Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Death is an awful thing. It tears apart all that God intended to be together. It separates the body from the soul. It separates people, in relationship with one another, from each other. One classic western movie says it like this.
It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. (Bill Munny, Unforgiven, 1992, IMDB.com)
Death can even separate us from God forever. Those who have no relationship with God in life will be forever separated from him in death. Eternal death is forever punishment in hell. God’s just punishment for rejecting his love and care.
And here we are, on All Saints Day, suffering the separation that death brings. And if you doubt me, just look at our long list of names on The Role of the Saints. We are separated from these loved ones and we mourn their death. To be sure, we don’t mourn, as St. Paul says, as those who have no hope. These have the glorious advantage of being with Christ, awaiting for the resurrection of the body, just as we are waiting for the resurrection of the body. This is the great hope of our faith, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
There are always lots of questions when we talk about death. Especially, we want to know about our loved ones who have died. God’s Word does not give us all we want to know. But it does tell us these things. The dead in Christ are “with Christ”. Remember Jesus comforting the thief next to him as they faced death together. “…today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And Saint Paul says the same thing. Death involves separation from the body, but being with Christ.
Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8, ESV)
And additionally, he adds in Philippians (1:23), to be with Christ is “far better” than merely earthly existence. He is talking about the absence of the effects of sin, fear of death, pain and suffering and trouble. The dead in Christ are with him. They have no cares about the sinful world. (Isaiah 63:16) They do not communicate with the living. They do not return to this world. (Luke 16:27-31) Martin Luther was reluctant to speak about this intermediate state, but he spoke of the soul that is alive, at rest, and fully aware of Christ’s presence and blessing.
And finally, God tells us that those who have fallen asleep in Christ are looking for the resurrection. (Revelations 6:10-11) Their redemption is finished but not yet complete. They (and we) will not live in eternity as disembodied spirits. But in our newly created, perfectly human, physical bodies. That is the ultimate Christian hope, the reason Jesus was born, lived, died and resurrected. Christians long for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. In fact, when the question of those who have died is discussed in scripture, most often it is deferred to a discussion about the resurrection.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, ESV)
Notice how he says we should encourage each other on the question of “those who are asleep”. Encouragement is found in the second coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead and being together with Christ forever in our resurrected, human bodies.
And so, as means of encouraging each other in the face of the separation caused by death, let’s talk some more about the resurrection of the body.
One of the best places to see the importance of the resurrection is at a Christian funeral. The typical Lutheran funeral is packed full of references to the resurrection of the body. In the best funerals our readings from God’s Word and our hymns highlight the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. Easter hymns are particularly nice at a funeral. And there is good reason for that, it is this very encouragement in the face of death. The service begins as we cover the casket with a big cloth called a Pall. It’s a reminder of God’s promises that those who have been baptized into Christ are promised what our Lord achieved, the resurrection of the body. We read St. Paul’s words of encouragement as it is draped on our loved ones coffin.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3–5, ESV)
The promise of Holy Baptism is a physical, bodily resurrection like Jesus.
But my favorite encouragement comes at the cemetery. We carefully take the body of our loved one to be placed in the grave. And we again hear readings that comfort us with the promise of the resurrection. If you have never gone to the cemetery committal service I would encourage you to do it next time. I like Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 15 read at the grave.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:51–57, ESV)
The resurrection is indeed the greatest of all mysteries. Our bodies die and decay in the ground, our souls are with Christ, and yet God will raise us to our changed body that will last forever. That which is mortal, that is our currently sin racked body that is subject to death, will put on immortality. Death is swallowed up in Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection. Death has no victory over us because Jesus has died on the cross to suffer our eternal punishment, our separation from God, and we have been given the victory, that is the resurrection of the body. Sin is what gives death its power, and sin is dead in Jesus death, eliminated in Jesus’ resurrection.
In death our soul and body are separated. The wages of sin is a harsh reality that God hates. But it is the necessary curse of sin. (Genesis 3:19) Death is terrifying because it is a tearing apart of that which God created to be eternal, the human person, in both body and soul. So much of the worldly philosophy that the physical world is unnecessary or somehow evil has crept into our theology. We Christians place the body in the grave with great care, for God’s good keeping until the resurrection. It is a part of us that will be restored. It is not a shell to be lightly cast off. The promise of God is that we will live eternally, physically in our same body.
Listen carefully to the culmination of the graveside service:
We now commit the body of our brother/sister to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.
May God the Father, who created this body; may God the X Son, who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be his temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen.
Death is our lot. It is the wages of sin. We will suffer the separations caused by death until our Lord returns. Come, Lord Jesus! But, we have the promise of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We have the promise of a joyful reunion with those who are asleep in Christ. We have the promise of being with our Lord, Jesus Christ forever. The Crucified One has risen from the dead to make it so. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.