1 Thessalonians was most likely written before 1 Corinthians. Some scholars date it as being the first book written in our New Testament — but, whether it is these two books are among the earliest. Like 1 Corinthians, it is likely that this is the only part of what we call the New Testament that the church at Thessaloniki would have seen when they read it. Also like 1 Corinthians, Christianity started a little less than 20 years ago, and is not yet big enough for the Empire to notice that it exists. Many of the people who saw Jesus personally are still alive, but there are Christian communities scattered around the world trying to figure out what it means to be Christian as they go along.
While I have not talked much about Friend’s doctrine — and even less about American programmed Friends I think it might be good to point out a couple items from the late 19th and early 20th century. I will start by observing that “Essential Truths” by Rufus Jones and James Wood, which has served as a short statement of faith for many FUM meetings starting about 1922, list several items in historic Christianity that are “held by Friends as essentials of Christianity. Jones lists the following: Fatherhood of God, Deity and humanity of the Son, the gift of the Holy Spirit, atonement through Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the high priesthood of Christ, and the priesthood of believers.
Of course this brief mention does not tell us anything except that Rufus Jones considered the doctrine of the Resurrection ‘essential’. As can be expected, the “Richmond Declaration of Faith” gives a much longer essay, but I will only quote a small portion of it:
We sincerely believe, not only a resurrection in Christ from the fallen and sinful state here, but a rising and ascending into glory with Him hereafter… We shall be raised out of all corruption and corruptibility, out of mortality, and shall be the children of God, being children of the resurrection.
What stands out to me is that the Resurrection is affirmed as an essential doctrine, and that it is something that needs to be taken as something more than a metaphor. This is something we all need reminded of, because resurrection is an excellent metaphor; and it is one that is used throughout the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes our former state as being dead in sin; and goes on to tell us that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we are raised up with Jesus and given a new life.
But, Paul also points out in 1 Corinthians 15 that if there is no resurrection, then not even Christ was raised and there is no gospel and no hope. I don’t know why the Sunday School lesson decided to jump to 1 Thessalonians instead of continuing in 1 Corinthians. Paul found it necessary to explain that our hope is in the resurrection in both of these early letters. One might say that this is one of the first things that scripture was written in order to clarify; that we are people who believe in resurrection.
In the Sunday School class reading, Paul gave a pretty solid reason why this belief is important; it is not only true, but it has implications in what is called pastoral care. The day after I got back here, I had my first pastoral conversation with somebody who lost a brother — there is nothing more pragmatic for the church than what happens when somebody dies. It seems that somebody is always dying.
Paul told the Thessalonians that we believe that there will be a resurrection, and this is important, because the resurrection is a source of hope and comfort. It is very hard to say goodbye. There is something about death that offends us. We plea, we bargain, we get angry, and we try to get on with our life. Sometimes it seems like death can strip life of meaning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to strip away hope. Paul is telling people that holding on to the doctrine of resurrection provides hope to those who need it most — it is a pastoral relevant doctrine.
One of my professors at Earlham School of religion talked about bad theology. It took me a while to realize that these judgments were not based on whether or not he thought the theology was right or wrong (though, he clearly viewed the bad theology as also being intrinsically wrong) — in order for something to be bad theology, for him, it had to be theology that took away hope, or brought shame, or dehumanized somebody. When he spoke about bad theology, he was speaking about theology that could be used to make the world a darker place — not only was it wrong, but it was also malicious.
In the same sense Resurrection is good theology. Not only is it one of those essential things that is core to Christian belief, but it is life giving. The Christian doctrine of resurrection invites us to participate with the resurrection of Christ. If we have the type of sin in our lives that kills relationships and destroys hope — the promise of resurrection is something that can be applied to our current life. Christ resurrection, heals, forgives, and makes whole. We who were dead in our trespasses and sins can be made alive in Christ. Resurrection gives hope, not only to those of us who lost somebody to death — but, to those who see a need for a brand new life.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about how denying the resurrection makes little sense when the practices of the church are looking forward to it. 1 Corinthians specifically talks about the baptism of the dead. Now, I know what most Americans think when we hear about the baptism of the dead! I myself have joked that after I die, I will be baptized a Mormon, just like everybody else.
I seriously doubt that this was anything like a proxy baptism; more likely, it had to do with the traditions of the early church. Our earliest sources on Christianity tell us that normally adult converts would spend time learning about Christianity before they would be baptized. We call these learners ‘catechumins’, and Catechism is the coursework of catechumins. Unfortunately, I don’t know about the process in the 1st century, nor do I know how much changed between when Christianity was 20 years old and when Christianity was 120 years old — but, by the 2nd century, Catechumins had to wait at least 2 years before they were baptized. These people had special classes, and their behavior was closely monitored. Baptism was not just an initiation rite, it was a rite of passage — a graduation. By the time a person was baptized, she was no longer a novice Christian.
With such a long period where people were part of the church, yet not yet baptized I believe I can understand why the dead were baptized! If a catechumen died, would that person be considered fully part of the church? By baptizing the dead, the answer is made clear — yes, this person is completely recognized as being one of us.
Paul asks the Corinthians, so, if you don’t believe in the resurrection, why baptize the dead? If they are dead, this baptism is too late for them, the church has already done everything the church can do for them. I know that this argument makes very little sense at first glance, but it is still very much a valid argument.
We have all been to funerals and burials. In many cases, people will pray for the dead; why pray for the dead if this life is all there is? Every time I’ve seen somebody buried, I’ve heard somebody say a prayer committing the spirit of the deceased to God. If there is nothing beyond what we experience here, why the ritual of committing the spirit to God? The ritual is dependent upon the belief that we have a share in Christ’s resurrection\ldots not only the ritual practiced by the Corinthians, but the rituals practiced by American Christians.
We believe in the resurrection. The resurrection reminds us that Christ can save us. The resurrection gives us hope, even when everything we hold dear is taken away from us. We believe in the resurrection. Our prayers and our rituals are built upon this belief. Christianity is built on the resurrection. There are many who died on crosses, put there by the Roman authorities — but, there is only one who would not stay in the grave.