Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Grieving with Hope”

            This Sunday, November 5th, is “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday we set aside in the Church to remember and celebrate our friends and family members who have died.  This can be a bittersweet worship service.  On the one hand, we may be sad, as we grieve and lament the loss of our loved ones.  On the other hand, we may be joyful, as we recall pleasant memories of shared times with our loved ones.  We can also be joyful, as we recall—and, perhaps, re-affirm—the conviction of the Christian faith that death is not the termination of our existence, but rather our transformation into a far better existence as New Creations in Christ Jesus.

            Our reflections on the “All Saints Sunday” will be informed by a passage from the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians.  To fully appreciate this scriptural passage, it is important to recognize that the early Church just assumed that Jesus would return to earth very shortly after his Ascension into Heaven (see Acts 1:6-11).  In other words, they thought that the parousia—a Greek word, referring to the Second Coming of Christ—would occur within their lifetimes. 

            As time went on and the parousia did not immediately occur, some of the earliest Christians began to die.  As a result, their friends in the faith began to worry about what had happened to these first Christians, since they had died before Christ returned.  In his letter, the Apostle Paul seeks to comfort and re-assure the Thessalonian Christians.  Our passage begins with these words:  But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  So, rather than hopeless grieving the loss of their friends who have died, the Apostle Paul wants to offer the Thessalonian Christians hope in the midst of their sorrow and grief.

            And, what is this hope which Paul seeks to give the grieving Thessalonians? 

            Paul writes, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died (v. 14).  The hope which the Apostle Paul has is that the deceased will be resurrected when Christ returns to earth.  Death is not the termination of our existence, but, rather, a transformation of our existence.  For Paul, the resurrection of the dead is not wishful fantasy.  Instead, he is convinced that those deceased Christians will be resurrected at the end time.  Paul bases his assurance of everyone’s resurrection on the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning. 

For Paul, the Resurrection of Christ marks a climatic tipping point in cosmic history.  The Resurrection of Christ divides the Old Age, characterized by sin and death, from the New Age, when God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed.  Paul sees the Resurrection of Christ as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the parousia.  That is, the Resurrection of Christ marks the cosmic in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  For Paul, God’s Reign has begun, but is not yet fully established.  Eventually, God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed into New Creatures.

Paul’s assurance that God’s Reign will be fully established in God’s good time gives him confidence that the Thessalonian Christians will ultimately be reunited with their friends and loved ones who have already died.  So, Paul offers these words of reassurance in his letter:  “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”  (v. 15) 

Paul believes that this Second Coming of Crist will be awesome and powerful.  So, in the verses that follow, he resorts to apocalyptic images,[1] common to his time and culture, to describe the parousia.  Paul writes in verses 16-17 that:

1.      God will announce the parousia with a “cry of military command” to charge into battle
2.      God will announce Christ’s Second Coming with “the archangel’s call”
3.      God will announce the end of the word with “God’s trumpet.”

Still using apocalyptic images common to his time and culture, Paul describes how God “will descend from heaven” and how those who have already died will be resurrected.  Then, those who are still alive “will be caught up in the clouds” together with those who have been resurrected “to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  Finally the passage ends with Paul urging the Thessalonians to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 18).

            Surely these words from Paul’s letter must have offered much comfort, healing, and joy to the Thessalonian Christians who grieved the deaths of their friends and loved ones.  Again, to reiterate, for Paul the Resurrection of Christ was the guarantee and the assurance that we will be resurrected in the end-time. 

But, can these words offer the same comfort, healing, and joy to us today, as we commemorate our loved ones on All Saints Day?  Afterall, the Apostle Paul was a pre-scientific man writing at a time when superstition was rampant in his culture.  We know that the resurrection of the dead runs counter to the laws of science.  For contemporary Christians living in the twenty-first century, what is the basis for believing in the eventual resurrection of our friends and family?

One possible response to this question has been suggested by the Christian theologians John Polkinghorne and Robert Russell, both of whom are also physicists.  In his book, The Faith of a Physicist,[2] Polkinghorne focuses on God’s role as Creator.  From a Christian perspective, God creates in two ways.  First, God was active as Creator of the world at the beginning, creating the world out of nothing (or, in Latin, creatio ex nihilo).  Second, God’s work of Creation continues, even up to the present.  That is, God is continuing to create (in Latin, creatio continua). 

At this point, Polkinghorne suggests that God may also be engaged in a third form of Creation; a form which he terms, creatio ex vetere—that is, literally, Creation from the old.  What Polkinghorne is suggesting here is that God is continuing God’s creative work by healing and redeeming the old creation and making a New Creation, as suggested by the Apostle Paul.

Building on the earlier work of Polkinghorne, Bob Russell observes that modern scientific cosmology posits the possibility that there is more than one universe.  In fact, within modern cosmology, there are many proposals for “multiverses,” that is, the existence of multiple universes.  String theory, which is one branch of contemporary physics, even proposes that there may be multiple universes, some of which have up to eleven space-time dimensions, as compared to the four space-time dimensions of our universe.  These scientific theories also hypothesize that each unique universe would probably have its own unique laws of nature, which were different from other universes.

            Russell then writes, “God must have created [our] universe such that it is transformable, that is, that it can be transformed by God’s action.  In particular…God must have created it with precisely those conditions and characteristics which will be part of the New Creation.”[3]  Russell goes on to suggest that it may be part of God’s redemption plan to change the laws of nature at the parousia, such that the resurrection of the dead would no longer be counter to the new, transformed laws of nature. 

            Putting the two theologians’ ideas together, we could suggest that God continues God’s creative activity, working now to redeem and transform the world into a New Creation.  As part of that redemptive creation, we believe that at the end-time God will transform the world so that our resurrection from the dead as new creatures in Christ is consistent with the new, transformed laws of nature.  The Resurrection of Christ at Easter thus marks that turning point in cosmic history, which points ahead to a future time, when we, too, will be resurrected. 

This perspective fits with what Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  The Resurrection of Christ marks that turning point from the old age to the new age, and the Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the end-time. 

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 5th.  This Sunday, we will remember and celebrate the lives of our friends and loved ones who are dead.  We will also reflect on the Apostle Paul’s reassurances to the Thessalonians that Christ’s Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee that we, too, will become new creatures in Christ and be resurrected at the parousia.

Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

        Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] “Apocalyptic language” refers to descriptions of the end of the world that may be either momentous or catastrophic.
[2] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1996).
[3] Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the Body, Eschatology, and Cosmology:  Theology and Science in Creative Mutual Interaction” in Cosmology, From Alpha to Omega:  The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2008), 308.

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