Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Five Things You Shoud Not Say at Funerals
After preparing for a couple of funerals here recently, I was reminded of an article I read a few years back in the Concordia Journal entitled, "Five Things You Should Not Say at Funerals" (October 2003). My one pet peeve with funerals I attend as a guest is the all too frequent absence of Christ crucified and risen. Too often the content is trivial and shallow and centered on the life and times of the deceased instead of our Lord. However, even after several years of ministry, I realize that I may not have always presented the fullness of our hope as accurately as possible, even while preaching Christ. Dr. Jeff Gibbs gave me pause to think. The five things he tells us we ought not to say:
1.) "Bob has received the crown of righteousness, and he has heard the Lord say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'" Gibbs reason for not saying this: Like some of the phrases to follow, these are words that point to the final Day of Judgment, not to the moment of death or the intermediate period when the disembodied soul awaits the resurrection. Too often in our preaching we neglect to proclaim the fullness of our hope by forgetting that the fulfillment of all our Lord won for us is on the Last Day when the dead are raised and death itself is finally swallowed up in victory.
2.) "Margaret has now entered into eternal life." Gibbs reminds us that to say this is to "imply that the body is not destined to participate in eternal life." We enter into eternal life soul and body.
3.) "John has gone to his eternal home." Gibbs admits that this contains an "echo of a Biblical way of thinking." However, it is still misleading. "Until he puts on that dwelling [eternal home], Paul and all believers groan along with the whole creation" [see 2 Corinthians 5)] "A Christian who dies most certainly is, in some important sense, 'at home with the Lord.' But at death, the believer does not go to his or her eternal home - not yet." Again, we see him differentiating between the temporary disembodied intermediate state, and the final state of eternal resurrected existence.
4.) "Julia is with the Lord now forever." Gibbs says that this too "implies that the resurrection of the body is an afterthought." "The blessed condition of the dead believers is rest, paradise, a being 'with the Lord' - but it will not always be that way." "Things will change on the Last day also for the dead - they will be raised and in that condition, 'we will always be with the Lord' (1 Thess. 4:17)."
5.) "This is not a funeral - it's Craig's victory celebration!" Gibbs says that "This is perhaps the most objectionable of all - and it is patently false, as even many unbelievers instinctively know. It is true, of course, that when a Christian dies, he is now 'out of danger' - he can no longer be tempted. In addition, when tragic and prolonged physical or mental suffering precede the death of a Christian, there can be great relief and release for both the deceased and for those who loved him and have cared for him." Still, calling the funeral a 'victory' misses the point that "the death even of a Christian is always and only a sign that sin has not yet fully been abolished by the Lord Jesus Christ; the last enemy has not yet gone under His feet." Thus, he says, funerals are not victory celebrations, they are funerals. We always acknowledge the 'now-not yet' aspect of our journey here.
Gibbs notes an interesting point of how our theology may or may not inform our practice in the case of death and funerals: "When the second coming plays no functional role in one's working theology, it will not show up in funeral sermons. When the theological understanding of death as the enemy is hidden behind cliches that are not true, then there is less opportunity for speaking the Good News. When the pastor, even though he believes that it will happen, is not himself actually looking for and longing for the return of Christ - then he will say at funerals things that he should not say. And he will not deliver the fullness of the Gospel. "
So, if we should not say what was mentioned above, what then can we say? The Good News. "The Law is there, staring everyone in the face - death. And the sermon should speak explicitly of sin and its effects and its manifestations - including the death of this brother or sister. And one can also proclaim the Biblical message of the soul of the dead Christian - the soul is 'with Christ,' or 'at rest,' or 'in Paradise.' These are Biblical ways of speaking , and they can offer true Christian comfort."
"But in the face of death," Gibbs writes, "the pastor must proclaim the Good News of God's solution to sin and all its effects. And God's solution for bodily death is bodily resurrection! The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of the final resurrection on the Last Day - and this is very good news indeed for all who are in Christ Jesus."
Gibbs reminds us, in a way, how Easter is best proclaimed at funerals. I always make a point of sharing the Easter Greeting at the graveside at the very end - "Christ is risen - He is risen indeed!" I also read Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 15 about the Final Resurrection. Yet I see how this important truth can virtually be 'glossed over' by our preaching prior to the burial. Our hope needs to include more than just the moment of relief. For the resurrection is the great climax to all we have hoped for, and the implication even our our baptisms themselves!