This morning I want us to look briefly at a verse taken from the Epistle reading we just heard: Paul’s first letter to the Church at Thessalonika. In it he addresses a problem which was of concern to members of the Church there: what should they believe about those in the Church who had died before the second coming of Christ. This was a pressing problem and not just in Thessalonika, for many of the earliest Christians expected the second coming to happen very soon. Next week. Perhaps even tomorrow. When it didn’t, people wondered why and, as I mentioned, some worried about what became of people who died in the meantime.
Paul answers the question and the answer is metaphorical and uses various unusual images. One verse, however, is quite literal. He tells us, “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” (4:18)
That, says Paul, is what the coming of Christ is all about. That is what heaven, paradise if you will, the afterlife, the consummation of all things and their recreation in Christ – that is what they are all about: being with the Lord. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.”
The words to pay attention to here are we and with. We and with. Let’s start with with.
One of the most marvelous truths about our God is expressed by the word with. God is not – thank heaven – a with-it God, though some might wish God so. God is, rather, a withing God. In the first place and fundamentally, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is a community of three persons who are with one another. With one another so much so that each person, though distinct, can be said to be in the others. It should be no surprise, then, that from the very beginning, in Holy Scripture, we see God always acting to be with, for such action is consonant with God’s Trinitarian being. God acts to be with creation. God acts to be with man, humanity. God does not stand apart. God is never removed. God always moves and acts and desires to be with that which he creates, with creation itself and with man.
God was with man in creation, and when humanity fell away from God – from being with God – God acted again to be with man in a special way. He chose a nation, a people, Israel, the Jews. “You shall be my people, and I shall be your God” is the truth of the Old Covenant. “To be a light to the Gentiles” – to bring those apart from God back to God – is the mission of the Jews.
These two are as well the truth of the New Covenant and the mission of the Church, for that sacred name of Israel’s highest hope, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is the reality of the Church. Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus, God and man, God with man. Jesus is the perfect expression and action of the, if I may so put it, the with-ness, the withing of God. Jesus is our redemption and our salvation, because he is our at-one-ment, our withing with God. Jesus is our truth, for it is the truth and the real design and destiny of humanity to be with God. And thus, it is also the truth of the consummation of all things and of ourselves, “heaven” if you wish: “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” Perfectly and gloriously with God.
It’s like love, you know. Most of us have been crazy enough and lucky enough to have been in love. And when we are in love there is no greater joy, no greater fulfillment than being with the one we love. And there is no pain or deprivation greater than being away from the one you love. To be with the beloved is joy and happiness, one’s true self. To be away is pain and sadness, one’s self diminished.
To be with God is to be with the absolute beloved. (It is no coincidence that God in parable from Jesus we heard this morning is pictured as a bridegroom. Nor is it a coincidence that in past ages the Song of Songs was the book most commented upon in the Bible.) God is the beloved and the lover toward which all human loves do point, and to be with God is utter and absolute joy.
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“And so we shall always be with God.”
Enough of with. Let’s think about we, for if the action of God is an action of with, it is also an action of we. It is the creation of an ever larger and wider and more intense we. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and from that judgement comes woman, and the first human first person pronoun, we. The we then of children and family. The we of community. And in the redemption: the we of the Jews, and in Jesus the we of the Church.
This morning all of us gathered here in this building, and we came from various parts of the city and thereabout. We came as individuals, as single I’s one might say. Now here in the Church, here at this Mass, all those I’s have been gathered together into a we. That is God’s action: to bring us together, to bring humanity together into a body, into a we into Jesus’ body, the Church.
That is the truth of the present – which worried the Thessalonians – and that is the truth of the future – which also worried the Thessalonians. But the fullness of the truth is this: that the future of God, bringing all things together, breaks into the reality of the present. The future makes itself known and active in the present. It is present in this Mass, and in every Mass celebrated in this Church. God is with us in the Sacrament of the Altar. And we – all of us – we drink from the one cup, we eat the same bread from the same table – God’s altar. And we – no longer separate – are brothers and sisters in the present and in the future banquet of God.