“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…” – 1 Thessalonians 4:17a
In what is probably the earliest of all of the New Testament writings, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is a celebration of the faithfulness of the early believers and encouragement to persevere through persecution. One prominent theme in this letter is the imminent expectation of Christ’s second coming. The Thessalonians indeed had already been expecting the return and were confused when members of their community were dying and Jesus had not yet returned. Paul is writing to encourage the early believers that Christ is coming…indeed, that Christ is already inviting us into divine presence.
Teaching around the second coming has taken the church in strange directions in the last century, with obsessively literalist readings of scripture shaping politics and the fate of nations, particularly in the Middle East. Other exercises in fantasy have created the Left Behind series of novels which imagines the world after all the Christians have been “raptured” when Christ returns on the clouds. Such explanations are thin readings of texts rich in metaphor and imagery.
Instead, let us hold this idea of Christ’s return as a promise full of hope. This idea, expressed as the Greek word Parousia, literally means to come alongside. Christ had come alongside us through his life and death, and resurrection means that we can all be caught up in this new thing God is doing. The clouds above were ever the realm of the divine in ancient language and metaphor. Our call is not to wait passively for something from outside to become present that is absent, but rather to be passionately involved and engaged with that which is present with us already, but has not yet come to completion. Christ is coming- Christ is always coming- and we are called into whole-hearted participation. We find our future hope not in leaving the world behind us, but in the good news that God has made this world, and our very selves, the place of encounter with the divine. We will be caught up…but it is already happening as we open ourselves in each moment of the coming of Christ to us.
Grace and peace,