Preaching Resurrection at Funerals — Throwback Thursday Books

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.

Text Study for Luke 24:36b-49 (Pt. 2); 3 Easter B 2021

II. We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

“Grandma, do you have any snacks?” We haven’t heard that question within the walls of our home for a while. We certainly look forward to hearing it again soon. The question indicates several things. First, it means that Grandma and Grandpa put up much less resistance to multiple snack times than Mom and Dad do. Second, it means that growing kids are always hungry, and we try to be well-stocked for such occasions. Third, sitting down for a snack is another time and another way to connect at the most human level with the people we love.

“Do you have anything edible in this place?” Jesus asks the quaking and incredulous disciples. It’s such a human request, such a physical, bodily request. Jesus takes us back to Luke 15:2 – “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” Before we get to the dinner table, however, we need to examine the request in the context of the conversation.

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

In his 2018 workingpreacher.org commentary, Mark Vitalis Hoffman notes that in Luke’s account, Jesus is carrying out the approved test to demonstrate that he is not an apparition, a ghost, or a mere spirit. “Among the ghost tests in antiquity, one could check extremities where bones were evident (namely, hands and feet),” he writes, “make sure that a person’s feet were touching the ground, and show one’s teeth and eat food.”

He notes that this is described explicitly, for example, in Tertullian’s writings against Marcion. Tertullian notes that showing the extremities is a way to demonstrate that the person in question has bones. Eating, similarly, is a way to show that the person in question has teeth. Ancient literature is filled with stories of appearances by ghosts, apparitions, spirits, angels, demons, and other non-corporeal entities. The tests for bodily existence were well-known. Luke includes the results of those tests in his account of the post-resurrection appearances in chapter 24.

Luke, along with the other gospel writers, knows that acceptance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is one of the great sticking points that keeps people from embracing the Good News of Jesus. I am encouraged to know that this was a problem with the first disciples as well as with current disciples.

I am struck by Jesus’ patience and persistence in dealing with this resistant incredulity. The problem in all the gospel accounts is not a too-easy acceptance of the Resurrection. Rather, the issue is a reluctance to believe either the evidence of their senses or the witness of their colleagues. The first witnesses were more likely to doubt than to believe. That is, perhaps, still the case.

One form of this doubt lives under the cover of a “deeper” faith. That is, some theologians and preachers would suggest that the Resurrection of the body is a metaphor for the deep and abiding experience of Jesus in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think we need to push back on that pious skepticism.

“We cannot take these stories [in Luke 24] and transform them, without remainder, into pictures of ongoing Christian experience without doing violence, in every line, to Luke’s manifest intention,” N. T. Wright argues. “Once more, this is not to say that Luke is unaware of the multiple resonances in Christian experience which the stories set up; only that these are resonances which echo out, as far as he is concerned, from the original event itself.” (Wright, Resurrection, page 657).

It’s not the case that stories of the bodily resurrection of Jesus arose as a way to give “flesh” to the real story of a more “spiritual” experience of the risen Lord and Savior. Instead, the process was that the spiritualizing of the resurrection of the body has arisen out of a rejection of the possibility that such an “actual” resurrection took place. The gospel writers, including Luke, are clear in their witness. “Every line, almost every word, in this scene [in Luke 24:36-43] demonstrates the point, “N. T. Wright notes. “For Luke, the risen Jesus is firmly and solidly embodied, able to be touched, able to eat.” (Wright Resurrection, page 657).

Some of us have lived with the Resurrection stories for so long that we have lost the shock and surprise, the wonder and amazement of the message. Or perhaps we have also adjusted the story to fit what is possible in the world as we know it and have thus “spiritualized” the resurrection of the body into a profound, but internal, experience. Can we recapture some of that shock and surprise, wonder and amazement, as we read about the stubborn resistance of the disciples in Luke’s account? They knew that dead people stay dead.

“Here’s my brief take on this vignette from Luke’s larger narrative about the resurrection appearances of Jesus,” David Lose writes, “if you don’t have serious doubts about the Easter story, you’re not paying attention.” Let’s remember where we are in Luke’s narrative. The women have reported the empty tomb, but their male colleagues considered their report “an idle tale.” The risen Jesus has appeared to Peter, although that appearance is referenced without narration. Two disciples spent half a day talking with Jesus (whom they didn’t recognize) and sat down to a meal with him.

These experiences produce nothing more than a confused and animated debate about what it all means. Jesus appears in the middle of them and says, “Hush, children. It’s alright.” At first, Jesus makes things worse, and they shift from confusion to full-on terror. Nothing makes sense any longer. They are stirred up the way a storm troubles the waters of the sea. Competing explanations fill their heads and cloud their hearts. They need an anchor to reality.

“Can we just say it, preachers?” David Lose (1) asks, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith, by definition, is trust in spite of a lack of evidence. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”

I’m not sure, however, that’s all that helpful in this text. What Jesus offers is not some sort of conviction in spite of the lack of evidence. Instead, he offers the disciples the evidence of his resurrected body. Then he opens their minds to a whole new way of seeing and understanding reality that allows for such a thing to happen in their midst. It’s not that they will believe it when they see it. Rather, it’s that they will see it when they believe it. He gives them information that leads to transformation.

This has been the problem throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. It continues to be the problem after the Resurrection. It is our problem now. I’m not with Dr. Lose on this one. It’s not the lack of evidence that’s the problem. It’s the lack of open eyes, open hearts, and open minds to take the evidence that exists. That’s at least as true of disciples “inside” the church as skeptics “outside” the church.

“All of which suggests two things to me for this week’s sermon,” Lose writes. “First, let people know it’s okay to doubt. In fact, let them know that it’s probably a requirement of faith. Because, honestly, in light of all the death and trauma and disappointment and tragedy that colors every human life, if you don’t have at least some difficulty believing the promise that God not only raised one person, Jesus, from the dead, but also promises new life and second chances and forgiveness and grace to all, then you’re probably not paying attention” (David Lose (1).

Indeed, that is true and helpful. “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” most of us confess week in and week out. I’m always glad that it’s “we” who are confessing that trust. Some Sundays I get it and embrace it. Some Sundays (and the rest of the week) I don’t get it or embrace it. When I don’t, I’m glad there’s someone else in the faith community who does. I depend on the solid faith of others when mine is shaky. And I’m glad to be that resource for others when the situation is reversed.

“Second, I would like to ask people how we might live differently if we acted like God’s promises were true,” Lose continues. “So often, I think, these promises are so familiar to us that we hold them far back in our head but don’t actually think about them and so don’t act as if they are true. But if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead… If it’s true that God promises to renew the whole creation and grant us new life… If it’s true that nothing – nothing we’ve done or has been done to us – can separate us from the love of God… If it’s true that God will not turn God’s back on any of us but always reaches out to us in grace, mercy, and forgiveness… If any of this – let alone all of this – is true, then how might we live our lives this week differently? How might this faith – not knowledge, but trusting, courageous faith – change how we look at our relationships, and our politics, and our work, and our resources, and our future?”

In this season of Easter, we confess as a church loud and clear that all these things are true. But we don’t root that confession in our own powers of believing. Instead, the Holy Spirit now makes Christ physically present in us by faith. We, too, are disciples who are confronted by the evidence, the testimony of witnesses, and the living presence of Jesus among us. Jesus opens our eyes in the breaking of the bread and our minds in the proclamation of God’s Word in our midst. Our hearts burn with recognition, and our vocation is to share that news with others.

Next time, more on worship and witness as the Body of Christ.

References and Resources

Behr, John . The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Journalen JJ:167 (1843), http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html].

Lose, David (1). http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/.

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-4.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.