The Empty Tomb and the Emptied Urn
I inhaled as I stepped behind the pulpit, ready for a fight. It was a sermon series on the end times, and I knew there'd be controversy. I looked out at the elderly man in the fourth pew with his Scofield Reference Bible in tow, the woman in the back with her John Hagee book on the Middle East crisis, the teenager in the front with the Left Behind video game on his computer at home.
I expected an onrush of feedback after the service. "I can't believe you don't believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture!" "You mean you don't think the land belongs to the Jewish state?!" "What do you mean you don't think 666 is a microchip in the arm?"
I was wrong.
There was controversy, but it wasn't one of comparing prophecy charts. My hearers were most provoked by what I said, in passing, about an issue we rarely think of as eschatological: cremation.
While speaking of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the flesh, I called my hearers to reconsider what their funeral plans testified about their hope for the future. I reiterated a position — long-held in the history of the church — that burial, not cremation, best pictures the imagery of death as a sleep from which one is awakened at the last trumpet. You would have thought I had tried to lead the service through an invitation hymn to the Blessed Virgin (with every head bowed and every eye closed).
As I talked to my congregants, though, I realized what was controversial was not my position. Many, if not most of them, already knew intuitively that our culture's rush toward cremation should take more careful thought than Christians have given it. What alarmed my people was the thought of people they knew, now sitting in urns on their mantles or scattered across the Pacific Ocean or fertilizing a grove of banana trees in someone's backyard.
Was I suggesting, they wondered, that their friends and family members couldn't be resurrected from the dead — or that they would be resurrected permanently disfigured by the fires of the cremation oven?
Of course that's not at all what I was suggesting. After all, most people who hear the voice of Jesus on resurrection morning will have long before disintegrated into dust, through the natural process of decay. And anyway, it doesn't take any more Spirit dynamic to recompose ashes than to reactivate dead tissue.
There are many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, I noted to my disturbed flock, who have been torn apart by lions in the Roman arenas or devoured by sharks after being cast overboard slave ships or evaporated in wartime bombings. They'll be with us in the resurrection.
I do believe, with the ancient church, that the resurrection body reconstitutes our earthly bodies. It is the same body of Jesus that the women went to anoint with spices that greets them in the garden.
This doesn't necessitate, however, that every fleck or skin or cell is simply carried along into resurrection. You, after all, have the same body you had as a toddler, though your cellular composition and bone mass have changed somewhat since then.
My reassurance that I didn't think a body's state would stop resurrection seemed to settle some minds for a while. Then someone brought out the hymn book. They referred to the lyrics of the great hymn "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," in which we call one another to "behold" the hands and side of the resurrected Jesus. We sing, "Those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified." That's coupled with the revivalist gospel hymn countless Christians have sung together at altar-call time: "Place your hand in the nail-scarred hand."