Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? Part 3

Early Christian grave marker. "Here rests in peace Maxima, handmaid of Christ..." CC 3.0.
Third 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.  

What's happening with the dead? And where is heaven?

These are two questions United Methodist Services of Death and Resurrection seem not quite as clear or confident about as our hope in the resurrection of the body.

Waiting for the General Resurrection... Or Walking With Jesus?

The Services of Death and Resurrection appear to be either non-committal or inconsistent about the current state of the dead in Christ. Some elements in these services seem to follow Wright's assertion (and that of many Christians for centuries) that they are “in God’s keeping” until a general resurrection at a later time. Others imply they may have already reached “the other shore.” And still others may be open to either interpretation.

  The wording at the placing of the pall leaves open when the appearance of Christ may be: “Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (UMBOW 141). When is Christ thought to appear? Will those praying this prayer imagine this appearance within the narratives of the biblical accounts of the second coming of Christ, or rather as a “less than Grim Reaper” who meets them at death? Likewise, in one of the prayers previously cited (UMBOW 143), we pray “bring us at last with them into the joy of your home…” (italics added). When is at last?   Does it point to a period of waiting from now until the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead?  Or might it instead be heard as pointing to the end of our own lives as individuals, after which we (as souls separated from dead bodies) may be immediately taken up to our final reward? 

The way Psalm 130 appears in this ritual could point to two different outcomes as well. If the Psalm is interpreted as the prayer of the deceased, then “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word do I hope” (UMBOW 144) could be understood as a confession by the deceased that the promised resurrection is yet to come.  However, if it is understood primarily as a prayer of the living acknowledging their grief, then the living may simply be confessing that they are waiting for the end of their present grief in this life. This reading, which seems more likely in the context of the ritual, does not address the current status of the dead in Christ at all.

As we have seen already, the Gospel lesson (John 14) may or may not place the resurrection after Jesus’ return. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself” (UMBOW 148) could be understood to point to a time of waiting between our deaths and the return of Christ in glory. But for those who believe in the immediate translation of the soul to heaven, the “coming again” in this text may just as easily be understood to occur at each person’s death.

The Commendation grammatically separates death from resurrection in two separate sentences placed on two different lines.

“Receive Name into the arms of your mercy.
              Raise Name up with all your people” (UMBOW 150).

This grammar and formatting could imply a separation in time between these two things, but need not do so. Persons who may be unfamiliar with or unconvinced by the idea of waiting before resurrection may not hear or see any affirmation of such waiting in such subtle wording.

Several places in the services refer to a “state of peace.” But who is at peace? What that peace is for?  How long does that peace last? Answers to each of these vary widely in these services.  The post-Greeting prayers praise God for those who “now rest from their labor” and ask God to “grant… peace” to them (UMBOW 143).  Here the dead are pictured in a state of rest for which we ask God’s peace. However,  it is unclear whether this state of restful peace is understood as transitional or final.  In the confession of sin that follows, the living ask “that we may end our days in peace” (UMBOW 143). What does this mean? Does it refer to the process of dying itself, to a peaceful attitude as we face our own deaths, or perhaps to being at peace with God and others when we die? At the commendation, the pastor, with hands upon the coffin, prays “Receive Name into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace…” (UMBOW 150).When does the “receiving” happen? Or perhaps more pointedly, are “the arms of your mercy” (which might point to a period of waiting prior to the resurrection and new creation) a state preceding “the blessed rest of everlasting peace,” or is the latter simply another name for the former? In this case, not only the intermediate state of waiting, but even resurrection and new creation as the ultimate state may seem to be denied. Finally, at the Committal, verses from Revelation promise that “the dead who die in the Lord… will rest from their labors” (UMBOW 156). The context of Revelation makes clear there is an intermediate state for the dead in Christ prior to the resurrection, but in the context of a confusing set of references to rest and peace in this liturgy, the scripture itself could be understood to say the final destiny is this very rest and that the dead in Christ immediately attain it.

Several places in the Services of Death and Resurrection seem more clearly to reject Wright’s description of a time of rest preceding resurrection. The petition that God would “enable us to die as those who go forth to live” following the Greeting (UMBOW 142), implies an active existence more in line with Wright’s conception of post-resurrection eternity than the peaceful rest of an interim period.  Similarly, the pastor’s prayer during the Committal asks “Receive into your arms your servant Name, and grant that increasing in knowledge and love of you, he/she may go from strength to strength in service to your heavenly kingdom…” (UMBOW 156). This petition also points to an immediately attained energetic and dynamic existence for the dead rather than the rest and peace of the deceased before resurrection.     

On balance, the ambiguity of some prayers and readings combined with a few that more clearly suggest the immediate translation of the dead in Christ to their final reward tilt United Methodist ritual at least somewhat away from Wright’s interpretation and toward the more “popular” teachings he rejects. 

The Location of Heaven

Where is heaven? Ultimately, Wright reminds, heaven is joined to a new earth in a new Jerusalem in the new creation. In this new creation, heaven descends to earth, rather than humanity floating up to the clouds and abandoning the earth entirely. God’s home comes fully among resurrected humans and other creatures dwelling in the new earth. New creation with heaven coming down into our midst is the ultimate fulfillment of the Incarnation.  The Services of Death and Resurrection, however, include over 20 uses of “rise,” “risen,” “raise,” and other “upward” verbs, as tends to befit metaphors of resurrection, if not of heaven. Still, this may create at least a subliminal clash between the eventual "upness" of resurrection and the "downness" of heaven coming into a "new-created world," especially for those whose chief imagination of the afterlife is “going up yonder.”  

The images offered in some of the selected passages from the New Testament may also be confusing on this point. 

Revelation 21 is clear enough:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among [people]. He will dwell with them as their God” (UMBOW 146).

The gospel reading from John is less than clear.  John seems to waver between assumptions that heaven is “up and away” and implications that it is “among people.”  “And if I go and prepare a place for you [up and away], I will come again [among people] and will take you to myself [up and away], so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going [up and away].  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you [among people].”

I Peter 1:3-9, including in the Committal (UMBOW 158), includes a line that is confusing enough that Wright gives it particular attention. What does “an inheritance… kept in heaven for you” mean?   Wright notes that many believe that this phrase implies that our inheritance is being kept safe in a heaven above earth, so that once we have died we may go to that lofty place to receive our “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” inheritance.  But Wright suggests an a different interpretation with a clever analogy. If Wright were to tell a friend he had invited over for a drink that he had kept some beverages in the refrigerator, he wouldn’t insist that his friend climb into the fridge and remain there while drinking them. Nor, likely, would he expect the friend to serve himself. The refrigerator is not the destination, but the storage facility. A good host keeps the beverages chilled, then goes and brings them to the guest. Likewise, he says, God will bring our inheritance kept in heaven for us down to us, resurrected and living in the new earth in the new creation.

  How might typical attendees at a United Methodist funeral make sense of this? Where would they understand heaven to be? If Revelation 21 is included among the readings, they might understand heaven, ultimately, to be among the dwellers of a new earth in a new creation. With that text omitted, however, popular assumptions of heaven being “up there” or “the place we go when we die” might easily trump the biblical proclamation of God making God's final home among us.

Part 4-- New Creation and Other Conclusions-- is coming soon! Watch for it!