Living as Mercy in Anticipation of Christ’s Return

A professor once defined mercy as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”[1] This definition struck me as rather profound as my basic understanding of mercy had focused on concepts like kindness and forgiveness. It’s not that this definition of mercy precludes kindness and forgiveness but that mercy as the willingness to enter into the chaos of another better strikes at the heart of the type of mercy that Jesus practiced and preached as he reached out to those society had deemed unfit for basic human companionship.

That we know of Jesus’ mercy speaks to the fortitude of his early followers who, over the course of several decades, managed to compile and write down not just the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but what the reality of his life entailed for his followers. Perhaps no one was more important in spreading Christ’s teaching to early followers than the Apostle Paul. Paul, originally known as Saul, makes his initial appearance in Christian scripture, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of our Lord” (Acts 9:1). On the road to Damascus, Saul has an encounter with Jesus. Soon after this encounter, Jesus came to the disciple Ananais and instructed him to help Saul, “for he is the instrument whom I have to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:3-16). In other words, Paul was Jesus’ choice to spread the good news of Christianity.

After his conversion Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire, not only teaching and preaching the good news of Christ but founding and forming early Christian communities. As he traveled throughout the Empire, Paul maintained communication with these communities through a series of Epistles, or letters. In these letters Paul exhorts, encourages, teaches, and even chastises these early communities as they struggle to form and formalize their identity and practice as believers in Christ. All-in-all biblical scholars attribute fourteen letters to Paul.

The earliest letter written is 1 Thessalonians, generally dated before 50 CE, some twenty years before Mark’s Gospel (generally considered to be the earliest of the Gospels) was written down. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. At the time the letter was written, Paul had been away from Thessalonica for some time, though his companion Timothy had recently visited the community as Paul’s representative and had returned with news of the group.[2] Sometime later 2 Thessalonians was written, though the letter’s date and authorship have been disputed. Two theories have emerged: 1) Similarities between the two letters suggest that Paul wrote 2 Thess not too long after having written the first letter. 2) Differences between the two letters suggest that someone else wrote 2 Thess much later, though the author was intentionally trying to imitate Paul.

I want to focus on one of these differences – not to debate authorship (2 Thess still falls within the canon of Paul’s epistles) – but to draw out a challenge that modern Christians continue to face today – living as mercy in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming – the Parousia. In 1 Thess Paul spends several verses encouraging the people of Thessalonica to be vigilant about the coming of Christ. A key component of this vigilance includes right living. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that it is God’s will that they have been sanctified and that this sanctification calls for abstinence, control of the body, holiness, quiet living, and love for one another (4:1-12). Significantly, Paul speaks about Christ’s second coming with a tone of imminent expectation. The community at Thessalonica seems to have had great concern for those who had died before the Parousia, but Paul assures them that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (4:14). He continues:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will  by no means precede those who have died / For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first / 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” (4:15-17).

Paul’s assurances to the community reveal that he and the Thessalonians fully believed that they would be alive to witness Jesus’ second coming. This expectation wasn’t uncommon in the first decades after Jesus’ death. Early Christian communities had no real reason to expect that centuries would pass without the occurrence of the Parousia. While these early communities were learning to live as Christians in the interim between Jesus’ Ascension and his return, generally they were gearing up for what was expected to be a relatively short period of time.

Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians presents a different expectation about the timing of the second coming. It is this difference that leads some biblical scholars to suggest that 2 Thess was a later letter, written by a Pauline imitator. Whatever the case, these changing expectations about the Parousia opens the door for a conversation on the mercy in the midst of waiting for Jesus’ return.

Though 2 Thess begins with a customary Pauline salutation of grace and peace, the letter immediately takes on a darker tone than that of its predecessor. After offering a prayer of thanksgiving for the community at Thessalonica, Paul quickly reminds his audience that “it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you / and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels / in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance….” (2 Thess 1:3-8).

Crucially, however, Paul does not move into a discussion of the imminence of Jesus’ return as one might expect him to do based on his writings in 1 Thess. Instead Paul cautions the community to be aware of false expectations about the Parousia:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, / not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, 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. / Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction (2:1-3).

We can only guess what Paul’s references to “the lawless one” actually means, but what is more important for our topic of mercy is the reality that Paul is laying out for this early Christian community: Paul and the Thessalonians may not be alive to witness Jesus’ second coming. Their wait may not be a quick one. They may experience persecution and affliction.  They may die before Jesus returns. And in the meantime they still have to live a Christian life in the midst of darkness and chaos.

The end of 2 Thess suggests that already members of the community are straying from the life of right living that Paul details in 1 Thess. Paul says, “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work / Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. / Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:11-13).

This is certainly speculative, but we can probably relate to what at least some of the Thessalonians were thinking by the time of Paul’s second letter: How much longer do we have to wait because this right living thing is HARD? These Thessalonians would certainly be right. But if mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another, then it seems that waiting and living for Jesus’ second coming is an act of mercy in itself. As we wait for Jesus’ glorious and joyful return – a return which we believe will bring profound justice, peace, and love – we still have to deal with the chaos of this world. As we wait for the “not yet,” we have to deal with “the now.” And this now can be dark, and messy, and chaotic, and hard.

However, if we are truly to act with mercy in this world, we must be willing to enter into this darkness, not just for the sake of waiting, but in an attempt to transform this darkness with the light of the expectation of Christ’s coming. Part of Paul’s chastisement of some of the Thessalonians was probably directed toward those who had gotten tired of waiting or who were fed up with the hard work of right living – something that I’m sure all of us can relate to.  Jesus’ life of mercy is one we are to imitate, and Paul knows this very well as he encourages his communities to imitate Christ’s life and care for others.  So we also must take heed of Paul’s exhortation: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  The wait may be long, and the struggle to do right is real, but Paul knows that Jesus has given us the gift of mercy to live in a broken and chaotic world.

Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015:  Mercy Edition.  

[1] I first heard this definition in a course on Virtue Ethics given by James Keenan, SJ, at Boston College. Keenan also offers and develops this understanding of mercy in his book, The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

[2] Paul does not state the exact reason for his separation, though he does say that “Satan blocked our way.” In anycase, Paul makes clear that that his inability to return to the community is a cause of great pain and sadness (1 Thess 2:17-3:5).