did not say, “Stop hoping for those things.” He said, “Keep hoping for them. Keep aiming toward them. But don’t just wait for the future to show up. After all, most of us probably aren’t going to be around in 3 to 500 years!”
Jane Patterson is a theologian and instructor in Austin Texas. She says that if we make the mistake that the Thessalonians made, we might see the Jesus event (his birth, death and resurrection) as something that happened in the past, and the return of Jesus as something that will happen in the future. But then we will be in danger of seeing the present as simply “open space,” an empty time when we just have to “suck it up, butter cup.” And when we have disconnected the past and future from our present reality, we will indeed become guilty of wishful thinking. There is nothing to build on, nothing to see, nothing to hang on to. All we can do is blow out the candles on our birthday cake, and make a wish that something good will happen… some time. Maybe in 3 to 500 years!
What Paul does is subtle, but it’s significant. He reminds them of the story of Jesus. He says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again….” It almost seems like a passing thought, but it’s important. If you take a look at the whole letter, Paul has spent most of it reminding his friends of the presence of Jesus with them in the present.
And it is that assertion that ties everything together: for Paul, for the Thessalonians, and for us. The past and future are joined together by the presence of Jesus in the present. As Jane Patterson says, the present is not empty space. It is, instead, an “electrically charged field of salvation….”
The present is crackling with the power of the Spirit, it’s shining with the love of God. Again, as Jane Patterson says, the partnership we have with Christ in our day-to-day decision-making is the cutting edge of the presence of Christ making its way into human life, our lives. We can see it, touch it, believe it, because it’s not only in a pristine past or an imagined future; it can be seen in the transformation of ourselves and our community as we live in the presence of Jesus.
That’s the difference between wishful thinking and the hope of the Good News. Wishful thinking is about something happening… in the future… eventually…, maybe…. Whereas hope, Christian hope, faith-filled hope, real hope is about trusting that something will happen in the future because we can see it already beginning in the present.
It is in living a life of seeking right relationships, with ourselves, with others, and with all of creation, that those Thessalonians in the first century, and we in 21st century Nova Scotia, have already experienced Christ in, through, and among us.
Just feel that electricity! Right now. That is hope.