The Triumphal Entry--November 21, 2018
"Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever." [1 Thessalonians 4:17]
On some days during the week, if I get home first before my wife, when I hear her car pulling into the driveway, I will come outside to the driveway, meet her at her car to see if she's got anything to bring in--groceries or shopping bags or school work or the like--and will walk with her back into our house together. Even though it might look at first like I am walking out of the house to leave, the whole ritual is really about welcoming her back in. When she pulls into the driveway, I don't walk out the back door to get in the car with her and then leave our house behind, usually, but rather I go out to meet her to walk alongside her as she comes home for the day. She may not have been at the house for the whole day, but of course, it was her house already--she has just been at work. When she comes home and I meet her in the driveway, it is to come back--with a certain sense of victory at having made it through another day--to the place that we share together.
You'll have your own particulars, of course, but I'm betting that kind of scene is pretty familiar to you. Whether you are more frequently on the welcoming side or the being-welcomed side, I'm willing to be that at least the meaning of that moment makes sense to you, and that it is clear when I walk out the back door, it is not for my wife to whisk me off to some other location (unless we are, say, going out to eat straight from work), but for her to come home to the place that was already hers. Well, keep that picture in mind to consider one other scene before we jump into the verse for today.
In the ancient world, especially in the practice of the Roman empire, when the emperor was coming to visit a Roman city or colony, a very similar ceremony of welcome unfolded. Citizens from the city--who understood the emperor to be their ruler--would go out through the city gates and walls and stand waiting to greet the emperor, who would then be escorted with this entourage back into the city. The city was understood to already belong to the emperor, and he was the rightful ruler. He was simply being welcomed back into what was his own, perhaps as he returned from some far off military campaign, or as he toured his territory. But what always happened was that the loyal citizens of that city would gather outside the city so that they could meet the emperor and accompany him back into the city--the city, mind you, from which they had just left, in order immediately to come back in as part of a triumphal procession. There was never a scene where the emperor would come near to one of his own cities, and then have the citizens standing outside like they were waiting for a bus to be picked up and taken somewhere else. The emperor didn't take his own citizens out of their various cities (which were all under Roman rule) to bring them all to Rome. No, the scene was always the other way around--the emperor is met by loyal crowds who welcome him into their city, which they all agree is under his authority already. So this scene, which was played out again and again across the empire, was both a moment of celebration, but it was also a statement of allegiance. Those who welcomed the emperor into their city were, in effect, saying that he was the rightful ruler of their city and that he was coming back to a place that was his own already.
Well, both of these scenes help make sense of what's going on in this passage from 1 Thessalonians (as well as some of what is going on in the triumphal entry in all four Gospels when Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey on the day we call Palm Sunday--a day when the people of the city "took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him" (John 12:13) before escorting him back into Jerusalem. On both Palm Sunday and here in 1 Thessalonians, the idea is that Jesus is being escorted into a place, and that people have come to welcome him--and by doing that, they are pledging their allegiance to his authority and lordship. It turned out to be rather fickle allegiance on Palm Sunday, but the idea is the same. Just as the emperor or other imperial dignitaries would have triumphal entries to Jerusalem as shows of their power, Jesus has a parallel entry, and it was a statement of a different reign than Caesar's.
This is the way Paul talks about what will happen at Jesus' return. The whole scene here is of a triumphal entry, or a homecoming celebration--not a rescue mission to retrieve people and whisk them away somewhere else. The same word Paul uses for "meeting" Jesus in the air is the same technical word used in Greek for that political procession of welcome when the emperor came to a Roman city. The idea is that Jesus, when he comes, will be met by his people, who will then accompany him back into the world that is rightfully his--the place that he shares with us, and where we will dwell together. This idea of meeting Jesus in the air is all about a triumphal return to the world, not a secret rescue or rapture out of the world.
That's because ultimately, God is not going to give up on his claim over this world. Sure, now it looks like the world is not interested in God's rule, but that will not stop God. To borrow one more image, when the Allies liberated France in the D-Day campaign to win World War II, the goal of the mission was not just to cut their losses, gather as many displaced French citizens and settle for rescuing them out of occupied France to give them new lives in England permanently. The mission was to liberate and to restore the rightful rule of the country, because the Allies never gave up on the conviction that France did not really belong to the Nazis, but to the French. The Allied invasion was, in many ways, about the rightful rulers returning to their own places. This is the way Paul talks about Jesus' coming--except, for him, the victory is already won. In Jesus' death and resurrection, the battle is fought, won, and over, and now what remains is for Jesus to be welcomed back home in triumphal procession back to what is his already.
What does any of this mean today for us? For one, it means that God does not think this world is disposable or something he will give up on. Jesus still claims this world of ours as his own rightful property. Second, it means that our hope is not to be beamed out of trouble so that we do not have to face trials or suffering in this life--our hope is to welcome Jesus back to this world that has been his all along. We are not only missing the point of this Bible passage if we insist that it is about a "secret rapture" where true Christians will disappear while the world goes to hell in a handbasket, but we are also settling for less than God is apparently willing to settle for. The Allies would not give up on France and leave it to Nazi occupation--and God will not give up on the world and leave it to the rebellious, idolatrous emperors and Caesars of human arrogance. God will not settle for plucking a few good people out of the world and then letting it fall apart--God is committed to restoring, reclaiming, and redeeming the whole thing. That is what we wait for. That is why we live our lives now with an eye out the window and on the driveway. We are waiting to pledge our allegiance to our Lord in celebration of his triumphant homecoming. We are waiting to welcome home our Beloved to the place where we will dwell together.
Come, Lord Jesus. Reclaim, restore, and redeem, and keep our eyes watching to greet you and welcome you home in the mean time