With some regularity, I receive email postings about the death of some pastor or other church leader, announcing, “So and so claimed the resurrection promise…” I don’t mean to be crass, but the image that comes to mind is of someone standing at the grocer’s deli counter ready to claim their turn at ordering cheese or meat, or a shopper at a holiday bazaar stopping by the information booth to claim their prize because their name was chosen and called over the public address system. Little or no grace is involved; everything is routine, almost contractual and obligatory and without surprise. Certainly no breathtakingly mysterious or stunningly unexpected awe is present, nor is there much overwhelmingly joyous gratitude. “So and so claimed the promise of resurrection…” Yawn.
In a similar way I read obituaries in which it is confidently claimed that the deceased is certainly now in heaven, enjoying all the blessings of the eternal celestial realm. And in all these moments I wonder, “How do they know that?” What is the source of this certainty that leaves no room for doubt and simply takes for granted that the claims are true and this is, in fact, their new reality?
I ask the questions not to be a curmudgeon but simply because these assumptions and claims seem to be contrary to my understanding of Christian scripture and tradition. At the very least they exhibit a level of pride and confidence that exceeds the limits and boundaries we can take for granted as finite, mortal creatures. Such claims take for granted assumptions I do not share as a person of faith, and I confess I believe to presume on divine prerogatives.
Truth be told, we Christian clergy share some of the blame for this spirit of entitlement in the face of death. Because of my age and station in life, with some regularity I attend funerals held in churches or led by Christian clergy who seemingly gloss over or ignore the reality of the death of the deceased. Typically, they glide quickly past naming the reality that the person is as dead as a doornail, leaving a hole in our lives or a ton of unresolved issues. Instead of praying for grace and mercy, there seems little or no need for such things because the deceased was such a stellar being. Instead of naming the truth that most of us are a mixture of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses, times of unmitigated failure and disaster as well as moments of triumph, the paradox of who we are truly is deleted and replaced with some holograph of pure light, joy and beauty.
That is not my life, and so such sentiments ring falsely hollow for me. I also know of funeral events in which I listened to glowing words about the deceased from friends who were utterly ignorant of the deep shadow side of the person in the coffin. These speakers needed forgiveness because truly did not know what they were doing; if they did they would have been much more cautious, humble and circumspect in their words.
Instead of proclaiming the remarkable gospel that acknowledges the awful truth of the death and destruction of our entire being as creatures and whose only hope of something more is by God’s grace and God’s gift of life, I often hear easy words that assure the gathered that of course this person has reaped a bonanza of life. We glibly are told we celebrate their life because they were so wonderful that we know without a doubt that they are now with loved ones, doing their favorite things, having a high old time – often in a heaven that seems to be remarkably devoid of God. Why would God be needed or even relevant to the life pleasantly assumed now to be lived by the dearly departed, when the prize is easily and readily claimed? This is an entitlement program that outshines all others.
Despite all these confidently expressed sentiments by clergy and other people of faith and good will, I am not so sanguine. Christian scripture often seems to acknowledge that we are finite creatures, bound by space and time, living souls who are but dust and return to dust. Unlike ancient Greek thought, in the Hebrew mind we are not immortal souls temporarily inhabiting physical bodies so that at death the body goes into the ground and the soul flies off to a spiritual realm. We don’t have souls, we are living souls inspirited and made alive by God’s Spirit, and when that Spirit is taken from us, we are entirely dead, utterly lifeless and, on our own, completely hopeless and powerless to change that reality. We are like shadows gradually vanishing as the memory of us fades among the living; all those who remember us eventually will join us in the realm of the dead until none alive will know us or remember the place we once filled in the land of the living.
Add to that the biblical concept that our lives are judged, weighed and assessed by the Eternal One who lives in light inaccessible, whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not like ours. This Judge of all the earth seemingly measures our lives by the integrity and depth of our love for God and for one another. What seems to weigh significantly in the scales of divine justice is how we treat the most vulnerable and weak – the poor, the hungry and marginalized, the thirsty and naked, the sick and imprisoned, refugees and immigrants, our suffering and dying sisters and brothers who also are children of Adam and of God.
In contrast, my life is typically focused on getting and having and enjoying myself, and distancing myself as far as possible from the wretched of the earth as I secure my future on my own, doing as I please with my life without much regard for others or the Holy One who also gave them life. If my life is that misdirected on such a scale, how can I presume on God’s good graces just because I think God should do so? If all my days I have rarely or only peripherally focused on the things that make for life, how can I be assured of, or cavalierly presume I will spend eternity with One who is so Other than I?
The writers of the New Testament are seemingly more circumspect and humble in attitude. They speak of resurrection hope, not because they are entitled but because of God’s undeserved mercy, grace, generosity, love and unfettered freedom. St. Paul speaks of hoping to be raised with Christ to new life, but that humble hope is framed in the context of him also having suffered with Christ. Our life in life and death and life beyond death seem cut to the pattern of cross and resurrection, the style of suffering love wed to joyful trust worn by Christ.
For St. Paul in particular, it also seems that if there is a resurrected life it is lived as we are incorporated into Christ’s life. For him there is no life apart from the life of Christ into which he hopes one day to be mystically joined. That is why Christians can speak confidently of “the communion of saints.” That communion of the living and the dead is composed of all who abide in Christ and make a home in Christ. There may be a veil separating today’s enfleshed disciples and those who are asleep in Christ, but they all are one in Christ, and alive in Him. For us who claim that Christ is our life, there is no life apart from His life, and there is no communion of these living and dead outside of Him.
That resurrected life does not necessarily automatically and fully commence at the moment of death; in his most extended reflection on the resurrected life (1 Corinthians 15) St. Paul assumes that at death, all fall into the deep sleep of death until the end of time when at the final resurrection happens, finally death is defeated and those who belong to Christ are raised to life – but until then death remains our enemy even if vanquished by Christ alone (and no one else) when God raised Christ from the dead as the first fruit of resurrection (but not the whole harvest, for which we wait with hope).
St. Augustine suggests that in the realm of eternity time and space are no longer relevant and past, present and future collapse into one reality, but all this is mystery beyond my comprehension. What happens when we die? I do not know for certain. But I have seen something of the One who does know in the face of Christ, and so I can rest content in that mystery. I need not know, because I am fully known.
If there is resurrection, it is gift, unmerited favor and grace. We can await resurrection with humble hope, but not because we said the sinner’s prayer or we lived an exceptional life or we are entitled, but because of what we know of God. Our confidence is not in ourselves but in that God who is a God of life and love beyond our deserving; this God is full of surprises and able to do more than we think, dream or imagine. If we live in hope, it is not because we are good or great, but because God is, and has proven reliable to any and all who call humbly on God’s name and do not rely on their own strength but on the strength of the Holy One.
That seems a more fitting attitude for us who, even in our living, are in the midst of death. Come what may, in life or in death, whatever the future holds, we can rest confident that God’s love is great. We live and die in that love, and so we trust the mystery that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well – even if we do not know the shape it will take in God’s good time and wisdom. Knowing we live in God’s love is all we have. But in life and in death and life beyond death (whatever that means), that is enough. That also allows us to leave in God’s good hands the rest of the story for those who do not follow Christ but are also God’s beloved. I am content to let God be God because I know I am not.
Instead of “claiming the resurrection promise,” perhaps a more appropriate aspiration would be for it to be claimed of us that we “died peaceful and unafraid, in the hope of resurrection.” So may it be for all who trust the God whose life and love we have seen in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.