Wis 6:12-16; 1Thes 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13
St. Paul wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians somewhere between 50 and 51 AD. This date makes this letter the earliest written document in the New Testment, written within 20 years from the time of the Crucifixion. It’s as close as we can get to the mind of the first followers of the risen Christ.
It’s not suprising therefore, that the issue Paul is addressing in this Sunday’s reading is a crisis the Church is facing for the first time: Some of the members of the church at Thessalonica have died. This wasn’t supposed to happen, according to the Messianic theology the Church inherited from its’ Jewish roots.When the Messiah came, then the end of the world as we knew it had arrived. Soon – surely within the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus of Nazareth – evil would be purged from Creation and earth would once and for all become God’s kingdom. Judgement Day was a cause for celebration for the righteous. The early Church believed in an “Imminent Parousia” or immediate second coming of the risen Christ.
The problem was – that didn’t happen. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those which have fallen asleep.” Paul writes these words to provide comfort to a community in crisis. He is assuring them that those who “have fallen asleep” (an early Christian description of death) will not miss out on the joys of God’s kingdom.
Eventually – cetainly by the time the second letter of Peter was written in the late first or early second century – the Church arrived at the understanding of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world that we still hold today – that Christ’s return is immediate, but according to God’s timetable, one in which – “a thousand years are like a single day.”
This was the third time in its’ early history that the Church had to change it’s collective mind on a central issue. First – How could there be a crucified Messiah? Second – How could a Jewish movement accept Gentiles (non-Jews?). Third – How could Jesus be the Messiah and not return immediately?
Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church has discerned through the centuries the difference between tradition with a small “t” – ancient and hallowed beliefs and customs which are no longer true or no longer needed – and Tradition with a bit “T” – the essential dogmas and doctrines of the Christian Faith.
Where is discernment needed in the Church today? What are the little “t”‘s the Holy Spirit is trying to blow out of our grasping fingers? What are the big “T”‘s we stuggle to uphold with the Holy Spirit as the wind at our backs?
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)