This may not seem like the season to talk about Resurrection—though, for Christians, isn’t it always the season to talk about Resurrection?—but I found myself in an unusual position last week. Well, unusual for me: I attended two funerals, and did not officiate at either of them.
Dealing with second things first, there was the funeral of a young woman who was the granddaughter of a congregant of mine, who had died suddenly and tragically. It was a graveside funeral, and was led by the funeral director, who read a few poems that were overly saccharine for my taste and talked about death and remembering. Rising went unmentioned, and I was sad about that.
The first was for an aunt who had lived to a good age and had a strong faith all her life, as did her husband. My uncle, just before the ceremony, told me that, if he had known for sure that I was coming, he would have had me officiate. I tried to tell him that, in the first place, I had told my cousin that I would make every effort to come and, in the second place, if he had told me he needed me to do that I would have simply made sure, but I was also secretly relieved that, for once, I could just be part of the family and mourn. It was led by a minister of another Reformed body—RCA folks can refrain from Dutch Bingo—who said a few prayers, read Psalm 23 iun the King James English (just like David wrote it, yes?), and talked about how nice it was that so many had come, how my aunt was clearly loved, and how we would most certainly miss her. I would like to think it was the easiest $100.00 he had ever made, but I suspect he does this a lot.
More shocklingly—for me, at least—the Resurrection once again went unmentioned.
Now, I realize that, especially among the TRB bloggers, I am antique and verging on the Jurassic, but, back at the dawn of time when I went to seminary, our job at funerals was to validate the grief of the mourners and proclaim the Resurrection. There, standing literally in the presence of Death, we Christians are called to spit in its eye and proclaim our sure and certain hope in life. Of course we grieve, of course we cry, of course it is going to be difficult to go on for a while, but we can support one another in mourning, and we live in the confidence that what we are seeing is not the end. I still do that, using the “if God is for us, who shall be against us?” passage from Romans as an affirmation of faith—as suggested by the 1987 RCA liturgy—and almost always singing “Jesus Christ is risen today,” or, if not that, some resurrection hymn. One of my favorites is Brian Wren’s “Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna!” which includes one of the best hymn lines ever written: “Tell (Death’s) grim, demonic chorus, ‘Christ is risen! Get you gone!’” Talk about spitting in Death’s eye.
But, as I reflected on this, I came to realize that not only doesn’t a lot of the secular world believe in the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, but a lot of us in the visible church doubt it, even as we faithfully parrot the words in our creeds. We believe in Jesus as Savior, but I think we doubt the idea that we are, in fact, saved. For some reason, it is easier for us to think about death being final, easier to embrace inconsolable sadness, than it is to deal with the notion that we are not done, that the rules don’t apply, that we are going to keep going, that God isn’t about to let the game just end.
And, the more I think about it, the more I think that the idea that God loves us enough to do that for us is the most difficult of all. There is not only a nice finality to death, but, if we believe that God is just leaving us to what we deserve—death—then we are kind of off the hook. If God loves us enough, sees enough potential in us to save us, despite the obviously messy way we live our lives, despite our numerous shortcomings, then we feel some obligation to work to overcome them. Pre-destined for damnation is, in that sense, just easier.
What’s more, if we really belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to Jesus, if our God is not giving up on us, but working on our rising even from the moment of our dying and before that, then those of us attending the funeral are standing in the midst of a war zone. All around us, a battle between forces we cannot comprehend is going on to claim this person whom we love. Sickly-sweet, maudlin poetry seems much safer.
No wonder Mark’s gospel ends with the women running from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. That is a human ending. Of course, the very fact that Mark’s gospel exists means that it wasn’t the final ending. God wasn’t done yet.
Nor is God done with us. The Resurrection is ours to proclaim, a privilege and a duty. People will resist it, and will argue about it, but we need to stick to our guns. I can say, whenever I do that, I am always surprised by how worshipers respond, thinking I have presented something amazing when I thought I was just following the liturgy. Even the people who resist talking about this are hungry for that power.
But, having experienced what a bland gruel funeral is without the spice of Resurrection, I don’t think I would do things any other way.