|Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
|2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
By Paul Nancarrow
As the lectionary year approaches its end, the themes of the readings turn toward expectations of the End, the completion and fulfillment of this epoch of reality and the beginning of a new one. This passage from Haggai includes an oracle of the End, using motifs from the “Day of the Lord” scenario that goes back at least as far as Amos, but that was developed and elaborated considerably in the postexilic literature, and even more into the intertestamental period. The prophet hears from the Lord “Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land,” a reference to the motif of the instability and dissolution of the created natural order as the new creation begins to break through. More importantly to Haggai and Zerubbabel and Joshua, God says “I will shake all the nations”: the irruption of the new order into the existing order will re-order political and social and ethnic structures, so that the relationships of power and domination and wealth that have warped and destroyed human lives will be undone and new kinds of relationships will come into prominence in their place. In the new ordering of things, all sorts and conditions of peoples will come to Jerusalem, to the restored Temple, where they will seek to learn the ways of Torah and the way of the Lord, as the Third Isaiah puts it (60:3, echoing 2:2-3). For Haggai, this turning of the peoples to the way of the Lord is symbolized most powerfully in their bringing treasure to the Temple: “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts.” This treasure will replace the silver and gold taken by Nebuchadnezzar when the Temple was destroyed, and because of it “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.” This apocalyptic promise is therefore a direct answer to the dilemma of the returned exiles, who were rebuilding the Temple as they had been instructed, but who felt discouragement and failure because the new Temple looks to them “as nothing” compared to “this house in its former glory.” The reference to a promised future is intended to serve as an encouragement; far from being an idle speculation about an imagined future state, or threat of punishment meant to keep people under control by their religious leaders – charges that are sometimes leveled against apocalyptic teachings – this teaching is meant to serve as an evocation of an ideal aim, a “propositional feeling,” in Whitehead’s phrase, that can help the people in their striving to be faithful and to rebuild by helping them to look beyond their immediate disappointment to an ultimate fulfillment. The apocalyptic teaching is a reassurance to the people that their work on the Temple is not wasted, even though it seems meager to them now, because it is in fact foundational to a larger reality, a divinely accomplished reality, into which it will be taken up and made complete. Congregations and faith communities that feel discouraged today, because they are declining compared to “former glory,” may be similarly encouraged.
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
The psalm is chosen to echo and extend some of the themes from the Haggai reading. Where Haggai promised the “splendor” of the future Temple, the psalmist meditates on the “splendor” of God’s majesty and wondrous works. Where Haggai invokes the witness of the Exodus to bring hope to the Return, the psalmist echoes that “one generation shall laud God’s works to another, and shall declare God’s mighty acts.” Where Haggai calls the people to work faithfully, because God is faithfully with them, the psalmist proclaims that God “is near to all who call on God, to all who call on God in truth.” Because God “fulfills the desire of all who fear God; also hears their cry, and saves them,” therefore the faithful can be comforted and strengthened to do as God calls them to do.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Where Haggai uses a promise of the coming Day of the Lord to inspire confidence in the present, Paul addresses an anxiety that the Day of the Lord has already come and the fear that some have missed it. While we do not know the specifics of any “word or letter,” much less any communication “by spirit,” that might have come to the church in Thessalonika about the Day, it seems clear from context that some in the congregation had begun to fear that Jesus had already returned, that the faithful had already been “gathered together to him,” and that they themselves had been left behind. Paul seeks to reassure them, first by reminding them of his teaching of a specific sequence of events that must precede the Day, and secondly by a theological argument on the nature of salvation. In the first place, Paul reminds the congregation that before the Day must come “the rebellion,” led by “the lawless one,” who is self-exalted and desecrates the Temple by “taking his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” It is tempting to try to connect these vague phrases with specific historical events and persons – it is always tempting to try to specify the symbols of apocalypse – but such specific identification usually does little to truly illuminate the meaning of the text. What seems important here is the general motif of threat to the Temple: from the actual desecration in the Maccabean period, through references to the “desolating sacrilege” in the Little Apocalypse in the Gospels, to a variety of references to one or more “antichrists” in Johannine letters, to this “lawless one” in Paul, there seems to be a development of an expectation of direct challenge to God by someone making a stand in the Temple; and Paul implies here that such a direct challenge would be momentous enough, it would have repercussions drastic and far-ranging enough, that no one would be able to miss it. Therefore, if the Thessalonians have not yet received word of the “lawless one’s” rebellion, then they have not yet missed the Day of the Lord.
In the second (and perhaps more interpretively useful) place, Paul refers to a theological account of the process of salvation. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that their salvation derives from God’s purpose, and not from their attending or not attending to the arrival of a particular Day. Paul reiterates that “God chose you” for God’s “purpose”; for that purpose they were made a “first fruits” “through sanctification by the Spirit” and “through belief in the truth.” The Spirit is already at work in them, and they are already transformed – though not yet completely transformed – and they are already a first offering that God has already accepted. The fulfillment of this purpose, the end result of this process already begun, is that they “may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” and the fullness of “salvation.” Therefore whether or not they observe the arrival of a given Day is far less important than whether or not they continue to trust in God’s purpose, and “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us.” The prediction of a coming Day, therefore, is not meant to be a source of anxiety – not even the anxiety of missing it! – but is an evocation of an ideal aim meant to “comfort your hearts and strengthen them” so that in the present day they may faithfully engage in “every good work and word.”
