Today Christ shows us how to deal with the awful situation when death invades our lives and removes a loved one from us.
It may sound harsh to put it that way. That is because we are not used to hearing about the stark reality of death.
In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, a novel set in the future. People in the story no longer expressed grief at the death of loved ones, but instead treated death as an occasion for celebration. People today might say, "What's wrong with that?" What's wrong with it is that it denies the reality of death. Death is powerful, and death is evil.
But denying death's power is not new. We see it in the Holy Gospel. When Christ arrived at the house of the dead girl, the flute players and the commotion of the loud mourners had already started up. This was not celebration, but it was really the same way of denying death's power. Often professional mourners were hired so that they could wail loudly. The louder the better, so that people could hear how much this poor girl was loved. At that time, flute playing was the traditional music of grief. This was all designed to make the parents say, "Look how much my little girl was loved!"
But can flute playing or loud wailing solve the problem of death? No, death is much too powerful. Can feelings of pain be relieved a little by such things? Maybe. Then again, feelings of pain may become even worse at hearing how wonderful a departed loved one was. If the message is sent that we have lost a precious person, that should make a person even more grief-stricken.
In modern terms, we would say that people go through the grief process in order to cope with the trauma of losing a loved one. This is not wrong in itself, but it concerns only the feelings of a person. Death is not only a matter of feelings. The problem of death is not so much that we are sad. The problem of death is that it is powerful, and it is evil. We are helpless before this monster that devours all people, sooner or later.
This is a terrifying reality to face. People find it much easier to deny death in one way or another; deny its power, or deny that it is evil. Some people say that death is just a natural part of life. Some say that we can overcome death and achieve immortality by one scheme or another.
The Christian way to deny death these days is when we make death okay by expressing what a great person we have lost and that now he is in a better place. This may not sound like denying death. But notice that these two things occupy almost all of modern Christian funerals. Talk about the person's life, and say they are in a better place. You can discuss these two things all day long without addressing the fact that this person DIED and that death is evil. An awful thing happened to that person whom we love.
We do not say that we deny death. But we often do, in other ways. We ignore it, focus on other things, or deny that death is evil at all. "It is only a gateway to eternal life," we might say. And it is that in a way. Yet death in itself is still a horrible, evil thing.
We were not created to die. In the beginning, there was no death. But when sin came to mankind, death also entered the world. Death is a tearing apart of what should never be separated. The soul of a person is removed from the physical body. This should not be. It is an abomination that has invaded God's good creation.
Christians, perhaps in an effort to uphold the fact that Christ has conquered death, tend to act as if death is nothing at all. Far from being a monster, it hardly exists. So we may hear endlessly how the departed loved one is in a better place, but little or nothing about the resurrection. Or if the resurrection is mentioned, it is only a brief, passing reference.
The solution to the problem of death is not to act as if death has won. We are not to grieve as the heathens do who have no hope. Yet to deny that death is a real and monstrous problem is going too far in the other direction.
So how do we steer between the two extremes? Christ shows us. Christ both sends away the mourners and also raises the child.
Christ is not pleased that they made the funeral into a commotion of loudly expressing sadness and love for the dearly departed. He also did not simply offer platitudes like, "She is in a better place," or "She is looking down on us from heaven."
At the same time, He was not denying death's power when He said, "She is asleep," because the same Man also wept at a friend's grave. He openly showed the world that death is an evil that causes sorrow. Instead, by saying, "She is asleep," He was saying that compared to Him, death has no power. Compared to the effectiveness of His speaking, death is only a sleep for someone to be wakened.
But Christ insists on letting a corpse be a corpse. A dead body of a loved one is helpless and powerless. A corpse does nothing. Christ does not raise those who have earned the right to be raised. No, Christ raises helpless sinners. He did not endlessly eulogize the little girl as if to say, "Look how worthy and loving she was! Of course I must accept her into Paradise!"
Christ did not even leave her alone and say, "Why should I raise her? She is in a better place." No, He does not let death have the last word. Christ, the Lord of life, must conquer death.
But if death is to be conquered, then it must be real and it must be evil.
Of course, the sinful world and our sinful flesh do not want to acknowledge death's reality, nor that Christ is the only Savior from death. So Christ must suffer the scorning laughter of the world, whenever He preaches. He does not offer entertainment or indulge emotions, but instead preaches the truth of the Word, which the world and our flesh mock.
Instead of indulging the emotions of the parents, Christ returns the child to them. Our Christian hope should be anchored firmly in the reality of the resurrection - not simply saying, "She is in a better place." If death is denied, or is treated as if it is denied, then the resurrection is unnecessary, and will ultimately be laughed away.
But the Word of Christ is powerful even over the evil monstrosity which is death. That is why the true comfort at a Christian funeral is the Word. Christ does not bring our loved ones to life before our eyes at the funeral. But He promises resurrection, and He never breaks His promises. His Word is the true comfort because it does not deny death's reality, but instead overcomes it.
The Word delivers Christ and Him crucified. The awful, ugly nasty monstrosity which is death swallowed up the Son of Man. Yet it was death that was destroyed, while Christ was raised up on the third day. The death of Christ was not pretty and beautiful, except in its benefit to us. It purchased for us eternal life. It saved us from the grave. Nothing else can rescue from the reality of death. Therefore the Word that speaks about Christ crucified is the only true comfort at the death of a loved one.
Of course, the Word that speaks about the resurrection is also divisive. All will be raised, but only those with faith are saved. As Christ said to the woman with the flow of blood, "Your faith has saved you." Not all loved ones will be raised to eternal life. The reality of death also means that death has a right to us, and that right is called sin. The wages of sin is death. We ought to suffer death, and not only the death of the body, which is bad enough, but also the real death, which is unimaginably horrible and unending torment. Unbelievers will be raised to that.
But saying those words will create scorn for us. It seems obvious to the world that everyone who was nice in this life will have an afterlife that is happy and good. To insist otherwise is hateful and legalistic. That is how they see your beliefs if you are a faithful Christian. You are hateful and legalistic in their eyes. They may laugh at you, as they laughed at Christ. Or they may persecute you in more severe ways. At the very least, you will be marginalized as a curious but irrelevant relic of past beliefs.
Woe to you if no one laughs at you, and no one is offended at your beliefs.
If we give the impression that all will be raised to eternal life whether they believe in Christ or not, we do not give true comfort. We may confirm people in false hope. We need to also say that we and our loved ones have been saved from death, not because we are nice people, but because Christ has delivered to us His gifts of grace in Word and Sacrament, received by faith in Him.
The best gift we can give our friends and family at a funeral is the Word of God that addresses the reality of death, but also the even greater reality of Christ's victory over death for us believers. Endless eulogizing easily gives the impression that if you are nice, you will go to a better place. A few brief mentions of the Word or Christ or the resurrection will not make the eulogizing better. It will only tell people that talking about Christ is less important than talking about the person who died.
The celebration atmosphere at most funerals will tell people that death is not that serious. That may make us feel better in the short term. But the true comfort and hope that people need to hear must begin with acknowledging that something bad happened. Yet Christ has overcome it by His death and resurrection.
In His Name, who is the only Victor over death. Amen.
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