I cringe a bit every time I go to a funeral for someone, even when the deceased was a Christian. To say funerals are generally a mixed bag would be putting mildly. These days, funerals are increasingly done in a funeral home, presided over by some sort of non-denominational pastor or chaplain whose main goal is to say something respectful and consoling without offending anyone.
I can recall a funeral I went to a few years back at a funeral home. The gentleman had been elderly and unable to care for himself for a number of years and had a spiritual relationship with the chaplain at the nursing home long before I arrived as pastor of the congregation. The widow wanted her to do the funeral home and the chaplain presided over the funeral there.
I recall trying to count how many times any kind of divine name was used in the service and I believe I made it to 2. The message was a recounting of the deceased’s life, what he had done, his various accomplishments and hobbies. It then wrapped up by saying he was in a better place and he was looking down on his widow from above and was finally riding his horses again like he always loved to do.
I say all of this because it illustrates the all too common misconception as to the purpose of the funeral. St. Peter reminds us, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). This is who we are as Christians who have been called to the royal priesthood through our baptism. Proclaiming the excellencies of God is our joy and privilege. As the Spirit has revealed the mercy of God to use through His Word, we as the church have something the rest of the world doesn’t have and needs desperately. We have the knowledge of salvation and eternal life.
As I said last week, in our baptism we are made holy. We are given back to the God who created us and who employs us in His service. Once we die, our salvation is brought to completion. We are now beyond sin and death and nothing in this earthly life, including the people still here, can be either a benefit or a hindrance to us. No memorial or eulogy will make you any better or any worse.
St. Paul sees little use in talking about how good a person he is. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:4-11).
Paul would much rather you focused your attention on the one who makes righteous, on the one who saves and brings eternal life. It is not Paul but Christ who will save you. If Paul is going to talk about anyone, it will be Him. St. Paul was an apostle, one sent to share the good news of salvation and eternal life through Christ Jesus. Like apostles before us, we are sent to proclaim God’s excellencies and we are able to do so through our baptism into Christ. That means the message, and even our very lives, are not about us, but about Him. We can do nothing to save. We can’t bring life to anyone even when we are living, much less so when we are dead. But there is one who can.
As Jesus is on His way to bring Lazarus back from the dead, He has a conversation with Martha. He tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). This never ceases to be true. Whether I am alive or whether I am dead, I am still placing my trust in the only one who has risen again to eternal life. Whether I am alive or whether I am dead, I proclaim the excellencies of the one who has called me out of darkness into His marvelous light. Whether I am alive or whether I am dead, I do not boast of my own strength and accomplishments, as if those gained me anything. I boast in the Lord who conquers death.
A Christian funeral is about the same thing any Christian service is about: Christ Jesus. A Christian funeral is the last opportunity the deceased has to proclaim the trust he or she had in the one who will bring him or her back at the resurrection of all flesh. Anything else draws the attention away from God and His salvation.
In many places in Europe and here and there still here in America, you find churches that have cemeteries next to them. Many churches have abandoned this practice, since they can be difficult to maintain, but they are a powerful witness. All of those who rest in the cemetery, rest next to God’s house, where His salvation was and still is proclaimed on a weekly basis and where eternal life comes to the world through water and the Spirit, the Body and the Blood. Here is where the communion of saints is found awaiting the resurrection. Each gravestone is a testament to the faith that person had in life and continues to hold in death. This is what our lives are about. This is what it means to be a Christian now and into eternity.