13We 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.
It doesn’t say Christians won’t grieve; it says we grieve in hope. And before we decide how literally we want to take the imagery of this whole passage, we should be clear about the purpose of Paul’s words: “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Grief is hard work. Even when we grieve together, it tends to be a lonely road. We pull in to ourselves and away from others. Not on purpose, it’s just the nature of pain. We are not far from the wounded animal that looks for some safe hole in which to curl up and lick its wounds.
Grief is hard work for those who care for the grieving, too. It hurts us to see them in pain.
And grief is not simple. It is not one wound, but many. There are all those complicated emotions lurking in the shadows of loss: feeling like you have been abandoned by your loved one; guilt for feeling abandoned; anger that you have been abandoned; guilt over the anger. And then there is just plain guilt: for some part you have played in your loss or some things you have failed to do – or simply that you survived. And then, sometimes, there is relief – even gladness – that the person is gone. And, of course, we feel guilty about that.
Grief is not simple. And there are all those spiritual and theological questions that arise. Doubt. Anger at God. Feelings that God, too, has betrayed us. Despair whispers in our ear, “Life is meaningless. There is no hope.”
But mostly there is just that ache at the hole in your life.
Grief is what comes to my mind when I hear the psalmist speak of the valley of the shadow of death. Grief is the wilderness where the devil must be fought, like Israel traveling towards the Promised Land, or Jesus after his baptism.
Paul’s purpose is to reassure. “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.”
The promise is not that Jesus comes floating on the clouds; the promise is that Jesus comes in the power and presence of God – this is what the clouds have always signified in the scriptures. The clouds, the trumpet blast, were elements from Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and in the temple. Yes, Paul and the first believers may have taken this imagery pretty literally. They inhabited a world of spiritual beings dwelling in the realm of the air. But we are not being asked to share their worldview; we are being asked to share their faith. We are invited to trust the promise they trust – that Christ shall come in the power of God and gather all things to himself…whatever that may mean, however that may happen. It is a daring, life-shaping trust that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” as Paul writes in Romans.
There is a multiplicity of images in scripture for the age to come. These are signs and pointers not tech manuals. It takes some work to weave them together as the prophet does in the Revelation to John. But even he cannot weave them all into a single narrative. And he doesn’t try. The point isn’t the details; the point is the promise. This age of man’s inhumanity is not the final word on human existence; there is healing ahead of us.
There is a world ahead of us where we have not eaten every fish in the ocean, where we have not killed every elephant for ivory trinkets, or every tiger for increased manliness. There is a world where we do not make ashtrays of gorilla’s hands. There is a world ahead of us where violence does not tear a home or a people. There is a world where compassion reigns, not greed. There is a world where reconciliation replaces revenge.
And the dead in Christ shall be there. And even those of us whose hearts are still beating shall, with them, be made alive in Christ.