I’m realizing I want this to be bigger than I can make it. Trying to trim down and remember my context. Frustrated theologians are so . . . well . . . frustrating!
Christian Hope. That was the difference between the two funerals I attended.
In one we were encouraged to claim the promises of a savior who can be trusted to keep his promises. In the other we were invited to hope for the best, and if we all do the right thing, we will, maybe, see Adella again.
In one, we looked forward as a done deal to spending time with Sherrie as she ran and sang and rejoiced in the Lord. In the other, we were to be “comforted” by the vision of Adella at rest. At peace. Like this eternal sleep and quiet and solitude. I found no comfort in hearing over and over again about my vivacious, gregarious, life-embracing aunt being left in “peace” and “rest”. I found greater comfort in the words of her sister who envisions Adella waiting for her two older sisters at the softball field, ready to play a good game when they all finally arrive.
I guess that rest and peace thing is secondary to the hope component, but I think they fit together as hope set the tone for Sherrie’s funeral, and I think the lack thereof set the tone for Adella’s.
Some thoughts on Christian hope. . . .
Romans 5:1-5 1Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Romans 8:14-25 14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Christian hope is not Disney hope. It is not, “When you wish upon a star . . .” It’s not meteorologic hope: “It looks like the clouds are going the other way, we can hope it won’t rain on Saturday.” It’s not parental hope: “I sure hope Ruth starts sleeping through every night very soon.”
No. It is sure. It is certain. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.2.7), Calvin defines faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Christian hope is that firm and certain knowledge extended into the future, applied to the things we have not seen. Just as sure, just as certain, just not yet happened. As we Christians. we are caught between an already and a not yet: already Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and not yet, but some day, he will come again. As we sit in this liminal state between already and not yet, we have faith in the already and hope in the yet to come. We have a certain knowledge of God’s past and present benevolence toward us, and we are eagerly awaiting the full consummation of all that God has promised us.
That is Christian hope.
And that is, sadly, not what I heard at Aunt Adella’s funeral, and yet so much what I wanted my uncle and cousins to hear. Christian hope, true Christian hope, is something worth committing your whole life to, worth leaning into, worth everything. Some priest’s paltry wishful thinking about maayyybe getting to see Aunt Adella some day? Not even close. Prayers offered up to sanits, asking for them to “help” Aunt Adella find her way to heaven? Pitiful. Images of an eternally resting woman lying in a grave? So very disheartening. In the midst of this family full of people in desperate need of the Gospel, both in the face of death and in their day-to-day lives, I wept for the lost opportunity. For the failure of this particular church to have any real and lasting words of true Christian hope for a gathering so raw and so open to hearing God’s Great News. Instead, despite his claim to the contrary, the priest offered hope for this life only and it truly was pitiful (1Cor 15:19).
Such a stark contrast to the funeral from the day before. Sherrie’s funeral abounded in Christian hope. We were all invited to hope–actively, fully, confidently–in Sherrie’s glorification, in her new body, in her new life, in and through and with her Lord. This, my friends, is Good News. And in this hope, Sherrie’s brother was able to look more fully at her life in this world and recognize the blessing in it, see God’s hand all over it, testify to the witness to the Good News Sherrie’s own limited life was. Together we stood with a firm and certain knowledge that Sherrie’s life spent in so broken a body with so damaged a brain was not the end of the story, embracing our sure and certain hope that we would see her again in the form God, in his infinite love and grace, created all of creation to be.
So. This whole thing took me forever to finish. It haunted me, it stirred around and around in my mind as the weeks dragged on. But you know what? The project lasted all through Lent. How ironic. Or appropriate, really. My first days of Lent were spent learning of these deaths and preparing for and attending these funerals. As I finish my reflections, I’m just days from celebrating with gusto the day that defines us as Christians. I am within sight of Easter morning. I celebrate in faith, with joy, the resurrection of our Lord. And through him, in hope, I eagerly await his return when all will be made new, all will be as it should be, when we who have received a spirit of adoption and are children of God, joint heirs with Christ, are glorified with him. I eagerly await that day. Come, Lord Jesus!