In a scripture assigned for this Sunday from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs Christians to ‘keep awake!’
Stay awake! Every new day we need to awake from sleep. We need to wake up. Martin Luther suggested we splash water on our face every morning not just to clean ourselves but to remind ourselves in so doing that we are baptized. We need to remember God’s promises to us.
What does this mean? Well, it means we don’t just wash ourselves once in our lives. Conversion is not a one-off. Moreover, as “children of the light”, it’s not that we are the awakened ones while everyone with whom we disagree are all in the dark.
As in our daily ablutions, we need continuous repentance, transformation and renewal. As Christians, we constantly stand in need of reawakening from the sleep of our darker side – our wounds, our faults, our sins, our brokenness and however that is expressed. This word is meant for us, not for our enemies.
The command in 1stThessalonians to ‘keep awake’ is directed at Christians, echoing from the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples slept instead of watching and waiting with Christ. In short, we are called to appeal to the higher self – the best – within us in the decisions we make and how we relate to those around us. We are called to live in the light.
But how can we do that, especially when times are tough, as they are now in the throes of a world-wide pandemic? When the fissures in our lives seem bigger and our problems are magnified?
The early Christians grappled with their expectations of Jesus’ immanent return. They were convinced that Christ’s return corresponded with the end of history. Therefore, these writings emerged out of anticipating the end of time. That’s the context: expecting that the world was going to end soon and very soon in a flaming ball. How could those early Christians deal and cope with the anxiety and fear of ‘the end’?
Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians a few short decades after that first Easter morning. And as the early writings of the New Testament show, the way these Christians made sense of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection was an image of light.
In his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, for example, the only way Paul could describe the risen Christ was “a light from heaven” that flashed around him, and from which the voice of Jesus spoke.Beforeencountering the light of Christ, Saul was breathing threats and killing Christians. Afterseeing the light, Saul became Paul and the most influential apostle for Christ, for all time.
For the early Christians, before literal, bodily descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection took hold in their imaginations, their experienceof the living Lord played a larger role. Their experience was more a vision and inner connection to light. They were indeed, “children of the light”. On this basis, then, they could follow in the way of Christ and not fear the tumult and suffering of the end.
Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, is a lawyer who climbs the social and economic ladders of success. He prides himself on being cheerful, capable and dutiful.
One day, he has an accident hanging curtains and hurts himself while falling awkwardly. Over time, the pain grows worse and although he is only forty-five years old, it becomes apparent that he is dying from his wound. The end is nigh.
As he lies in bed at home, he realizes how unhappy he has become. His professional success now feels trivial, and his family life and social interests seem fake. Ivan notices also that his wife loathes him, and both his daughter and son are distant. He becomes resentful, and on his deathbed the thought occurs to him, “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?”
Suddenly, Ivan feels a strong jolt in the chest and side, pushing him into the presence of a bright light. In this light, his bitterness toward his family falls away, and he is filled with compassion. With a sigh and a burst of joy, Ivan stretches out and dies.
It is God who awakens in us this light. “Whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him,” Paul promises.In the end, the point isn’t whether we are asleep or awake, or who’s in and who’s out. Because we all struggle in the tension between darkness and light. And because God’s ultimate aim is for all of us to live and die in the light.
And we have something to do about that, this side of eternity. In order to live in the light, God gives us the gifts of faith, hope and love. The community of faith is awakened by using these gifts in the world. These gifts are powers that allow us to move from a self-centred, private existence out into the open.
In the open light of day, we accept responsibility to do our part for the good. In the light of day, we don’t hide. In the light of day, we accept the responsibility for exposing and unmasking the powers of darkness – all the lies and false ways in which we live – starting with ourselves. In the light of day, we act boldly in faith, hope and love.
1 Thessalonians 5:6, Epistle reading for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Revised Common Lectionary)
1 Thessalonians 5:5; Paul’s term for those who follow Christ
As described by Ken Shigematsu in Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a. World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.178-179; Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (Waking Lion Press, 2006).
1 Thessalonians 5:10