September 11, 2016 A+D
St. Luke 7:11-17
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The resurrection of the widow’s son in Nain shows the Lord undoing death. Death is the wages of sin which He Himself pays in Himself on the cross even though He is without sin in order to make Himself a holy substitute, to forgive the debts of humanity, and to reconcile humanity to His Father. The boy’s rising to life from the funeral bier also foreshows the bodily resurrection of the dead on the last day. This is the goal and termination that the Lord’s own resurrection has brought about. Human beings were not mean to die. The undoing of death that Christ has wrought finds its completion on the Last Day in our resurrections. The boy’s resurrection also foreshows the spiritual resurrection of baptismal conversion. We were dead in our trespasses but the old man has been drowned in us and a new man has emerged and arisen. While this good work is not yet complete in us, it is real. We have been and are being raised for we are baptized. Finally, the boy’s resurrection illustrates the promise of Jesus that He is, Himself, the Resurrection and the Life.
On top of all that this account also shows us something of what a Christian funeral is meant to be and how we are to conduct ourselves. Though we have the promise of the final resurrection and the assurance that the souls of those who depart this life confessing that Jesus is Lord will never die, we must, nonetheless, for a time, suffer the sorrow of death. We must not pretend as though death were a mere passage of insignificance leaving behind an empty shell that we might mindlessly toss into a fire or the ocean or treat with indignity. Human bodies should not be treated as we would treat the carcass of a pet or a deer on the side of the road. We should not pretend as though the deceased aren’t really dead as long as they live in our memories or that we are not sad. We are sad. Death is real. It is painful. The way we love people who have died is by mourning. The widow in Nain committed no sin by weeping at the near burial of her son. In fact, she would have sinned against her vocation and his memory if she had not mourned, not been sad.
We treat the body with dignity because God made the person a body. We don’t believe in a pre-existent soul. God created our bodies and souls together, in our mothers’ wombs. The souls of the faithful, which have been separated from their bodies by death, have gone to a better place but they have not gone yet to the ultimate place. They are not yet complete. They are waiting for us and they’re waiting for their bodies. Thus the martyrs in Revelation 4 cry out: “How long, O Lord?” They are not in torment. They are not sad. They do not know any pain. Yet they are incomplete for they have not their bodies. They are not yet as God meant them to be.
When the Lord redeemed us He became not just a spirit or a soul. He became a real man, body and soul. It was in His body that He suffered many indignities and shame and was tortured to death that we might be redeemed in our bodies. It is not simply a spiritual reality. It is a bodily reality. We do not baptize the souls of babies. We baptize their bodies. We don’t commune souls. We put the Body and Blood of Christ into bodily mouths where it is eaten and drank. Faith comes not by thinking, but by hearing. All this should lead us to treat the bodies of the dead with reverence and dignity.
Christian funerals are not, mainly, celebrations of life. Mainly they are confessions of what death is and of what hope the Christian has. We don’t have funerals to convince ourselves or anyone else that we lost someone wonderful and that he is worth remembering. Nor do we need to convince God to love the deceased – He sent His Son to die for the deceased. He couldn’t love him any more than He already does and He doesn’t need convincing. And we don’t need to convince Him either that the deceased was a good person, that he led a good life. Again: He sent His Son to die in order to declare the deceased better than good, to declare him righteous. That is what funerals need to confess.
Funerals confess the resurrection by confessing in the first place that death is real and that death hurts and that death is caused by sin. In this we also confess that we ourselves are dying, that unless Our Lord returns we will all suffer physical death. Our bodies will age and decay and fail: we will die. We will all have funerals. And when we die we must face judgment for the time comes when no man can work. The only way we can face that judgement and live is if Jesus has already faced it for us.
It is only in the midst of all that that the resurrection makes any sense. It doesn’t make any sense to stand in the grandeur of a state park or a gorgeous golf course surrounded by beautiful young people and say: “O death where is thy sting?” That is a denial of death. That is like standing on Normandy on a beautiful July day and saying, “This doesn’t look so bad.” “O death where is thy sting” only makes sense if there is a body to be buried, if there are tears to be shed, if death has occurred. Because “O death where is thy sting” is a confession that death has lost the war even though it won a battle. Death is real but temporary. “O death where is thy sting?” is a confession that Jesus suffered the sting of death to remove it from us. He lives and so shall we. So also shall the dead who have departed in the sign of faith.
We do not commit our dead to the Universe, abstractly. We do not consign them only to our memories. Ideally, we commit them to God’s good acre, to the ground, in a cemetery, which comes from Latin for “A house of sleep.” We do this with the expectation of seeing them again and not just as ghosts in heaven. We expect to see those bodies renewed and alive, back together with their souls, awake out of the sleep of death on a new earth.
So then we ought to also give some thought to the hymns that we sing at funerals. We could surely sing the exact same hymns that are sung at nearly every American funeral. They are in our hymnal and they come from a Christian tradition. They have roots going back as far as fifty or even a hundred years. They tug at the heartstrings not so much for the what they confess but simply because of their many associations.
But if they’re signing these hymns at the funerals of pop stars and at the White House, if country music stars are recording them, you can bet that they are not particularly strong. We could do better. We could sing hymns that explicitly confess the hope of Christians redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, hymns that go back hundreds and hundreds of years or even thousands. We could sing that hymns that tie us to the Church year. It is a fact that hymns that have more to say, that are stronger, that have sturdy tunes, will bring more comfort in the long run. I don’t know what hymns the people of Nain were singing, but it is most likely that they were chanting the Psalms. We might do a bit more of that as well.
What we do know for sure is that Jesus stepped into that funeral in Nain. He interrupted the procession. He raised the boy back to life and gave him to his mother. The Lord has a special place in His heart for widows and the fatherless, for those who don’t belong to this world, for those who mourn, who suffer anguish and affliction, that is to say, for us. He says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and I will give you rest.”
The Lord of Nain is present at all our funerals. He comforts those who mourn with real comfort not platitudes about the circle of life or poems about the wind and the rain. He comforts with hope, with a promise, with Life. And He will turn sadness into joy. He will give rest to us as He has already to those who have gone before us. And He will raise us up on the Last Day. For He is the Resurrection and the Life and whoever believes in Him never dies.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.