When I signed up to be a pastor (ok, so you don’t actually sign up), I knew that funerals would be a part of what I did. I also knew that doing funerals would be hard….really hard. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the number of funerals I would be officiating.
In a recent ten day period, five members of the congregation I serve passed away. I’m looking at officiating three funerals this week. Sixteen members have passed away since March. Exactly seventy have died since I began here in June 2002. I realize there are many pastors who deal with far more death than I do. A friend, and colleague, who served in Malawi for three years conducted many more funerals during that brief time than I have in eleven years of ministry.
What I’m confessing here is that death takes an emotional toll on a person…yes, even pastors (especially pastors?). And while my theology pushes me to move on and to talk about Resurrection, I also feel the call to pause in the face of death and grieve. I’m reminded that Jesus, knowing full well that He would soon raise Lazarus from the dead, still paused at the tomb to weep (John 11:35).
Christianity is not a spiritual form of escapism. It is entirely appropriate, might I say even necessary, for followers of Jesus to experience grief. But I would also suggest that there is a healthy way to grieve and an unhealthy way to grieve. ‘Good grief’ (as I’ve termed this post) is grounded in hope. The apostle Paul says that followers of Jesus grieve differently than the rest (1Thess. 4:13, 14). We grieve, we’re not immune to the pain of loss, but we grieve within the perspective of what lies beyond.
In wrestling with my own sorrow over friends who have recently died, I pulled out my sermon notes from a message I delivered in 2002. I hope you won’t find it unduly strange that my own words, from six years ago, brought me comfort. Below is a sampling of those notes:
Holy Scripture tells us that when we die, our soul rises immediately to heaven. Paul tells the Philippians that “to die is gain”(Phil. 1:21) because it means “depart(ing) and be(ing) with Christ, which is very much better”(Phil. 1:23).When Stephen was being stoned, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”(Acts 8:59). Stephen, who was experiencing a vision of the risen Christ at the time of his execution, anticipated entering immediately into the conscious presence of Jesus Christ.
And Jesus, speaking to the thief on the cross, promised, “today you shall be with Me in paradise”(Lk. 23:43). Jesus doesn’t say ‘soon you will be with Me’; He doesn’t say ‘someday you will be with Me in paradise’; He says “TODAY you shall be with Me in paradise.
For the Christian, sudden death means sudden glory. The soul of the Christian is to be found at once before the throne of God. It is the body that is said to sleep. Paul explains this to the Thessalonians, and to us, “that you may not grieve, as do those who have no hope”(4:13).
Notice that Paul does not forbid us from mourning. Sadness, even prolonged sorrow, is to be expected when we lose someone we love. Yet, our grief must be of a different nature because of what we know about the destiny of those who treasure Jesus. Paul is saying that Christians should not have dead-end grief, the kind of grief that comes to people who have no hope for a reunion. Our grief for those who have died in the Lord should be tempered by our knowledge that this is not a final good-bye……
I recently read an account where a little girl, a five-year-old girl, was watching her brother die of a very painful disease. He was much older, and the little girl loved her brother a lot. After the brother died, and after the funeral was over, the little girl said to her mother, “Mommy, where…where did brother go?” To which her mother replied, “Well, he went to heaven to be with Jesus.” She said, “Oh.” And that answer satisfied her.
Not long after that she heard her mother having a conversation with a friend, and her mother was weeping, and saying, “I’ve lost my son…I’ve lost my son…I’ve lost my son.” Later in the day the little five-year-old went to her mother and said, “Mommy, is somebody lost when we know where they are?”
Well, the answer to that question is, “No.” A person is not lost if we know where they are. We should not grieve as those who have no hope. The souls of those who have died in Christ are now in His presence. Remember the promise, “TODAY you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
And, when Christ returns, our sleeping bodies will be clothed with heavenly glory. This is what Paul promises, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus . . . For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first”(4:14, 16)…….
Bodies clothed in heavenly glory; a reunion with loved ones—and there is more; verse 17: “and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” It is no wonder Paul ends this section by saying, “Therefore comfort one another with these words”(4:18).
Friends, this passage of Scripture was written to bring you comfort—real comfort. Forever with the Lord! Forever in communion with Christians of every age! Forever-clothed in heavenly glory! It is no wonder that Paul would write, “To live is Christ, but to die is GAIN.” [ the complete message can be read here ]
I enjoyed reading those words again. I needed to be reminded of the hope I have in Christ. It is likely that, from time to time, we all need that reminder. I share this with you in the spirit of Paul who instructed me, “comfort one another with these words.”