Sermon preached at the funeral of Sarah Whitson, Saturday, June 30, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; Psalm 139.1-11; John 11.17-27.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? While death came to our race because of human sin and rebellion and is a universal experience (cf. Genesis 3.1-24), it still serves as the ultimate poke in God’s eye because God created us for life and relationship with him, not death. That is one of the reasons we have such a difficult time dealing with death. Besides the obvious fact that death separates us from our loved ones, at least for a season, we know instinctively that death is so wrong precisely because we know we were created for life. Not only that, it is doubly hard to stand by and watch those we love grow increasingly infirm to the point of death. It sucks the energy right out of us and like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen.
But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you notice that Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in his letters to the Romans and Colossians, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because God bore the punishment for our sins himself so that we could be reconciled to him and enjoy life and peace in the way God intends for us (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.20-21). God’s love for us in Christ is so great that even death itself cannot separate us from it or from God’s life-giving presence.
We see tangible signs of God’s love for us in Christ in the various symbols that are part of today’s service. First, we remember that Sarah’s ashes were led to their place of repose by the lighted paschal candle and now rest next to it. The paschal candle is the great visible symbol that reminds us of the pillars of cloud and fire that represented God’s presence with his people as he led them out of their bondage to slavery in Egypt and remained with them during their wilderness wanderings despite their stubborn rebelliousness (cf. Exodus 13.20-22; Numbers 14.13-16). This serves to remind us that even in death God continues to lead Sarah and that God always remains faithful to us, even when are do not always remain faithful to him, so that we can trust his promises to us that in the cross he has conquered sin and death and that resurrection and new life in God’s new creation is Sarah’s destiny and ours, not death.
Second, we note that Sarah’s ashes are covered by a pall with its emblem of the cross. This serves to remind us that when Sarah was baptized she was buried with Jesus in a death like his so that she could also be raised with him and share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). The shroud that covers Sarah’s ashes reminds us that while her mortal body has died and will be buried, even now she is in the direct presence of the Lord of life as she awaits her new resurrection body that is patterned after his. Of course, the light of the paschal candle also reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection and all that is in store for those like Sarah who live and die in him. That’s why believing in Christ’s bodily resurrection is so important because we believe that eventually we will have a body like his when he comes again in great power and glory to consummate his victory over evil, sin, and death, and usher in his promised new creation.
Paul tells us about the nature of our promised resurrection body in his letter to the Corinthians and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever that looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new creation, which the writer of Revelation talks about in our NT lesson.
When the new creation comes, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively and which currently only intersect. Instead, as the writer of Revelation reminds us, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or death or pain or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. As I watched Sarah struggle with her infirmity and weakness during the last week of her life, I couldn’t help but stop and give thanks for the promise of new creation because it represents the very opposite of what I was witnessing in sorrow.
This is our hope and promise as Christians and it is the only real remedy to our grief and sorrow. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve her loss when death claims her. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. And of course Sarah had this hope. Whenever I visited her she spoke about wanting to sing and I have no doubt she is doing so right now in the presence of her Lord who loved her and claimed her from all eternity. She surely knows better than any of us the reality of the hope that is ours in Christ, thanks be to God!
So what do we do with all this? First and foremost we embrace our resurrection hope in Christ and let it comfort, heal, and encourage us. But Paul also gives us further instruction at the end of his letter to the Corinthians. After making a massive case for Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection of the body, and what our promised new body will be like, we would expect him to end by saying, isn’t this all great? Rejoice because you’ve got a great party awaiting you! But instead, he tells us to remain steadfast in our work for the Lord because we do not labor in vain. This suggests that by imitating our Lord and acting as people with real hope and purpose, we can be part of God’s promised new creation starting right here and now. One way we can show our love for God for all that he has done for us in Jesus is to wrap our arms around Peg, Bob, and their families as they grieve the loss of Sarah, not just for the immediate future but over the long haul. Doing so will allow God to use us as tangible signs of his love for this family in the midst of their grief and loss. It will also allow us to show the world that we really are people of real hope who believe Jesus’ promise to us that even though our mortal body dies, we live because he has conquered death, and that in his resurrection he has given us a preview of the world to come. That, of course, is Good News, not only for Sarah Florence Whitson, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.