Clutching this manuscript, I turned up at the church in a taxi just minutes before the service was to begin. It had been a harrowing but God-infused day in an eye clinic and the emergency department of the Vancouver General Hospital. I hadn’t time to change out of my faded denim jeans and an open tieless shirt. But I arrived just in time to speak at a memorial for Jim Hirtle, a beloved member of West Point Grey Baptist church. It was Friday September 15, 2023. Only one of my eyes was functioning, but blurred. The other was completely dark. Consequently, I missed sharing a few portions of the following manuscript when my memory also failed me. But in my publications, I cover more thoroughly these themes of hope as listed below in the section at the end entitled Further Study.
My reflection on 1 Thessalonians chapter four was preceded by Jim Hirtle’s two sons speaking movingly about their father. He was and is a beautiful person, filled with the grace of God and the fruit of the Spirit. He died in faith, hope and love.
Homily for Jim Hirtle
I especially want to speak today about hope. The passage read in First Thessalonians, is one of the oldest books in the New Testament, probably written before the Gospels. In it the inspired apostle Paul says, “we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4: 13).
Of the three Christian virtues, faith hope and love, the one most possibly needed today is hope. The missionary and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin said “We [as a generation] are without conviction about any worthwhile end to which the travail of history might lead.”
On the personal level, in one of my favourite films, “The Quarrel,” an atheist Jewish journalist from New York and a Jewish rabbi from a yeshiva [seminary] in Montreal, Canada meet. They quarrel about God’s goodness, and even whether God exists. They had been the dearest of friends when as youths they studied together in a yeshiva in Poland before World War II. Each thought the other had died during the holocaust. But they ran into each other in Mount Royal Park in Montreal in 1947 (the setting for the film). It was a grand rendezvous. Late in the debate the rabbi asks his old friend, “What will become of us?” His atheist friend said, “We will return to the dust.”
In the West, and especially in the west of the West, we live in a hope-less culture. There is death around us, but it is sanitized and somewhat hidden—in hospitals, hospices and funeral homes. Many of our friends, parents, siblings and sometimes, even tragically our children have died. We ourselves must die. But we do not talk about it or even think about it. Our death. We live in a death-denying culture. However, the fig leaf is slipping from the taboo of death.
Paul wants us to know the basis of our hope and the character of our hope in death so we will not grieve as do those without hope. And he does this through exploring four great themes in First Thessalonians chapter four.
A MIGHTY RESURRECTION
“Jesus died and rose again….God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thess 4:14)
Our future is not to be disembodied souls floating in the ether of “heaven” but to be completely renewed persons, including a physical body that does not lose its sight, memory or allow a cancer to grow. For Paul the surrounding Greek world believed that our hope after the grave was found in the immortality of the soul. So, death was liberation of the immortal soul from an evil finite body. But that is not the Christian hope. The Christian hope is the resurrection of the body, a new body, like the original, but better, a spiritual or soulish body, a body animated by the Holy Spirit. We will be like Jesus in his own resurrection. He could eat with the disciples but was not limited to time and space the way our bodies are. He was able to enter a room through a locked door. And Jim Hirtle will be, or is, resurrected.
Frankly, we do not actually know whether the person who has died is already resurrected or is in an intermediate state. Jesus on the cross spoke to the person dying beside him who asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. To this repentant thief Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Perhaps being outside of time and space Jim is already resurrected, dancing with Jesus in the great wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:7). But Paul speaks here of those who “sleep in death.” Perhaps it is a long sleep in Jesus in paradise waiting for the great day to come. What we know for sure is the person who puts their trust in Jesus is safe with him, cared for by Christ and sleeps or dances in the eternal presence of Jesus—until the second coming and the grand and mighty resurrection of everyone.
But Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit is speaking of a reality beyond our minds, even beyond our imagination, especially in the next few verses where Paul tries to explain how it is that those who have died already will not have an advantage over us who may be alive when Christ returns.
N.T. Wright, a major New Testament scholar, compares it to trying to describe colour to a person that has been blind from birth. How would Paul picture the second coming of Jesus to bring an end to the human story when it was beyond any human experience he had already had.
As is, this world will certainly come to an end, a glorious end in which, as Jesus says there will be the “renewal of all things” (Matt 19:28). It is a day in which everyone is judged, in which all in Christ will be resurrected, in which the kingdom of God will fully come, and in which all will meet Jesus, face to face. (Because as Paul says in Romans 2:16 that “God judges [all] people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”)
But what a future—resurrection, not resuscitation (which Lazarus experienced in John 11) and certainly not just the immortality of the soul. And the certainty of it is what Paul says: “Jesus died and rose again.” Only one person has died and come back to tell us about life on the other side. Our own resurrection is guaranteed by what God accomplished in Jesus, the prototype, the new Adam.
But in the second great theme of hope Paul describes an awesome rendezvous. Think of it: a rendezvous with Jesus—a gathering at a specific time and place, meeting face to face.
