This is a funeral sermon I preached yesterday for a dear sister who passed away into the grace of God over the weekend.
Text: Romans 8:18-39
We gather this morning to remember a good friend, a mother, a mother-in-law, a Christian, a daughter of Christ. And though we know inwardly that death is part of the fabric of life, we do not look forward to it nor do we celebrate in it. Even though we testify that something greater remains for those who are in Christ, yet we struggle when it comes time to release our friends and family into the presence of our Lord.
The apostle Paul is aware of this and in our reading from Romans reminds us not to get too far ahead of ourselves and reject the very real suffering we do experience. And we do experience suffering. Yet, he says that this present suffering is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. So while there is suffering, and sadness, and pain, there is also a light, and hope that we can hold onto in remembrance and with a view towards future glory. But I will return to this...
...because Paul continues meditating on the theme of suffering. He points to the creation, the world around us. The world around us announces its own decay. In this way it is a sign of what is to be for us. There is a large willow tree bordering the property that the church owns. It is an old tree, and in wind or ice storms branches will often fall out of the tree. In worse cases, entire limbs will fall out. This tree is old; it is decaying and dying. Such is the way of life, and such is the example that creation gives to us.
But embedded within creation is a glimmer of hope. In the autumn season, which we are in now, trees appear to die as they lose their leaves. Plants and flowers wither. Grass turns an ugly shade and stops growing. Yet this is only temporary. After a period of time, autumn turns into winter and winter turns into spring, and everything begins to grow once more. Trees blossom; flowers bloom; and grass regains its color. This is a sign of the hope to come.
But in the meantime, we groan. This is the word Paul uses to describe the decay of the creation around us. This is the word the apostle Paul chooses to describe the inner angst we feel that things are just not right. It seems that even when things are rolling for us, when we are at the top of our game--or even the world--that something within us...well, groans. We groan because we know things are just not right. We groan when we see death around us because it is opposite of what our feelings are--we do not want people taken from us, though we know they pass on to the grace of God; and we do not like endings, though we know that behind every Christian ending is a new beginning. So we groan.
But our groaning indicates that there is more than what we experience. We groan also because we know that God is calling us to more...but we wait while this “more” takes time to filter down to us.
And in the meantime, our groaning is done in hope. If it is our hope that saves us, that allows us to cast off once and for all this groaning, when do we experience that salvation? Surely we have the firstfruits of that salvation now, but we will not fully experience until we, too, have passed through death. Hope that is seen, after all, is no hope at all. So we must wait patiently for this hope to be made known among us.
Yet, while we wait, we root our hope in the Spirit of God that dwells within us. It is the Spirit through whom we share in the spiritual firstfruits. Now, firstfruits is an agricultural word that describes the very first, the freshest, the newest of the harvest. It is a forebearer of what is to come. And because we know that much, much more is to come, we celebrate at the firstfruits we experience and share, as a sign of the greater things that will be.
And more than this, the Spirit helps us in our weakness! When we are weak, we are strong. When we are sad, we are happy. When we don’t know what or how to pray, the Spirit prays for us! And because God and the Spirit are in agreement, we come to agree with God through the Spirit!
So we are not alone in our grief and suffering. The Spirit of God travels with us, enlightening us, praying for us, and allowing us to share now in what we will share eternally! Thus we learn that in all things God works for the good of those who love. How can death be good? How can separation be good? How can decay be good? Because we know, through our experience of the Spirit among us, that these things are only signs of the end. We know that God has worked to defeat death. We know that God will bring more to us than we can ever imagine or bring ourselves.
God has called us for his purpose. He is in the process of conforming us. And he will change us. God is at work among us and through us so that even the painful process of death, and the grief and suffering that come with it, will not be all there is! He holds us together, he brings us together, he gathers us together as his people. As Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” No one! There IS no one to condemn us! There IS no one to bring charges against us, because we belong to God! There is nothing or no one to fear in death.
Though it sure feels hard right now, this is our reality. We are truly more than conquerors through--and because of--God who loves us. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is not without cause that the first word used by Paul to describe what we have conquered is death. Because of Christ, death has become not the end but a phase, or stop, in our journey. Through Christ we have overcome death because we have entered into the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is this love, the love of God that finds full expression in the life--and death--of Jesus, that we release our sister into today. She has gone ahead of us, experiencing fully the salvation of which we share only in the firstfruits. But her hope has been realized, and stands as a sign for us today to never give in, never allow the groaning we experience or the fears and anxieties that we have to get their foot in the door. Because we have Christ. And we have God’s love. And nothing can separate us from these truths.
In this funeral sermon, based on 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, I reflect on what it means to be home with God.
Read the sermon below, click on the file link to stream the audio, or right-click the link and select "Save As" to download it.
"Going Home" ~ 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
We know we are not at “home,” so we live in hope of “home” with confidence and faith that please the Lord.
