I Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44, 50, 53-58
(Job 19:23-27, Revelation 21:1-4, 22-25; 22:3-5)
We gather this Sunday with another story of death ringing in our ears and demanding our attention. I wonder how many of those who lost loved ones have been told, “God needed another angel!”? The phrase is intended to comfort. The lost loved one is now with God.
There is a lot to unpack in this common approach to offering comfort. We, God’s people, need to examine what it is we believe and say to see if it truly reflects the good news of the gospel. Mark Sandlin’s blog says, “God loves you. God loves your loved ones. God is coming for your loved ones. You think it hurt when God smote your toe? Just wait ’til God rips out your heart. But it’s OK. They needed another angel in heaven. See? All better! Really? No, of course not. Now that you understand what you are saying, can we just stop it?”
Do we understand what we are saying? God took your loved one? God needed your loved one? What does that say about God? Does it not proclaim a selfish God with little regard for those who mourn? God needed, so God took? What kind of good news is that? We try to teach toddlers that just “taking” something is not appropriate. It’s not loving. It’s not respectful.
What if Jesus had said to Martha and Mary, “God needed another angel?” Can we even imagine such words in Jesus’ mouth? He didn’t offer easy platitudes. He mourned with them. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb. Of course, we might notice Jesus declared that he was the resurrection and the life. Then he raised Lazarus. But, he knew human grief. He knew the pain of loss.
Part of our difficulty may be that we proclaim that God is all powerful and in control of all things. Therefore, we must attribute suffering and loss to God’s intent. For centuries we have portrayed the crucifixion as something God required of Jesus, something God ordained. What if we begin to see in the story of Jesus’ grief at Lazarus’ death a story of God’s grief at Jesus’ death? What if we begin to acknowledge and claim the cross as a human act of defiance, fear, cruelty, and oppressive power that caused God pain? The cross is not, then, God’s punishment, but God’s total immersion in the suffering, the pain, and the grief of human existence.
I refuse to excuse last Sunday’s violence with platitudes that declare God needed its victims. I refuse to excuse the pain of losing a loved one, to illness or accident, by declaring God needed that person. Instead, can we not look for God who weeps with those who weep, who comforts those who mourn, who lifts up the weary, and who promises that the world’s brokenness and evil will not have the final say? Jesus mourned Lazarus. He wept with Martha and Mary. And, he declared the promise of resurrection! God answered the world’s cross with hope, with life, with eternal and everlasting love.
Sandlin objected to the “God needed” part of this cliché. God doesn’t rip our loved ones away. I’d like to look a little more at this phrase, this well-meaning phrase, and explore the “angel” portion. “God needed another angel.”
The lost loved one has become an angel. We think of those wonderful cherubs, clothed in white, with their wings. Where does this “theology” come from?
I suspect we might cite, in part, that beloved Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey encounters his guardian angel, Clarence, who is striving to earn his wings. Clarence, we understand, has an earthly history as a human being. With death, he became an angel — not a first class angel, but one that needed to earn his wings.
When we die we become angels. That’s a prevailing understanding. But, is it Biblical?
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says that when we speak of angels we tend to mean messengers from God and spiritual beings. In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels were messengers and celestial beings. The New Testament doesn’t change that understanding. They are different from human beings. Psalm 8 declares, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than angels, and crowned them with glory and honor.” They are sent to humans with messages from God. They surround God’s throne singing songs of praise.
So, what about the resurrection? It is a question that has been before God’s people since Jesus promised us that he is the resurrection and the life. Paul responded to the question, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Paul asserts that we are resurrected as spiritual bodies. The “perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
What Paul does not say is that we become angels. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Those familiar words from John’s gospel tell us of God’s love for human beings. That love is so profound that God entered human existence through Jesus. The Biblical witness is of God’s love for this world and its inhabitants, and, particularly for those inhabitants created in the image of God —human beings.
Angels may be heavenly creatures. But, they are not created in the image of God. Human beings bear God’s image. God resurrected the crucified Jesus. We are promised a resurrection like his. Paul said to the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
“God needed another angel.” That statement falls short in so many ways. It portrays God as selfish. And it diminishes the good news that God passionately loves human beings, so much that God, through Christ, has given us the resurrection. The Book of the Revelation to John declares, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
What do we say in the face of tragedy, of illness, of death? What can we offer as comfort? What words make a difference?
Maybe, sometimes, we’re too quick with words. Maybe, like Jesus, we need to weep with those who weep. Maybe we need to join our voices with those who cry out against the unfairness of untimely death, of undeserved suffering. We need to be willing to say that there are no good answers. We walk through the darkest valley, through the valley of death.
The good news is not an easy answer. The good news is that God knows human pain, grief, injustice, tragedy. God knows intimately the struggles we have in a broken world. God is not the author of the brokenness. But, God is present with us, in the brokenness. God is present.
And, when it seems that the powers of death have won, God gives us hope. For in the resurrection we see that God has conquered even death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.