Only the Gospel Will Do: Saints and sinners in the shadow of death

He was such a saint. A deacon for two terms and an elder for eight, Uncle Joe spent his life serving others. Sometimes he preached at the jail and at nursing homes, and no one questioned his right to do so. In fact, no one ever spoke ill of Joe. Most people just quietly appreciated the good he did and enjoyed his subtle sense of humor. If there were skeletons in his closet, no one ever found them.

Uncle Joe died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven on his way to visit a friend in the hospital. When his family met with the minister to plan the funeral, they told him to remember that the "other" cousins would be there. They were referring to Joe's cousin Arnold and his family, the ones who had left the church twenty-seven years ago when Arnold was excommunicated. Arnold drank too much, gambled, and embezzled money at work. He did time in the state penitentiary, but he wasn't penitent enough to convince the elders to lift the ban. So Arnold left the church, and his brothers and sisters left with him. But, for this event, Arnold's family would be present—the family sinners would attend the funeral of Uncle Joe.

What should the preacher say when sinners attend the funeral of a saint?

Four years later cousin Arnold was killed in a boating accident on one of the weekend outings for which he was infamous. The funeral would not be in a church, his family said. The funeral home chapel would be just fine. In spite of the excommunication, Arnold's family asked Uncle Joe's preacher to "do" the service. A collection of sinners from his family, friends, and acquaintances would be there. The cousins from the saint side of the family would also attend.

What should the preacher say when saints attend the funeral of a sinner?

Only the Best News

How does a minister preach for sinners at the funeral of a saint? And how does a minister preach for saints at the funeral of a sinner? Let "saints" and "sinners" stand for believers and unbelievers; what does a minister say in those situations?

One thing is needed at any funeral: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we gather in the presence of death, only the best news will do. At a funeral, whoever comes—saints, sinners, believers, unbelievers, believing doubters, doubting believers, everyone—needs to be evangelized by the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Everyone needs the incredible news that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." That is the news that unbelievers still find incredible and that even the most veteran believers can never quite get over.

Preparing to preach at a funeral will take into account many factors. A funeral for a six-year-old child who was killed suddenly in an accident will be quite different from a service for a ninety-nine-year-old person who prayed for three years for death to come. The deceased person's life, faith, character, failures, and achievements will influence what is said. The needs of the people who are expected to attend will also make a difference. But none of these factors determines the message. The message may come from only one source: the news of Good Friday and the Third Day.

Death, People, and God

Three factors call for the speaking of the gospel at a funeral: death is there, people are there, and God is there. These form the matrix in which the good news is spoken.

Death is there.
Like witnessing birth, standing in the presence of death is awesome. Life was given; now it is taken away. The beginning of life is ablaze with wonder, and the end of life is shrouded in mystery. Neither birth nor death can be fathomed by neat formulas or reduced to reasonable explanations. Death is there in the form of a lifeless body. It has the power to strip us of all of our illusions of self-sufficiency and immortality. In the presence of death, we know that we will die. The mystery of death cannot be tamed either by veteran saints or hardened sinners.

It was Sunday, January 1,1989, the First Sunday after Christmas. The Epistle for the day (Cycle C, Common Lectionary) was Hebrews 2:10-18. It includes the wonderful news that "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who has the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." (vv. 14-15). I did not want to merely talk about the fear of death; I wanted to create it. So I called my friend Mr. Michael Johnson from Brown Funeral Home and asked if he would bring a casket to church before the service and place it in front of the pulpit. The casket was left open so that, upon arriving, worshipers could see that it was empty.

Fear and panic seized the people as we gathered for worship. Later I learned that some people arrived, saw the casket, and went home. The fear of death stood in the way of worship.

Before the lessons began, I addressed the congregation: "When you came to church this morning and saw this casket standing here, were you afraid? I think you were. I hope you were. And if you were, you are my sister or brother."

Before the lessons were read, we closed the casket and placed a pall over it. The sermon about Jesus, our flesh-and-blood brother, was spoken to deliver us from bondage to the fear of death.

At a funeral, death is there, not in the symbol of an empty casket, but in the form of a dead body or in the remembering of the deceased. And death destroys our illusions of self-sufficiency and immortality.

People are there.
People who are casual acquaintances, coworkers, friends, or intimate family members are there. People are there who have experienced the failures and accomplishments, the virtues and the vices of the deceased. People are there who have been believers in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as long as they can remember. Others are there who either have never heard the good news or have grown cynical and distant because of bitter experiences with life or the church. People of all sorts are there in the presence of death.

God is there.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is there. The God who said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" is there for people who know in the presence of death that we are all poverty-stricken. The God who came in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ to deliver us—who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage—is there. The God whose Spirit of power accompanies the gospel of truth is there. God attends the funeral.

Only the Gospel Will Do

Because death is there, people of all sorts are there, and God is there, it is time for hearing the gospel. The matrix at a funeral service that makes the good news necessary is the matrix that makes it possible. Everyone at a funeral needs to be evangelized. Everyone—whether they have been "believers" for eighty years, or have grown cynical, distant, and bitter, or have never heard the news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— everyone needs the gospel.

If there is any time or place in which believers can identify with unbelievers, it is at a funeral. There believers know what unbelievers need because they need it themselves. It is the time and place where the issues of life and death are sharply drawn. At a funeral we know that if we are not "saved" by the grace of Another, there is no hope for us. At a funeral believers say, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief," and unbelievers grope for the words to say, "Lord, I do not believe, help my belief." At a funeral, believers know what Peter meant when he preached about Jesus and said, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The we is important. At a funeral, everyone needs to be saved. Everyone needs the gospel.

So how shall we preach at the funeral of a saint when there are sinners present? And how shall we preach at the funeral of a sinner when there are saints present? About the same way. Yes, the circumstances of the death, the life of the deceased, and the characteristics of the gathered congregation will make a difference in how the gospel is spoken, what emphases are sounded, what words are used, what stories are told. But when death is there, people of all sorts are there, and God is there, it is time for the good news: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only that news will be adequate for believers and unbelievers alike—each of whom may be doubting their faith or facing their unbelief in the presence of death.

At a funeral—more than at any other time—preachers need the reminder of Joseph Sittler: "That's what a sermon is for: to hang the holy possible in front of the mind of the listeners and lead them to that wonderful moment when they say, 'If it were true, it would do.' To pass from that to belief is the work of the Holy Spirit, not the preacher." (Gravity and Grace. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986. p. 63.)

Yes, in Jesus Christ, God has overcome death for us. That is the gospel truth that some people at a funeral may experience as merely "the holy possible" while others will celebrate it with joy. God gives life instead of death. He awaits us on the other side. It is the news that people who already believe and people who cannot yet believe both need.

If saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers, believing doubters and doubting believers all leave a funeral service saying, "If it were true, it would do," then the gospel has been heard, the seed of faith has been planted, and Jesus Christ has been glorified by being "lifted up."

At any funeral, only the gospel will do.

Roger Van Harn was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 24 © June 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.