Nothing has revolutionized and revitalized my preaching at funerals more than reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. I have lifted that text up on a previous post. I still return to it and the larger work, The Resurrection of the Son of God often in my reflection and writing. Today, I’d like to describe how I have constructed and written funeral sermons over the last twenty years as a result of Wright’s work and my experiences.
The focus of a Christian funeral sermon is the good news of Resurrection to the New Life in and through Jesus Christ. That’s what makes it a sermon rather than a “eulogy.” There’s nothing wrong with eulogies. They are quite appropriate in many settings and are often beautifully composed and spoken with heartfelt eloquence. The focus of a eulogy is on the life of the person who has died. A Christian funeral sermon proclaims the Gospel of life and hope through Jesus.
This isn’t to say that one should pay no attention to the life story of the person who has died. That is hardly the case. The first element of a good Christian funeral sermon is, in fact, some eulogizing. Every human being is created in the image of God. Therefore, every human life illustrates in a number of ways the grace and life-giving power of that image. I always look for one or more “hooks” that will allow me to reflect on the joy and beauty, the depth and humanity of the person’s life.
Because the person’s life is an example of the grace, mercy, and love of God, it is possible in a Christian funeral sermon to speak with honesty about that life. I have attended funerals where I listened to the eulogy and wondered if I had come to the right service. The speaker was so intent on valorizing and sanctifying the dead person that the remarks took on the character of historical fiction. The more “colorful” the life of the deceased was, the more likely we are to hear such fictional reconstructions.
In our culture we are trained to refrain from “speaking ill” of the dead. I’m not criticizing that practice, but I am reflecting on it. Some might find it painful to relive the faults, foibles, and failings of a loved one who has died. Others, believing that there is no life beyond this one, might feel some pressure to “redeem” the story of a person’s life by a creative re-telling, since there was no other possibility for such redemption. I appreciate the sentiments in these approaches. But I think most of us find them unsatisfying, even if expected.
In a Christian funeral sermon, we can say forthrightly that the dead person was a sinner and a saint just like the rest of us. The Commendation order, which brings the funeral service to and end in our ELCA tradition, says it well. We commend the dead person into the loving hands of our Savior. We pray, “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 283).
We don’t have to redeem anyone’s story because we trust that the Lord Jesus will take care of that. We can, therefore, speak with tender honesty (when appropriate) about our loved one’s faults, foibles, and failings. We can begin a healing process of acknowledgment if that is helpful. We can celebrate the gifts and giggle at the gaffes. We can remember the whole person who has died and “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” commend that whole person to the care of our Lord.
That leads me to the second element of a Christian funeral sermon. We commend that whole person to the care of our Lord because we trust in the faithfulness of God as demonstrated by the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We trust, along with St. Paul in Romans 8, that nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the first part of the Gospel proclamation in a Christian funeral sermon.
Many bereaved Christians, in my experience, come to a funeral or memorial service wondering where their loved one is “now.” I find that it’s often important to give pastoral and scriptural encouragement and guidance in response to that wondering. From our perspective within time, we confess that our loved now rests in the arms of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We confess that this is a mystery of the faith, but we hold to it with both hands. That’s what we mean when we say that someone has died and “gone to heaven.” Heaven is where Jesus is. Heaven is resting in the presence of the Risen Lord and Savior.
That is where we expect our loved ones to rest until the end of this cosmos. That’s where we expect to rest as well if we should die prior to the end of this cosmos. Based on hints in the New Testament witness, I believe this is an active, aware, prayerful, loving, and engaged resting. Hebrews talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” who are now in the stands cheering us on as we continue the game of life. Revelation describes the martyrs for the faith who continue to press for justice even as they wait for the New Creation.
That’s heaven. But that’s not all.
It’s in the third part of the Christian funeral sermon, that I have been profoundly impacted by N. T. Wright’s work. That third part is the “But wait! There’s more!” section. Our heavenly rest is a profound gift, but it is a way station rather than the destination. The New Testament proclaims that in the end all things will be made new. We will be raised up to a New Heaven and a New Earth. We will live with God as we were always intended to live, in a New Creation of life and love, health and hope, purpose and peace.
Our destiny is not harps and halos, not wings and waiting. I’ve always thought that sounded God-awful boring — much more like hell than heaven, if it went on for eternity. Instead, we will be freed to explore our God-given image and likeness, our new and beloved community in Christ, without limit or end. I like to tell people that I will have the chance to read and reflect on every book ever written (well, every useful one anyway). And I’ll never run out because writing is a heavenly experience for those gifted to write. I don’t expect they’ll ever stop.
The goal of life with God is not escape from trials. It is growth into all we have been created to be. As Wright has often written, we are currently “shadows of our future selves.” He reminds us of C. S. Lewis’ marvelous address, “The Weight of Glory,” in this regard. That’s for another Throwback Thursday, but read it if you haven’t yet done so.
One of the most powerful insights from Wright for me is that Jesus’ resurrection means something specific for our life here and now. It means that “nothing good will be lost.” Jesus’ resurrection brings the power and purpose, the healing and hope of the New Creation into the middle of this lost and broken old world. Our vocation as humans is to build for that New Creation — to begin to make it a reality in our lives in the here and now.
That allows me, in a funeral sermon, to loop back to the life of the person who has died. I learned from my internship supervisor, Jim Hanson, forty years ago to end funeral sermons with thanksgivings. In a Christian funeral, we give thanks for the life and love, the work and witness of the person who has died. We point to the ways in which the Holy Spirit used that person and that life to build for the coming kingdom of God.
We remember that none of that good will be lost in the Resurrection. So we can give thanks to God for all those gifts. This is often the most healing part of my funeral sermons for the bereaved.
And it is a place where I can offer some encouragement to continue living in faithfulness. Just as the person who died was building for the Kingdom of God, we are doing the same. In gratitude for knowing and loving the one who has died, we might choose to redouble our efforts to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. I think that using funeral sermons as an “evangelism opportunity” is a detestable practice. I also think that taking inspiration from the life and love of one who has died is a healing and holy practice.
One place where Wright and I would part company is over who has access to this good news. I am an unapologetic and convinced universalist. I am in good theological company, both historically and currently. I am happy to share this good news whether the person who died was part of the Church or not. I don’t claim to know how that all works, but I do know that God desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. The thing is that God tends to get what God desires.
If you want to read examples of my funeral sermons, I have put them into a little book on the Books for Sale page. The names have been changed in the interests of privacy. You’ll notice the pattern I have described. Some of the words will be the same because the good news of Resurrection is for all people. I hope you might find these sermons comforting and encouraging.