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!


Bob Hunter said...

I've forwarded your post to my e-mail account to make use of when I graduate from Concordia.

Cindy Ramos said...

Great post! I realized that how I think and talk about this subject has not been very precise.

I wonder if the "victory celebration" terminology reflects a theology of glory creeping in. Even at a time of death, we try to kid ourselves into thinking that it's all okay. Sure, we know the survivors will experience grief because they miss their dear departed one, but we act as if, theologically speaking, all is swell. It's not. Death was not part of the original plan; it's not the way things were supposed to be. Sin and death are a corruption of God's good order. Death may bring victory for the Christian's soul, but the body doesn't win the victory over death until the resurrection. It's victory and defeat at the same time, and to deny the defeat component is to resist the theology of the cross, where Christ is to be found.

Defeat and victory at the same time; sadness and hope at the same time. Keep the tension of the paradox.

Frank Sonnek said...

Interesting post pastor.

I think the folks at concordia surfaced an interesting point. The point being that the soul does not go to heaven in some disembodied state and that we are not a complete us without both body AND soul. Their conclusions from that though are off I think. they talk alot about time here...

Imagine that time and space are also creations of God. God lives outside of time and space. When someone dies, it is a plausible theory that they also leave time and space and, in the twinkling of an eye, are at judgement day, resurrected in their glorified bodies. For us, here still in time, all we can see is a body decomposing...

the second point is the one about death and victory. This one is on firm theological ground and there is NO speculation here whatsoever: Jesus swallowed up death with his death. His death between a very good friday sometime between noon and three was THE victory over that enemy and unnatural thing called death.

IN CHRIST, our death IS our victory in view of the resurrection. It is not the last word. We died in our baptism literally, and live in the rhythm of dying and rising every day as we pray and confess our sins and turn to our Father in the name of our resurrected and glorified Lord. Our death is not a graduation, it is something we have been living in, along with the resurrection for our entire christian lives. So death for us merely marks a completion of our sanctification. The New Adam´s triumph following that first adam who has already joined in eternal praise in heaven to the second Adam.

I wwould be most interested in hearing feedback here.I am a layman, good to get feedback from you pastors to see if I am right....

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for your response Frank.

It is true that God exists outside of time and space, in the sense that He is not bound by them. However, creation is, especially the visible creation. I see your point but I'm not sure it entirely fits with the scriptural witness. If the dead have already been resurrected, then what will the Final Day of the Resurrection of the Dead be? Scripture talks much about the "Last Day" as a future fulfillment of all things. Death is called a "sleep" in that it is an intermediate state awaiting a time in the future. If the dead are already resurrected, what do we make of this intermediate state? Time and space as we know it will be different after the Last Day. Yet for now we live in this reality.

I think I understand your point about victory in death in view of Christ's victory. The point Gibbs makes, however, is recognizing that death, as such, is part of the curse at the Fall. Death, per se, is not victory, but sin's defeat. It is also the last enemy to be fully destroyed, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. The defeat of death and victory of life are twin realities in which we live, similar to the "saint-sinner" dichotomy. We are dead and we are alive at the same time. While we are in this life we will always live under the curse, even though we live as those who know the curse is swallowed up in the victory of Christ.