Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? (Part 2)

Icon of the Resurrection. Public Domain.
Getting the Ritual (W)Right

Second in a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music Ministries at Northwestern College in Orange, Iowa. The full essay may be downloaded from the GBOD website, here.  

N.T. Wright’s argument and concern in Surprised by Hope are not limited simply to what the churches teach about the meaning of death, life after death, resurrection and new creation. Ultimately, he hopes,  that

“those who take seriously the argument of this present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches rather than the mangled, half-understood, and vaguely held theories and opinions” of the current culture (p. 25). 

For Wright, it’s not enough to focus just on what we say. It may be even more important to focus on how we put these ideas into action when we gather in ritual. Why? Because what we do in ritual-- through singing, actions and prayer-- shapes us even more deeply than what we say in our teaching. Indeed, ritual may shape how we even hear what is being taught in the first place.

Unfortunately, Wright laments,  these biblical, Christian affirmations are rarely embodied in typical Christian funeral services. And where they are, they are too often buried and disfigured by incompatible teachings and practices.
Sometimes, denominationally approved liturgies or resources are at fault. As often, however, the fault lies with improvised rites, impromptu statements made by pastors or funeral home directors, or the choice of music or poetry made by families or others planning the service.

How, then, might the United Methodist “Services of Death and Resurrection” in The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) fare under Wright’s scrutiny? Do United Methodists have the “[W]right stuff?”

Bodily Resurrection
When it comes to affirming the bodily resurrection as the core of Christian hope, the answer for our ritual is “Yes, mostly.” The given name of these services is a strong starting point: “Services of Death and Resurrection.” The words at the Gathering and the Word of Grace each cite the physical death and bodily resurrection of Jesus as the basis for Christian hope in bodily resurrection (UMBOW 141). All three of the suggested epistle readings (I Corinthians 15, Revelation 21, and Romans 8, UMBOW 145-147) explicitly locate Christian hope in the resurrection of the body and the new creation. The prayer of commendation likewise points not to “heaven” but to resurrection: “Raise Name up with all your people” (UMBOW, 150).  And the Committal at the grave site reiterates the hope in resurrection with readings from Romans 8:11 and I Corinthians 15:53. 

In addition to offering prayers and texts in support of faith in a bodily resurrection, the Services of Death and Resurrection refrain from including words which directly undermine such faith by suggesting that only the soul of a person is raised. On the contrary, the images of resurrection and life after death found in these services are boldly physical, from the slaked thirst of Revelation 21, to the fragrant oil of Psalm 23, to the bodily activity and strength of Isaiah 40. 

Still, hope in the resurrection of the body is not the only possible way one may read these services, especially given that many of our clergy choose not to use all of the readings and may focus instead solely on Psalm 23 and John 14. Those who use only these two texts may seek to comfort those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death with the hope that “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14), and giving assurances that their loved ones are in those dwelling places now and for all eternity.

Either of the options for the opening prayer (UMBOW 143) can also be used to underwrite such a view. The conclusion of the first prayer, “that nothing in life or death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus,” can be interpreted to support the immediate transit of the soul to God and heaven at death. So can “bring us at last with them into the joy of your home not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens” (UMBOW 143). The problematic words are “at last,” and “your home not made with hands.” These could make it appear that our final hope is in a disembodied state far from earth.   

Still, the vast preponderance of prayer and biblical texts in the United Methodist ritual clearly affirms bodily resurrection as the core of Christian hope for the baptized. To use this ritual in a way that would affirm primarily a disembodied existence in heaven would require removing or ignoring most of what the ritual provides.

Stay tuned for part 3-- looking at the status of those who are dead and the nature of "heaven"-- coming soon!