The temple had already been destroyed when Luke wrote his gospel. Many people were sure the end was near. Paul is responding to those who felt once they had joined the church in Thessalonica, that they had it made and could live off the others in the church even though many were able-bodied and could work. Or, perhaps they believed the second coming would be soon and there was no need for concern about the future.
Luke and Paul are responding to heresies in the church. But, some of these words in today’s gospel reading are from Jesus--they appeared in the earlier account by Mark and Luke expanded on them.
Luke is using an apocalyptic writing style. According to Reginald Fuller, the author using this style wasn’t talking about future events; he was telling of present crisis. When the writing was passed on, commentary would often be added. So, Luke started with Jesus’ words that the temple would be destroyed and that there would be persecutions but all would be aided by the Holy Spirit. Luke added some of what he and other Christians had experienced in their lifetimes: the expansion of the church to the Gentiles, the actual experiences of Peter, Paul, James the Just, and others during the 60’s AD.
Embedded in all this is the apocalypse--Luke or his commentators saw the signs including the destruction of the temple as the beginning of the end of time. He warned against believing that the end was imminent yet he also believed that God’s kingdom was coming soon. So, the believers in the church should live their lives as Jesus commanded and not worry about what they will say when they are arrested. Like Peter, they will be guided by the Holy Spirit when they need to speak.
Even though there is a contradiction in the text: “…they will put some of you to death.” And “…not a hair of your head will perish.” Luke promised that all will gain their souls.
This apocalyptic writing style could be applied today to any current disaster. A person could easily have predicted that a typhoon would hit the Philippines, for instance. With global warming, a truly severe storm could also be expected. Then, someone who experienced this disaster could offer the observation that many good people died in the storm’s effects but their souls are still intact. A third party could take those observations and add commentary about the general state of the world. About the response of good people who provide for those effected by the disaster. About the lack of response by those who don’t care and make the assumption that the world is going to hell in a hand basket but not right away.
Luke wanted to assure the first century Christians that they should continue to live their lives because they didn’t know when Jesus was coming. That no matter what final judgment there was their souls were safe because eventually they would meet Jesus face to face and that would be a joyous time.
Then there is Paul: Aren’t we supposed to feed those who can’t fend for themselves? What about the poor man at the door who couldn’t work? What is Paul talking about? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” I’ve seen this applied to the old fashioned ice cream churn. Everyone who wants ice cream must take a turn at the crank.
Also, I find this line offensive because I have seen it used to justify all kinds of things. “I worked for my money and I don’t have to share it if I don’t want to.” “If they want nice things they can work for them like we did.” And sometimes those “nice things” are basic like food, housing and healthcare. The list goes on.
Paul was talking about a very distinctive population: the congregation at Thessalonica. Apparently there had been some Gnostic influence there and Paul was trying to rectify it. Some of the members of the congregation had decided that Jesus had already come and the kingdom of God was fully realized on earth. Since these believers were part of the church, they believed that they were residing in heaven and no longer needed to work. They could eat, drink and be merry. No need to evangelize, no need to concern themselves with relationships, they could sit back on their laurels.
Paul was a hardworking, opinionated guy--he could not stand for this. It seems he would not allow this group of heretics to destroy the church he had planted in Thessalonica.
And, it would have been destroyed. These were subsistence societies--everyone who was able worked to provide food and shelter. There were systems in place to care for those who were physically or mentally unable to work. But, if you could work, you needed to pull your own weight. There were no mega-fertilizers, no mega tractors, no Roundup-ready seeds and the yields were low--many acres had to be planted and harvested to feed the people.
Luke and Paul were reminding their congregations that life goes on no matter which age we live in. We must follow Christ and live together in community supporting one another in our trials and tribulations, rejoicing with one another in our triumphs and celebrations, and mourning with one another in our losses. We need to keep the focus on why we are here--to meet Jesus face to face but also to recognize that what we do for the least of these we also do for Christ.
We can feed one another because we can all contribute something to our community here and the community that starts outside our door and spreads all the way to the Philippines and back again. When we travel, we can click that button on the Diocesan website and donate a tree to be planted in the Philippines as a carbon offset. We can represent Christ with the leading of the Holy Spirit. We can represent Christ by following his example.
So here we are watching for the time we will see him face to face. That time when we will recognize him. That time when we realize he has been watching for us.