Several months ago, I attended a vaguely Christian funeral. It was Christian in the sense it had familiar elements of our faith: a Bible reading, a short sermon and a cross adorning the hall. Yet it was vague because I left uncomforted and unconfronted by the substantive truths of our faith. The guests came and went without hearing the gospel. Our hope of seeing the dearly deceased was not articulated beyond the ethereal mention of faith, hope and love.
What a missed opportunity! Here, in a room full of grieving people seeking comfort; here, in a hall full of souls staring at a dead body, wondering when it will be their turn in the casket; here, where the elephant in the room is: How on earth can a good God permit suffering such as this?
Preaching a funeral sermon is not an easy gig, and I want to acknowledge the preacher’s efforts. However, I really wish he had bolstered the sermon with the real, good hope of Christ. I wished I had heard the following:
A Grounded Hope
People attending funerals are looking for hope. At a funeral, even the most hard-hearted person hopes that she will see their loved ones again. For Christians, we do not have to wonder. The answer, for Christians, is a confident yes. The apostle Paul describes those who die in the faith as merely being “asleep” (1 Thes 4:14), as those who are waiting for the Lord to come to them again (1 Thes 4:16). Our earthly death is not final—there will be a life to come, a waking-up of sorts, for all of mankind (1 Cor 15:54), and for those in Christ it will be a waking-up to eternal life—a good, glorious and peace-filled one.
Furthermore, this hope is not just based on sentimentality, or untested, wishful thinking regarding an afterlife. Paul grounds our hope in the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul says that just as Jesus was raised, so we will be too (1 Cor 6:14). Just as Jesus lived after death, so we will too (1 Cor 15:20). Perhaps the greatest dismay one can experience in a funeral is to be offered hope that is tentative or unsubstantiated: hoping for the best, hoping for what might be the case, hoping in something we don’t know and can never find out.
To this, Paul says “Nonsense!” God’s word has spoken. In Christ we can be confident that we, like him, will live beyond our earthly days (1 Cor 15:23). We can be confident we will see our loved ones again, and be reunited with his people and our God in everlasting joy (Rev 21:3). Dear preacher, please share this hope with the room full of grieving people: please tell us about Christ, about what he has won for us on the cross and about what paradise awaits those who put their faith in him (Lk 23:43).
Sensitivity Towards the Pain in the Room
Whilst we can be confident in Christ as our hope in life and death, there is no room to be triumphalistic when we are so close to death, pain and suffering. A better posture to take is that of sorrowful hope. The Bible is replete with examples of how to hold these two emotions in tension, most notably in the Psalms and in Lamentations. Hope, nonetheless, but one punctured with lamenting, waiting and yearning. God’s word is big enough to deal with our heavy, conflicting emotions and our torn hearts. For the fact is, whilst our loved ones are at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8), they are away from us; we are left here to cope with their absence.
The Bible does not remedy suffering and pain by discouraging us from grieving. Rather, it instructs us to “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). So, we still grieve, just differently. We celebrate our loved one’s reunion with Christ, whilst lamenting their departure from us. We feel at peace that they are no longer suffering, whilst crying that the only things left of them are our memories. We feel joy and pain simultaneously. A comforting sermon should aim to both acknowledge our grief, and yet comfort our hearts with the truth of God’s ever-present kindness, even in the midst of pain and death (Lam 3:22–24; 2 Cor 1:3–4).
An Invitation to Believe
What about the unbelievers in the room? Death forces all of us to ask the hard questions. As cancer-ridden Augustus Waters notes in the famous YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars: “pain demands to be felt”. And, if I may add: this is true no matter who you are.
In a room full of hurting people, this is an opportunity to share the hope of the cross—that through the death of Christ, we may now have life; that in our overwhelming sense of our loss, we have a Saviour who stepped down into the pain, to bear our suffering (Isa 53:4), to suffer our loss, to empathise with us (Heb 4:15) and to walk alongside us through the deepest valleys (Ps 23). We may even go so far as to say there is no life apart from Jesus (Jn 14:6). Of course, we need to find a way to do this sensitively, but we must not let the challenge of approaching this issue delicately hold us back from even attempting to share it at all. What a shame if people left the room not hearing about our Saviour and what he came to do for us.
I don’t envy a preacher’s gig when it comes to funeral sermons. I can appreciate how curly it is to pull together a sermon that is sensitive yet truthful. But what a marvellous opportunity the preacher has to speak into such a tender moment. Dear preacher: rather than beating you down, may this be an encouragement to you. May your efforts be blessed by God to soothe the pain of the suffering, offer rest to the weary and bring many to know the Lord Jesus, who made a way out of this gnarly mess called death, not only for himself, and for all who would believe in him (Jn 3:16).