While Paul and Haggai face very different sorts of anxiety in the present, for both of them it is the promise of a Day of fulfillment in the future that makes faithful work in the present possible.
The final Sundays of the lectionary year relate stories of Jesus’ final days of teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, before his arrest and crucifixion and resurrection; and these final teachings themselves cluster around themes of the End and the New Beginning. This pericope is a classic controversy story, in which a contingent of Sadducees attempt to undercut Jesus’ teaching on the new age by means of a reductio ad absurdum. Intending to show that the idea of resurrection is fundamentally incoherent, the Sadducees pose an unlikely situation in which a woman is married to seven brothers in succession, each brother dutifully fulfilling the obligation of Levirate marriage, but each one dying before raising up children for the original husband. If all eight are rejoined in the resurrection, the Sadducees ask, which of them will be married? Jesus responds that they have misunderstood the nature of resurrection: the Sadducees have merely projected the conditions of this life into a sort of indefinite prolongation; Jesus, however, affirms that the resurrection life will be a different kind of life, and relationships among the “children of the resurrection” will not be subject to the same limits or survival imperatives as relationships in this age. Jesus significantly pairs the words “resurrection” and “age” (aiōn in Greek, a term that in many texts refers to more than just a period of time, but carries also implications of “state of being” or “condition of reality”), indicating that anastasis is not simply a return to life as we now know it, but is life in some new and greater configuration of potentials and actualizations. Part of that new configuration is that “they cannot die anymore,” their potentials for wider and deeper experience and wisdom will not go unactualized because of bodily breakdowns or loss of immediacy, and in that sense “they are like angels and are children of God.” What is implied here, I think, is not a purely spiritual, disembodied state, as is often found in popular depictions of “heaven” or accounts of “angels”; instead, this can be conceived as a mode of bodily being in which “physical poles” and “mental poles” of constituent occasions do not experience cross-purposes or partial realizations, but are wholly transparent and responsive to each other. The notion is offered of resurrection as life in an aiōn or condition of reality where body and spirit are not opposed to each other but are complementary expressions of one life in God.
And that is really the most important part of this teaching of Jesus on resurrection. The Sadducees raise a question about particular conditions of the new life, and Jesus gives a particular answer; but beyond that answer he shifts the discussion from conditions of resurrection life to the source of resurrection life. “That the dead are raised Moses himself showed,” Jesus says, claiming the highest authority the Sadducees would recognize, “where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is a name-formula for God the Sadducees would surely accept, as they would “the living God” or “God of the living”; they must therefore also recognize that “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” are among “the living” if God is their God. That the dead are raised is dependent, finally, on nothing having to do with the dead, nor even on the conditions of a Day or an aiōn or an age, but only on God, because it is “to God” that “all of them are alive.” The really determining factor of life in the resurrection or life in “that age” is relationship to God, who is now and then and always and only the One who holds our souls in life. The conditions of life will be different in “that age” compared to “this”; but the source of life is always and only the gift of relationship with God.
That may be the reason Luke employs in his narrative a curious change in verb tense. When the Sadducees present their test case, they speak of the resurrection in the future tense. But when Jesus replies he uses the present tense, and most especially in his summation sentence, “to God all of them are alive” (literally in the Greek, “all to him live”). Almost all treatments of the resurrection, from Daniel to Revelation, treat it as an event that will happen in the future, as a dramatic and decisive element in the transition from “this age” to “that age.” All sources agree that it hasn’t happened yet – as indeed Paul was at pains to explain to the Thessalonians – the only exception being Jesus’ own resurrection, which is taken as the promise of what will one day happen to us all. (There is also a single reference in Matthew to many graves that are opened when Jesus dies on the cross, and the dead who come out of their tombs when Jesus is raised; nothing else is said about them, and the incident is generally thought of as a narrative amplification of the eschatological promise that Jesus’ resurrection is the foreglimpse of our own.) Luke’s use here of the present tense for the greater life is therefore anomalous, and thus invites speculation. In some sense it may be like John’s use of the phrase “eternal life” (literally, “life of the aiōns”) to indicate both the future resurrection and the present opening of life to greater potentials that comes with “believing” in Jesus; both Luke’s phrase and John’s might be efforts to link a “future” and a “realized” eschatology. Moreover, since aion is not simply a temporal term, there may be some intended sense here that “this age” and “that age” overlap in some way, so that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the dead are alive to God now, and will be alive to us (and us to them) in God in some greater way yet to come. What holds these various speculations together is the fundamental recognition that life consists in relationship to God: we are alive because God continues to give initial aims to our moments of experience, and God continues to receive the final satisfactions of our moments into God’s experience of the world, and it is in and only in this giving and receiving that we live and move and have our being. Whether in this age or that, whether before or after the Day, we are alive because we are alive to God, and in God’s presence we are always present.
For Luke, then, as for Paul and even for Haggai, the reason for presenting teaching about “that age” and the transformation of life that will come is to provide encouragement for living here and now. Because we are alive to God, and because our lives are taken up and held in God, we do not need to fear opposition or mockery or dilemma or disappointment in our present experiences, but instead can bear witness faithfully, and work for right relationships of mutual well-being in all our connections, looking forward to their ultimate fulfillments in the nearer presence of God.