The Oil Supply

SJF • All Saints’ Sunday 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those that died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
On this All Saints’ Sunday we continue with our reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In this chapter, Saint Paul finally gets to the main theme of his correspondence. People in this congregation, as in many others, had been eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus, the promised second coming. And the problem for believers was that this second coming appeared to them to be delayed; and what is more, a number of the members of these congregations had died, and those who remained were concerned about their fate.

In speaking of those who had died, the people of those days, including Saint Paul, used language that isn’t well reflected in our present translation — they would say “our dear brother or sister has fallen asleep,” much as someone today might say that someone has “passed away” or “gone home.”

The English priest Colin Stephenson tells a story of a visit he paid to a convent of Anglican nuns some years ago. At the door he asked the sister who answered if he could see the Mother Superior, who was an old friend. With a lowered voice, the sister said, “Mother is playing the harp in Jerusalem.” Father Wilkinson answered, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that; when did she die?” The sister then suppressed a little laugh, and blushingly explained that every room in the convent was named after a place in the Holy Land, and that “Jerusalem” was the music room, and that Mother Superior was in fact playing the harp there!

Even within the scripture we see how this kind of polite language could cause confusion from time to time; you mayremember how in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and the disciples say, “Lord, if he has just fallen asleep he’ll be fine.” Jesus has to correct them and tell them he means that Lazarus is dead — and yet, even given that, he will awaken him.

And this brings us to the problem that faced the Thessalonians and Saint Paul. What happens to those who “had fallen asleep” — who had died before the Lord’s return? Were they lost for ever? Would they rise again like Lazarus? What was to be their fate?

So Saint Paul reassures this congregation. He reminds them that Jesus himself died and rose again and that their friends and family members who had died will also rise again from death at the coming of the Lord. Those who are still living will be joined by those who have died, when they rise from the dead at the sound of the trumpet and the call of command, and the whole congregation of God’s faithful people will be joined together to meet the Lord and be with him for ever. These are the words of encouragement and hope that Saint Paul gave that congregation, and they are words of hope that have been repeated many times since to many other congregations. I have said them myself, right from his pulpit; they are central to the Christian faith, and are, perhaps more importantly, the substance of the Christian hope: Death is not the end! This is one of the reasons we celebrate the feast of all the saints each year; and to drive the message home, the message of new life in Christ, All Saints’ Sunday is also one of the four baptismal Sundays of the church year: when we remember that we who are baptized into his death shall share with him in a resurrection like his. This is the word of the Christian hope.

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But we hear today also a word of warning. Our Gospel today also refers to those who fall asleep, who awaken at the call of the Lord, but of whom only some are ushered into the banquet as friends, while the others are shut outside like strangers. And although our text ends with the admonition to “Keep awake,” that does not seem really to be the point of this story. All of the bridesmaids, after all, fall asleep as the bridegroom’s arrival is delayed. (I will note this has to be a first: I’ve never officiated at a wedding where the groom was the one who was late!) But be that as it may, the real issue here doesn’t seem to be whether the bridesmaids stay awake or fall asleep, but rather if they’ve got enough oil for their lamps. The smart bridesmaids bring along an extra supply of oil; the foolish ones just bring the lamps along with whatever oil is already in them. The lamps burn down, the bridesmaids fall asleep, and suddenly the bridegroom comes. Uh oh! Talk about the problems of an oil shortage!

Over the years people have interpreted this parable symbolically: the lamps indicate wisdom and the oil knowledge; or the oil symbolizes righteous deeds stored up in anticipation of the last judgment. But it seems to me that it isn’t necessary to chop and slice and dice this story quite so fine in order to see the point that Jesus is making, as in the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! Or as Saint Paul would say, not to be like those who have no hope, but to be encouraged and prepared and hopeful for the coming of the Lord. The foolish bridesmaids seem to have thought, “Well, the bridegroom might come or he might not. I’m just going to bring my lamp as it is.” The wise and hopeful ones said to themselves, “He will surely come, so I will be prepared with extra oil so that whenever he comes I will be ready.” They lived in hope.


Well, the Lord’s coming is delayed — has been delayed for 1,950 years or so; many, many Christians have fallen asleep. The question is: what did they do before they fell asleep. Did they, through their lives, live in hope? For all of us, we know, will end up being summoned — joined with that great throng that has gone before: all of us will be called forth to show what our lives were like; the secrets of the each heart will be laid bare, most importantly: did we live in hope? Those whose lamps burn brightly, who, as Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, have bodies “full of light”; who above all have prepared themselves to be with God for ever by their faith and by their hope, who “have built their hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” — these will enter the banquet hall to rejoice with the bridegroom at the never-ending feast.

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Author Paul Adams notes that on the Niagara River, upstream from those mighty waterfalls that have formed the background to many a honeymoon, the river is actually peaceful, calm and navigable. But at a certain point on the calm part of the river there is a small bridge under which the water flows downstream towards the mighty waterfalls, and on that bridge there are two signs posted. The first says, “Do you have an anchor?” And the second sign says, “Do you know how to use it?”

This is the message of our Gospel today: Do you have a lamp? Do you have oil for it? I trust and I hope that you do. I trust and I hope that you, and all the others we remember today who have worshiped God both in this church and in other churches in other places and at other times have stocked away a supply of oil — the oil of hope in Jesus Christ. “I do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about all those who have fallen asleep, so that we might not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We have hope in our Lord and God, trusting not in our righteousness but hoping and trusting in his manifold and great mercy. And this hope is our supply of oil to anoint our hearts, to brighten our countenance, and to light our lamps — so that when the trumpet sounds and the voice of command calls forth, we may rise to new life, and bear our lamps on high and enter that heavenly city, Jerusalem the Golden, there to rejoice for ever with the Bridegroom, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+