AN AWESOME RENDEZVOUS
“We who are still alive … will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (4:17)
Verse seventeen, quoted above, is grossly misinterpreted in books and the “Left Behind” film series. These posit that when Christ returns, he will evacuate all the believers, while they are working at workbenches, disappearing in a bed with another left behind, vanishing from airplanes or cars that inevitably crash. The misunderstanding is unbelievers will suffer misery on earth while the believers are swooped up to heaven in the sky. You do not want to be left behind. But where is heaven? Heaven and earth will be joined together. Heaven will come to earth when Christ returns a second time.
The “rapture” as it is commonly called (transliteration of the Greek harpazo used for “caught up”) is not an evacuation but a rendezvous. N.T. Wright suggests that it is not vertical ascent of believers who are alive when Jesus appears, to meet Jesus in the sky. But, Wright suggests, it is like Daniel chapter seven where the Son of Man goes up on the clouds after he is vindicated through his suffering. Wright continues, “They are like Roman citizens in a colony going out to meet their emperor on a state visit, and then accompanying him back to the city itself.” There is no advantage to being alive when Christ comes. We all participate in the grand rendezvous with Jesus.
Rendezvous meetings, whether with a spouse or loved ones, are poignant experiences often in the airport when they have been away for a while. One of the joys of going to an airport is to witness the joyous embraces. But this reunion will be different, not just catching up on the news and our lives but getting to know the person more deeply.
We can know Christ in this life, but only somewhat, which is why Paul in Galatians corrects himself when he says, “now that you know God—or rather are known by him” (Gal 4:9). But when he returns, we will all know, as we are known, face to face, as Paul says in 1 Cor 13:12: “Now I know in part; then, I shall know fully, even as I am known fully.”
What a rendezvous. To know Christ fully as he knows us through and through (Psa 139)!
The worst possible situation for us to be in, when the awesome rendezvous happens, is for Jesus to say, as he says in two places in the Gospels – “I don’t know who you are. We don’t have a relationship” (Matt 7:23; 25:12). Do you, I ask, have a relationship with Christ in which he will recognize you—in which he will say, “I know you.”
But that is not all. There is not only hope in mighty resurrection and hope in an awesome rendezvous but hope for a joyful reunion with our loved ones and believers we have known.
A JOYFUL REUNION
“We will be caught up together with them [those who have died before us]” (4:17).
On Easter Sunday, 1544 Martin Luther gave a sermon—probably it took an hour, but here condensed into a few minutes:
God will create a new heaven and a new earth, wherein righteousness shall dwell. It will be no arid waste, but a beautiful new earth, where all the just will dwell together. There will be no carnivorous beasts, or venomous creatures, for all such, like us, will be relieved from the curse of sin, and will be to us as friendly as they were to Adam in Paradise. There will be little dogs, with golden hair, shining like precious stones. The foliage of the trees, and the verdure of the ass, will have the brilliancy of emeralds; and we ourselves delivered from our mundane subjection to gross appetites and necessities, shall have the same form as here, but infinitely more perfect. Our eyes shall be radiant as the purest silver, and we shall be exempt from all sickness and tribulation. We shall behold the glorious Creator face to face; and then, what ineffable satisfaction will it be to find our relations and friends among the just!
I am an old man. I have one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel. Will I be a wizened old man when I meet my beloved, a hunch-backed but still beautiful wife Gail in the grand reunion? And what about the little sister in my family who was born dead between after my older brother’s but before my own birth? And my believing parents and their parents? And the meeting of Jim and Janet, his lovely singing wife?
The fourth century church father St Augustine’s defence of the resurrection of the body, “includes how the aged will be raised but he is more concerned with other questions: How can an earthly body exist in heaven? Will those who miscarried prematurely before birth be raised? What about our hair and nail clippings? His key text is Ephesians 4:13: ‘until we all attain…the stature of the full maturity of Christ.’” Thus, concludes Augustine, “Each person will be given the stature which he had in his prime, even though he was an old man when he died, or, if he died before maturity, the stature he would have attained. If the words [of Eph. 4:13] refer to bodily resurrection, we must take them to mean that the bodies of the dead will rise neither younger nor older than Christ. They will be the same age, in the same prime of life, which Christ, as we know had reached.” It is a nice thought, whether conjectural or prophetic, but it does affirm what Scripture does, namely, that we will be better! Or perhaps even become who we were created to be should we have died prematurely. Perhaps the unlived lives of children will come to fruition with full cognizance, and contribution of their God given gifts.
Christian hope promises a renewal not a replacement. Our bodies, souls and spirits are transfigured and “will be like his [Christ’s] glorious body” (Phil 3:21). But it is not just human beings that will be renewed. There is hope in a mighty resurrection, hope in an awesome rendezvous, hope in a joyful reunion. But finally, there is hope in an ultimate renewal.
