Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals? (Conclusion)

By Heather Josselyn-Cranson

worship-planning-surprising-hope-funeralFinal installment of a series of entries from an essay by Dr. Cranson. The full essay may be downloaded here.

New Creation and the Renewal of All Things
N.T. Wright, with much of historical Christianity, is clear about this: God's goal for all things will be accomplished not by removing what is salvageable from "this present darkness" into some ethereal (and perhaps even Lethean) state, but rather by a new, physical creation in which sin and death are no more.

Only two biblical texts included in the Services of Death and Resurrection point in any way to the new creation and the renewal of all things. The more explicit is Revelation 21:1-7, which clearly describes a new earth taking the place of the former one and records the words of the Enthroned One, who says “See, I am making all things new” (UMBOW 146). Isaiah 40 proclaims that even the features of the earth itself, valleys and mountains and uneven ground, will be remade as God’s glory is revealed (UMBOW 144). However, the use of Isaiah 40 in this context seems to be primarily as a comfort and hope for the grieving, that they may be raised from their grief in this life, rather than a more concrete hope (as in Revelation) for a new creation.

On balance, then, while the Services of Death and Resurrection embrace bodily resurrection (as we have seen, in Part 2), they seem to do so primarily as a hope for individual believers rather than as part of a comprehensive vision of new creation and the renewal of all things.

This is, perhaps, understandable: mourners come to a funeral or committal or memorial concerned over the fate of a particular friend or relative. While grieving, they may not consider the wider implications of Christ’s resurrection and God’s ultimate plans for all of creation.

At the same time, it may be lamentable. Resurrection of individuals leaves us hoping for a solely human future. What of the rest of the created order? Indeed, how can humans even be humans apart from our connections with the environment and the other creatures with whom we live and move and have our being? If bodily resurrection is proclaimed in our services without sufficient attention to new creation, can we be said to be proclaiming bodily resurrection at all?

Conclusion – Hope for Future and Present
We see that the Services of Death and Resurrection are better aligned with some of N.T. Wright’s points about resurrection than others. The official United Methodist liturgy firmly announces a bodily resurrection, may posit (but if so only tepidly) that the deceased are in an interim state of rest until the resurrection and new creation, remains relatively non-commital on the questions of the location of heaven, and says little about new creation as the ultimate and comprehensive purpose of God’s salvation.

Does this mixed record matter? Why should pastors pay close attention to such theological and eschatological “technicalities” in the face of the grief and loss? Wright maintains adamantly, and convincingly, that these are no technicalities, but bedrock of Christian teaching. What we believe and proclaim about the resurrection matters enormously, especially at times of death and grief:

The point… is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world – for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world – is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it (pp. 191-2).

A robust proclamation of resurrection and new creation, in other words, can heal the Church of false decisions between healing bodies and saving souls. It can help Christians see our calling to work for God’s kingdom both in the here-and-now as well as in the age to come. And it gives a much-needed correction to our habit of seeing religion, faith, and death in terms of the individual rather than in terms of God’s entire cosmos.

While Christians are to announce the fullness of the Bible’s eschatological claims always and everywhere, there may be no better place or time to proclaim this surprising and challenging good news than at funerals, memorial services, and committals. If we can boldly and rightly affirm the goodness of God’s creation, the truth of a bodily resurrection, and the comprehensiveness of God’s redemption and renewal of the entire creation, we can help each other live as those aflame with hope for the future and with purpose in the present. We can get about the business of being the Church: offering a living witness to God’s kingdom, begun through the death and resurrection of Christ and coming into being with our own participation. United Methodists, with our proud history of passion for social justice and activity in providing relief to those in need, ought especially to be able to hear and respond to Wright’s call.

Postscript: Making Our Rite More [W]Right
We’ve noted in this review where United Methodist Services of Death and Resurrection embrace, remain non-committal, and sometimes even resist a full proclamation of all that the resurrection entails. It’s time now to take the next steps. We have the opportunity to make our witness to this “surprising hope” substantially richer and more orthodox, especially within our ritual responses to death.

Theologians and liturgists, artists and musicians, preachers and poets, consider this your call! Summon the gifts of understanding and artistry the Spirit has given you, and begin crafting more biblically-informed responses to death for our churches and the wider church as well. We do have a surprising hope to proclaim in the face of death, and in the midst of this life. Help us sing, proclaim, pray, and reflect on the surprising hope of God’s kingdom now and for the day of resurrection and new creation in which sin and death shall be no more!

Editor's note: As you respond to Dr. Josselyn Cranson's call, we invite you to share what you craft with the world through the UMC Discipleship website and this blog. Send them to [email protected].