A reading and reflection for Wednesday, December 5, 2012.
The fourth day of Advent.
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1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 NRSV
In ancient Rome, after the formation of the Republic, a curious practice emerged. Following a successful military campaign, Roman consuls (and later emperors) would visit a conquered city by means of a formal parade known as an adventus, an "arrival." Riding on a chariot, the emperor's arrival into the beleaguered and occupied city reminded all present who had won the battle. It was a very public, very visible, and very tangible symbol of Roman might and power.
Now, some, New Testament scholars think that an early Christian named Paul may have taken this idea of a Roman adventus and borrowed it to describe the future coming of Christ. You’ll remember that after Jesus was resurrected, he returned to God’s realm -- in the words of the Apostles' Creed, "he ascended into heaven," -- and, as the creed continues, “From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” So Paul wrote a letter to a group of Christians living in northeastern Greece in a city known as Thessaloniki and he said: “And may God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (hint: see above).
Now, in the Greek the word used here is parousia, which the early Latin translators rendered adventus. Whether Paul was purposefully playing with first-century conceptions of Roman parades or not, his meaning was clear: Christ is coming, and this time, his coming will not be as a poor, itinerant Jewish rabbi: but in power, and with glory. He will come with "all his saints" and at this coming, the earth will stand concretely and eternally in the presence of God.
That's the end of the story. Christ is coming. That's the future.
But what about the present? What does this mean for you and me today?
For this, we read the verses preceding this discussion of Christ's adventus. Paul prays for two things for those believers in Greece. First, he prays that God would make them "abound in love for one another and for all." Second, he prays that God would "strengthen their hearts in holiness." Both of these things, when fulfilled, lead to being "blameless before our God and Father" when Christ returns. This idea of "blamelessness" is what the ancient Jewish teachers understood as the result of fulfilling the laws of Moses. The one who did that was "blameless." Paul says that his prayer is that we might be "blameless" before God, as if we fulfilled the law in its entirety. And that kind of fulfillment is achieved through love and holiness. Through external acts (love) and internal transformation (holiness).
Love that does not stop at those who are comfortable or easy to love, but which extends to "all." The kind of love that makes no distinction between friend and foe, the kind of love which is acted out on behalf of everyone. The kind of love that clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, and visits the lonely. The kind of love that speaks the truth, that extends a hand, and that offers itself freely and unconditionally. Paul's prayer was that they might abound in this kind of love, for everyone.
But more important in this passage, more connected to the idea of being "blameless" is having a heart that is daily being strengthened in holiness. That is daily being encouraged to be "set apart", "consecrated," "set aside for holy purposes." And for us in the Reformed tradition, this sort of "holiness" is never conjured up on our own, it is never found through any conscious work we do. You are not made holy and cannot be strengthened in holiness by virtue of any amount of love you exude. You are made holy because Jesus Christ came, died, and was resurrected. You are called "blameless" because you have been grafted into Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit's power in your life.
Consider the sixtieth question of the Heidelberg Catechism: "How are you made righteous before God?" And it's answer:
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. In spite of the fact that my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have not kept any one of them, and that I am still ever prone to all that is evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of my own, out of pure grace, grants me the benefits of the perfect atonement of Christ, attributing to me Christ's righteousness and holiness as if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful, having fulfilled myself all the obedience which Christ has carried out for me, if only I accept such favor with a trusting heart.
"As if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful." In a word: blameless. We who are full of blame, are considered blameless on account of the fact that Jesus actually was blameless.
Paul's desire for those early Christians, and for us today, is that we would be prompted to love every person we meet and that as we do that, God would be deepening and strengthening our own holiness, so that when Christ arrives at the gates, we might be preoccupied with praise; for on that day, we will see the return of the One who died so that God would consider us without blame. Amen, come Lord Jesus!
Make a two-column chart on a piece of scrap paper. On the left hand side, write out the people in your life who it's easy for you to love. These are the "one anothers" in your life. How can you continue to find ways to love these people? Remember, love isn't a feeling, it's an action. You love them by doing, not by feeling.
Now, in the other column, write down a few people or types of people that you find difficult to love. These represent the "all" in your life. Now, knowing what you do about these "all" people in your life, try to come up with one small way that you can show them you love them. If that's too hard for you, then pray for them by name, to God using the following prayer:
Lord God, Father of Jesus Christ, today I pray for ___________. He/she is hard for me to love because _____________. Nevertheless, he/she is your child, and Jesus died so that they too would be set apart and blameless. Help me find ways to love him/her this week. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.