John 19: 19-29
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
1 Corinthians 15:35-49
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the physical and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, made of dust; the second man is from heaven. As one of dust, so are those who are of the dust, and as one of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we will also bear the image of the one of heaven.
We all die. That is something as obvious to us as our own birth. We do not often make it far into life without experiencing death. Whether it is of a family member, a friend, an animal, or even an over watered plant, we have to face the fact of our limited lifespan at some time or another. We are some of the longest lived creatures on earth, with only turtles and a few marine creatures beating out our seventy some years of life. Yet, the slow degradation of our withering bones makes us face the end eventually. A final breath on one side of eternity bringing us into the other.
I was asked two questions about death that both tie into the scriptures we read a moment ago. The first question was, “What should we think about cremation?” and “What does the Bible actually say about reunions in Heaven?” I’ve changed the wording slightly for both of those but the substance is the same. As people who believe in bodily resurrection, how we treat our body after death is important. As people who believe in life after death, how and if we meet our loved ones in the hereafter is likewise on the forefront of our minds. The answer is found, not in any one sentence, but in a few places we can look at to get a good idea of things.
First, we can address the physical resurrection of the dead as an answer to cremation. Jesus shows us in his resurrection that body we live and die in is the body we carry into the next life. When Jesus goes to the disciples, he is definitely changed by having died and been raised back into life, but he is still the same Jesus. His hands still bear the scars of the nails that pierced him, his side still bore the marks of a spear that stabbed him. Jesus who died was Jesus who was raised, not just an imitation or spiritual facsimile.
This tells us that there is continuity between the state of the body at death and the resurrected body. This has led to a deep respect in Christian communities for bodily preservation. Like their Jewish siblings before them, Christians balked the Roman practice of cremation in exchange for bodily burial. The desire was to keep the body whole in expectation of its eventual resurrection. This was not because God would not be able to revivify a cremated person, but was an acknowledgement that God would someday raise the dead back into life.
I still think that there is something to preserving the body in death, but I am also an organ donor, so I know that the hospital will relieve me of several parts of my body ahead of any kind of burial I get. The respect for the sanctity of the human life is not something that means only those buried in a certain way with certain amounts of their body intact get to know the resurrection of the dead. Several saints were burned alive, beheaded, or generally mutilated in the process of dying. I find it hard to believe that they are locked out for that.
The fact is, if God can do the incredibly hard work of revivifying the dead, I do not see God having a problem resurrecting anyone no matter how their body is interred. I know there are programs now to have our bodies turned to compost, into diamonds, and into a nitrogenated slurry. What is important in death and in care of the dead, is that however we are interred it is done with respect for the life of the one who is being interred. For myself, I hope for a natural burial in a pine box. I do not want a vault, a casket, or any of that fancy stuff. Just something simple for me to return to the dust in.
For the Christian, Christ’s victory over death means that we honor those who die however we can. That is why we keep our graveyards and mausoleums well kept and preserve the names of the dead. Not that this is a uniquely Christian impulse, but it is something we have long honored. So, to answer our first question of the day – is cremation a thing we as a Church can support? Definitely.
The second question of the day is how we will recognize one another in the age to come. Paul is clear in our scripture that our resurrection is like that of Christ’s, and so anything we know about the resurrection we have to take from him and a few of his teachings. Jesus was recognizable to his disciples, but usually only after some event triggered their memory. For the disciples on Emmaus it was the breaking of bread, for the twelve it was the giving of peace and the catching of fish. Jesus was changed enough that it took some time to recognize him, but he was still very much Jesus.
Jesus carried with him the memories of his disciples, his love for them, the individual relationships he had with them. Jesus showed us that relationships went beyond the pall of death and into the eternity of God’s resurrection. In other words, there is a future we will have together in Heaven. There are some caveats to that though. Jesus is clear, for example, that marriage ends in death. We specifically have in our vows, “till death do us part,” because someday we will find ourselves cut off from our beloved and separated. Christ tells us that that separation makes us, no longer spouses, but fellow members of God’s eternal family.
Now, as I said we still retain our memories and life experiences and relationships. Therefore, I echo the sentiment of a liturgics professor I had once, who said, “In Heaven we are as angels, who do not marry, but I’m saving a seat for my husband right beside me even still!” Our relationships are transformed in resurrection, but they can never be erased. However, that works I am not worried, because I know I’ll be around those I love one way or another.
Heaven will, all the same, be populated with a countless multitude of people. We will be with saints from all time and space and from places we have never even heard of. All languages will be represented, all cultures, a diversity and numerousness we cannot begin to imagine. That means that we will not be in a room only of people we know, the whole of the New Jerusalem, of the new Heaven and Earth, will be opened up to us.
That means that the image of an immediate or organized reunion on the other side of this life is never mentioned in scripture. There is no singular, definite description of the saints we know sitting down together on the other side of this life. Yet, it seems impossible to me that God would keep people apart, or that in all of eternity we would not find one another again. If we want to give a quick and easy answer about how the Bible talks about what we will do, “When we all get to Heaven,” we will not find it. Yet a few things are clear.
God brings the dead to life, and God will have us all together in the new creation one day. This new life will include one another as a communion like what we know on Earth, albeit somewhat altered. We retain our personality in this new life, and given infinite time, it would be impossible to think we will not see each other again. Is there a welcoming committee in paradise of all our loved ones? I cannot say, but I know they are waiting for us, praying for us, and we will one day feast at the same table as them once more. That, in itself, is enough for me. – Amen.