Texts: 2 Thessalonians 2.1–5,13–17 and Luke 20.27–38
According to many social scientists, we now live in the era of ‘post-truth’. By that term, they mean that we live in a time when truth is no longer valued by those with power or influence. What matters, instead, is winning the argument – and it doesn’t matter what lies you have to tell, as long as you win. This week, for example, the work of one Richard D. Hall has been exposed by the BBC. This is a man, from Wales, who makes his living by writing books and speaking at conferences of conspiracy theorists. Among his many outlandish lies, is the disgusting claim that the bombing at the Manchester Arena, a few years ago, was staged. In his narrative, all the victims were actors. The trouble with fake news of this kind, is that there are always just enough people who are gullible enough to believe it, and to line the pockets of conmen like Richard D. Hall.
We only have to look at the War in Ukraine to see the effect of living in a post-truth world. Massive lies – or fake news - have been told to the Russian people by their Government – lies about the intentions of the West to ‘wipe out Russia’. These lies – this propaganda - has enabled the Russian Government to launch its war against Ukraine. But why? What is gained from these lies? For the answer to that question, I suspect we would have to take a look at the bank accounts of the Russian’s weapon manufacturers, and the bank accounts of the politicians who have supported the war. The question always to be asked of any ‘fake-truth’ claims is: ‘who is benefiting from this lie? Who is lining their pockets? Or even just scratching a living?’. There is money to be made by pedalling lies.
Incidentally, there is a lovely internet meme doing the rounds at the moment, in which the Flat Earth Society is said to have accidentally posted a claim that they have members ‘all around the globe!’
By calling this the ‘Post-truth era’, as social scientists do, we may be forgiven for thinking this is a new phenomenon. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There are many examples of lies being used for political or religious gain in the Bible – by all sorts of people - and, we have one before us, this morning. Look at the opening two verses of today’s reading from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians. It’s a long sentence – as Paul’s sentences often are – so let’s break it down:
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him…” Paul starts this sentence by saying that he wants to address the topic of Jesus’ second coming, and about what is called the ‘Parousia’ - the idea (promoted by Paul himself) that when Jesus comes, we will be gathered up to meet with him in the air.
This is an odd-enough idea in itself – especially in the light of Jesus’ own teaching about heaven in the Gospel. However, let’s not dwell on that, for now. Let’s read on…
“…we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…” Paul wants to comfort his readers in Thessalonica. He wants them not to be alarmed about these stories about the Parousia, which are obviously circulating. How are they circulating? Let’s read on…
“…either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” I’ve emphasised those words ‘as though from us’ because that is the heart of this sentence. The clear inference is that someone has been either writing, or speaking, or rumouring to the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord is already here…and they’ve been pretending to be representing Paul! The Thessalonians have been subject to fake news. For what purpose, we cannot say…but clearly some false teachers have been spreading fake news…perhaps to gain influence, or perhaps to gain wealth by asking for offerings to support their own false ministry.
Paul is anxious to correct this fake news. He points them to other signs, or things which must take place before Jesus comes again. He predicts rebellion, and the setting up of an idol in the Temple of Jerusalem. (Incidentally, some scholars think this refers to an actual attempt by the Emperor Caligula to put a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies). Paul reminds them, in verse 5, that he has already taught them these things, face to face. He says, “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was with you?”
Instead, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to remain steadfast and firm in the salvation offered by God, and in the traditions that they were taught by Paul. Verse 15: “Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…” He concludes by praying that Jesus himself will give comfort and hope, and strength to carry on “in every good work and word”.
How might we sum up this bit of Bible Study? And what might it say to us?
Paul is worried about his flock – who are being lured away from their traditions, and their faith, by lurid promises of the false teachers of fake truth. He is concerned that they are being distracted from the process of “sanctification by the Spirit, through belief in the truth” (v.13) and are instead running after the exciting promise of being lifted up in the air to meet the Lord. He knows that such distractions won’t be good for them.
You see, that’s what happens when spiritual visions and a yearning for spiritual experiences starts to dominate the lives of Christians. When practicing the Christian faith becomes all about ‘me getting closer to God’ or ‘me experiencing God’ then it loses its essential focus. The Christian who only wants the religious experience is the one who only comes to church at Christmas, for the chance to feel nice and holy for a while. Or they are the kind of Christian who treks from festival to festival in search of a religious high. Instead, the essential focus of Christian faith, described by Paul, is this:
First, salvation by God’s grace. Secondly, sanctification (that is - being made ever more holy), through belief (or trust) in truth. That leads ultimately to the obtaining of glory – or heaven as we might call it – with Jesus Christ. In the meantime, while that process of sanctification goes on, throughout our lives, Paul counsels his readers to hold fast to the traditions they were taught, and praying for the strength required for good works and good words.
It’s a clear path. Salvation, through grace. Sanctification, through holiness and truth. Lives of good works and words, leading to glory with Jesus Christ. If anyone asks you what is the true path, the narrow way of the Christian – then this should be your answer: SSGG. Salvation. Sanctification. Good works and word. Glory. Anything else is just fake news.