How many times in a conversation have you heard the nebulous words, “Well, they say…” Half the time we don’t know who “they” are, but the reference conjures to mind a group with double PhDs in academia plus the upper hand in any and all ethical decisions. But, really, who are “they”? And for that matter, who are “we”?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Apostle Paul gives some of the most encouraging words in all of Scripture. All Christians, whether alive at Christ’s return, or presently dead, will be raised to meet Him in the air and return to rule a new, glorified heaven and earth, forever. But in his description, Paul also implicitly delineates who the “we” and the “they” truly are.
Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, one that also fits for the Church today. As German novelist Thomas Mann said, “History is that which has happened and that which goes on happening in time…it is the layered sediment upon which we set our feet, the ground beneath us; and the deeper we go down into the layers that lie below and beyond…we speak of them in the first person and as though they were part of our experience.” Therefore, we *should* be, as Mann said, speaking in first person of the church at Thessalonica as “we”. Unfortunately, we have become so engrossed in all that is occurring in the culture now that the “we” and “they” have become subverted. Depending on your point of view, the “they” are the ones who do or don’t wear masks, or who do or don’t respect the latest statistical report that fits your opinion on Covid R rates. Or else “they” will be those who say too much or too little with respect to racial issues. Indeed, these are very, very important discussions that the Church should be having. But too often, church members are leaving the discussion just because they were offended by one of a hundred different preferences. CS Lewis could easily write Screwtape Letters II on just this topic. Brothers and sisters, Paul is making it clear that the we and they are much bigger. We is the Big C Church, manifested in the little c churches that should continue to engage and “encourage with these words” – words of true hope and encouragement. If we get offended when someone doesn’t see things our way, and write them off as irrational, we will not be able to encourage with these words.
Instead, Paul would have us to realize that which is surely true now, that joy shared is multiplied, while suffering shared would be likewise minimized. An individual sufferer’s view tends to be myopic. A fellow sufferer broadens their world to realize that they are not alone. Words of encouragement provide comfort and hope and telescopes the viewpoint out to eternity. Contrast the moment of loss vs. the eternal togetherness in the presence of Lord. Loss is reality, but a temporary reality. Grief is real, but it is not a grief w/o hope. The fact of death is transformed by the promise of life eternal. Therefore, encourage w/ these words for the “we”.
Moreover, Paul exhorts us with the good news to be eschatological evangelists. Often, groups are meant to be exclusive. Not the case with this “we”. The purpose of the gospel is for us to lovingly reach out to the “they” to become “we” with us.
Finally, these are words of encouragement that give us hope, and there might be some (a lot?) of suffering to get there. These are not words of just “keep safe.” What is it that gives you hope? We in suburban American find our hope in 2 children, a job amidst Covid-crashed economy, a dog, a 401K, good health and “safety”. Surely, those are all good things. But what and where is true safety to be found? It is only in Christ, and not in the temporary protections that the world might offer. But this is a better hope! Focusing on those good things is like setting our sights on 10 foothills in the Appalachians. They are nice. But Everest stands in the distance – the ultimate goal and hope.
How can “encourage with these words” if we get ticked off and leave if we don’t see eye to eye on Covid or Racial Harmony. We need to dialogue because we are brothers/sisters at a more significant level.
- There is the danger of local churches “splintering”. Many have become comfortable just watching livestream services, picking and choosing who they want to watch that Sunday, if at all. But this is not truly “church”! On top of that, many are becoming offended when others in the church don’t see things their way. Believers need to stay in their churches in order to dialogue even when we don’t see eye to eye. We need to avoid that type of splintering where people say, “You and I disagree – fine, I’m just taking my (toys) family and leaving to play church by ourselves.” Cyprian said, “He who will not have the church as his mother cannot have God as his father.”
- Hope – As Aragorn said at the gates of Mordor in The Return of the King, “There may come a day when the hearts of men grow cold… A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.” Christ has told us that the gates of hell will not stand against His Church. Let us encourage each other with words of hope that hold us together in the right battle. We may very well be in a period of refining. I know I need refining, some purifying. Sometimes it burns. I need it too.
Pastor Darol Timberlake