THE ULTIMATE RENEWAL
“So we will be with the Lord forever” (4:17).
Hebrews chapter nine, verse twenty-eight notes, “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Everything we have experienced of the transformation Christ brings in this life is substantial but not complete—it is a foretaste. But what will it be like to experience full salvation not only of ourselves but of everything? And when we are completely saved what will it be like to be with the Lord forever? In Revelation 21:5 Jesus says—in the greatest renewal text of the Bible—“I am making everything new.” Not just our souls. Not just our bodies but everything.
This is the renewal of creation. Planet earth will be radiant, transfigured, a new earth and a new heaven combined. Be careful not to drop “the new earth” out of the future (Rev 21:1).
There will be the renewal of society with the ultimate globalization. Each redeemed language and ethic group will contribute to a beautiful rich unity. George Macdonald, an influence on C.S. Lewis, pictures an earthly heaven where there is buying and selling, but not with money (I am not so sure about this last one).
There will be the renewal of human work. Gifts and talents not fully used in this life will be expressed, without toil and sweat, and without resistance from the principalities and powers (Rev 14:13b; 21:24,26; 22:5).
Our calling continues and is renewed, even after death. Jim Hirtle was a nurturer of souls through music (piano and organ), through teaching and pastoring, and through raising his two boys and learning with them. In the new heaven and earth this calling will find new avenues for expression.
There will be infinite creativity. For we are all creating creatures, some in art and music, some in relationships, some through inventiveness, some in figures and some in information technology. (I remember an IT entrepreneur saying he went into cybernetics because it was a close as you could get in this life to “creating out of nothing.”)
There will be renewed people. Some we have known and loved in this life. I can hardly wait to be reunited with my wife Gail.
Everything will be beautiful, as God is beautiful. We, all creatures, and the whole creation will “gaze on the beauty of the Lord” (Psa 27:4). And best of all we will see his face. We will be with him always. Ultimately, God is everywhere, all the time, and in everything.
Who wouldn’t want to go to the new heaven and the new earth?
W.H. Auden, while introducing Charles Williams’ novel, The Descent of the Dove, put it starkly:
Charles Williams succeeds, where even Dante, I think, fails, in showing us that nobody is ever sent to Hell; he, or she, insists on going there. If, as Christians believe, God is love, then, in one sense, he is not omnipotent, for He cannot compel His creatures to accept His Love without ceasing to be Himself. The wrath of God is not His wrath but the experience of those who cannot or will not feel His love. The right of refusal is a privilege which not even their Creator can take from them.
No one is ever sent to hell. I take this to be a fairly accurate translation of the statement of Jesus in the Gospel of John chapter three, verse nineteen: “This is the verdict [judgement]: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” In other words, people judge themselves in the presence of the light of the kingdom and the King. They may insist on remaining in the dark. But perhaps when they see Jesus face to face they will for the first time recognize the one who has always known them. Heaven is permeated with the presence of God whom we will see face to face and know as we are known.
Hope for a mighty resurrection
Hope for an awesome rendezvous
Hope for a joyful reunion
Hope for an ultimate renewal.
Jim had this hope. Do we have this hope for ourselves?
“Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:18).
“Calling,” and “The Final Pacification of the Powers,” in The Abolition of the Laity and The Other Six Days; “Death” and “Soul” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity; “Life Review and Life Preview,” and “The End That Is the Beginning,” in Aging Matters; “Playing Heaven” in Seven Days of Faith; “Working Our Way to Heaven,” in The Kingdom of God in Working Clothes,” “Practical Heavenly Mindedness,” in End Times; “God’s Plan of Total Salvation” in Revelation: The Triumph of God and “Contributing to a Down-to-Earth Heaven,” in Volume 1 of Working Blessedly Forever: The Shape of Marketplace Theology, Volume 1 (forthcoming).
 Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 42.
 Apple and Honey Film Corporation, produced by David Brandes and Kim Todd.
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (London: SPCK, 2002), 123.
 Wright. Paul for Everyone, 125.
 The Table Talk of Martin Luther (London: H.G. Bohn, 1857), 322-23 (emphasis mine).
 Rowan Greer, “Special Gift and Special Burden,” in Stanley Hauwerwas et al., eds., Growing Old in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 25.
 Quoted in Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), viii.
 The Abolition of the Laity (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK, Paternoster Press, 1999; The Other Six Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 71-105; 235-239.
 The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 273-78; 922-6.
 Aging Matters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 140-178.
 Seven Days of Faith, 2nd Edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2021), 167-75.
 The Kingdom of God in Working Clothes (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022), 162-170.
 End Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994/2004), 37-60.
 Revelation: The Triumph of God (Downers Grove; InterVarsity Press, 198/1999), 23-63.
 Working Blessedly Forever: The Shape of Marketplace Theology (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming in 2023 or early 2024), to be followed by Volume 2, The Practice of Marketplace Theology, and Volume 3 The Spirituality of Marketplace Theology.