We know we are not at "home" (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
In spring, trees bloom and flowers emerge from the ground. The growth is beautiful. Color returns to our yards and warms our moods after a long, gray, cold Michigan winter. As much as we enjoy springtime and the changes it brings, we know that these changes are not permanent. We know that they are part of a cycle, a cycle that turns season after season, year after year. Spring moves to summer, where long, hot summer days can result in withered flowers and scorched, dry grass. Summer gives way to autumn. In autumn, flowers die, trees lose their luster, leaves fall off, and the beauty that was seen in spring gives way to a barrenness that reaches from late autumn, all across winter, into early spring. The beauty of spring is temporary; it is a phase that is beautiful and wonderful while it lasts, but as they say of all good things, it must come to an end.
For Christians, life is a lot like these seasonal transitions. The beauty and wonder of our earthly life and in our early years gives way to fading glory as we grow older and experience the effects of aging. Yet, something calls to us within our lives, from an early age. Something beckons us forward, tells us that what we experience isn't all there is to life, that what happens to us now--how we grow older; how we experience the joys and pains of life; how we leave a legacy--is only a precursor to what happens to us later. Innately, we know that here on earth, in our mortal, physical bodies, we are not truly at home. Something within us groans and longs for our more perfect home.
This is why Paul teaches us "that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands" (2 Cor. 5:1). He's referring to death and what happens to us, not in our mortal, physical bodies but in our immortal, spiritual bodies. If we die, he says, or if we know that death is imminent, we also know that death is not the end. Death is not all there is. There is something more. There is a building from God. The "eternal house" Paul mentions is not a dwelling in heaven; it is the indestructible spiritual body God will give us when we go home to live with him. The superiority of this "house" is made clear by Paul's contrast to our physical bodies as a mere "tent."
For Christians, we believe it is God himself who places this knowledge within us. God's intent is for all--Christian and non-Christian alike--to have their mortality swallowed up by real life (2 Cor. 5:4). Real life, for Paul, is the eternal, spiritual life we share with God when he gives us our eternal house. We yearn for this eternal house. We want more; we know there is more. God teaches us there is more than what we experience now; that our deepest yearnings for something better are true. Paul says, "The one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Cor. 5:5). We know that God is faithful; we know that God has planted this hope within us because he has given us his Spirit. It's his Spirit within us--the same Spirit that serves as a deposit on our eternal house--that calls us closer to God.
It's this spiritual reality that our dear sister knew so well. She exemplified this attitude in her life. She knew 2 Corinthians 4:16 well--that "outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day"--and it caused her to live 2 Cor. 4:18 well--to "fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." While this world was her home and she had many good memories and experiences in it, she knew it was only temporary. She was called to a higher home where she would turn in the tent of her temporary dwelling here for a house that would stand forever on the shores with her Father. One of my best memories of our sister was a common one. When we'd visit, she would often mention that she didn't know why God was keeping her around. We'd talk about that, and we'd offer different reasons why God was keeping her around, but it was that very question itself that showed that she knew something greater was in store for her. She knew that God was not finished with her, and that God would keep his promise to give her an eternal home.
so we live in hope of "home" (2 Cor. 4:16-5:5)
This is why we live in hope. Our own bodies and the world around us teaches us that what we see is temporary. So, like our dear sister, we hope in what is unseen. In the bible, hope is not a wishy-washy word in the sense we commonly use it today. We say, "I hope the weather is nice this weekend," or, "I hope we can get together soon," and we mean this in a wishful-thinking way. In the bible, "hope" is concrete. It is a noun. It is something specific that we grasp. In the bible, hope is the promise of God that we will live with him forever, that we will be resurrected and given permanent, immortal, spiritual bodies--eternal houses. We believe this by faith, not by sight, because what we see around us encourages us to think differently. But our sister knew better--she lived by faith--and through her example we learn to trust what is unseen, to trust God, the giver of hope, who gives us a promise of eternal life, a resurrected body, and fellowship with him (4:14).
with confidence and faith that please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-10).
So we live by faith. Our sight is eternal, focused on God who is the giver of all good things in life. We live in confidence; by faith, not sight, trusting God our Father; and aiming to please him.
Our sister knew 2 Corinthians 5:10 well--that "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" to be judged for our earthly actions--and it caused her to live 2 Cor. 5:9 well--that we "make it our goal to please him."
Pleasing Jesus is, of course, the goal of our lives. It was the goal of our sister's life. In Hebrews 12, we learn that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. These witnesses are the faithful who have gone on before us, who have attained the reward God held out for them. These witnesses cheer us on as we remember their lives of faith. Their examples help to keep us faithful in following Jesus. We pass through life, moving towards Jesus, outgrowing our earthly tent and looking ahead to our eternal home, being surrounded by this great group of witnesses who have gone on ahead of us. We yearn for something better; they experience it. We long for home; they are home.
One of our sister's favorite things to talk about whenever anyone visited her was why God continued to keep her around for so long. She believed she had outlived her usefulness. We knew better. We knew that she continued to be a source of encouragement to many, and that God was very proud of her for doing so. Yet, her question also demonstrated the true desire of her heart--she longed to be rid of her earthly tent to receive the promised, eternal house from God. Now, she has finally received her heart's desire--she has gone ahead of us, preceded us, to wait for us to join her and God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in our true and permanent dwelling with God. She's home.