2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; John 11:25-26, 14:1-3
This is the third and final sermon in this series about Death. How should we as Christians understand death and prepare for it? It is not a pleasant topic, especially for polite company. Have you ever shared a meal, let’s say at Golden Dawn, and started up a conversation with, “Linda, I’m interested in what you think about death? Friend or foe?” Or “Say, are you scared of dying?” Not likely.
However, the Good News, addresses this subject fearlessly and bids us to escape from the prison of superficiality to look deeply into the face and death without fear. Death is a great mystery and one that a superficial and narcissistic culture finds inconvenient and painful. We avoid it like we do passing gas in public.
In my ministry I have met many good people who have, with heavy hearts, buried a loved one whom they know never confessed Christ as their Lord and Savior. Tragic deaths often have played a role in someone losing their faith. Let me address it nagging question that just will not go away.
What about the death of someone who doesn’t know Christ? Family and friends are anxious to be assured that the person is all right. The possibility that their loved one died outside the faith and therefore is doomed to Hell bothers them. I remember the 1991 Canadian film Black Robe. It was the story of a Jesuit priest who journeyed along the Hudson River to the Huron Mission to bring the Gospel to the Huron Tribe. Algonquin Indians served as their escorts as the priest and his French guide canoed along the river. This young priest befriended the Algonquin chief. They never quite connected about religion. They lived in two different world views and spoke different languages. Later in the movie the priest begged the old chief to accept Jesus Christ and receive Christian baptism so that he might go to paradise. The Chief considered the offer but asked, “Will my people be there? Will my ancestors be there?” The priest hesitated and replied, “No, they will not.” The chief replied, “Then I do not wish to go there myself.”
Is that the Gospel we preach and believe? This raises a very real pastoral concern this morning. The last two weeks I spoke about dealing with death. I talked mostly about those who die in faith, those who have made a profession of faith and confessed Christ as their Savior. Of course our hearts are comforted by the good words of Jesus. Because of the promises of Jesus we have reason to commit them to God and we believe the promises that they are “absent from the body” and therefore “present with the Lord”. Many here have laid their loved ones to rest with that assurance.
I have preached at many funerals for persons who have not died with any clear witness of faith or attachment to church. Some have died in despair without hope. I buried folks who were unbelievers, bitter, hateful people, but they were still loved by someone. I have preached the funeral homily for several suspected suicide cases. I still have the pastoral duty to offer comfort for those who grieve. Our hearts can’t help but wonder: What about them? What hope can we have for them? Let me try to give you my answer, as best I can and the one by which I am willing to stand before God.
We cannot pronounce any final judgment or determine anyone’s final state
It is never my job to pronounce anyone ultimately lost. That is beyond certain knowledge of any human being. Jesus took the rod of judgment out of human hands forever when he said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”
I cannot determine the state of a person’s heart. I do not know the darkness and inner despair with which they wrestled. Only God can make the right and correct judgment. Only God sees all and will judge with righteous judgment, taking all the facts and experiences into account. Before God all hidden things become open and every secret thing brought to light. God weighs the motives and intentions of the human heart. Paul wrote about how incisive God’s judgment is:
“God…will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”. Paul also wrote, “This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. Romans 2:6-7, 16. The secrets of the heart are exactly that which none of us can see. They are known only to God. But even for the wicked, for the fools, blasphemers, the atheists, unbelievers and idolaters this I can say: We can commit them with confidence to the God that judges with absolute fairness and with more than fairness, with mercy. God knows them thoroughly and if there is any way for them to be saved, they will. God hates nothing that he has made. Christ died for the unjust and the ungodly. Christ prayed for those who drove the nails into his hands “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
We cannot place limits on the Love of God
We cannot place limits on the love of God. God’s love is boundless; God’s wills to save, God’s love is all inclusive. I have no authorization from God to assign anyone to eternal damnation. That is beyond the range of human judgment. It is better to leave all judgment to the God whose love is without measure. I can say this: without Christ we will lack the certainty and comforts of his promise in this life. We will wonder. But because we know that He is good and that His essential nature is love we can trust Christ to do what is right.
We can commit our loved ones to the safekeeping of God in good confidence that if anyone is ultimately lost, they deserve it. God is absolutely just. If any are saved, they did not deserve it. God is absolutely merciful. It is grace and grace alone that anyone is saved. If anyone stands in grace, it is purely by the deep, deep love of God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ who died for all and who loved and loves all.
This truth relieves me and you from making final pronouncements. My job is not to threaten with Hell, but to point to Christ. He is the one who came as to a far country to demonstrate how deep the love of God is: even enemies can be reconciled. He died to save sinners and to call the unrighteous to repentance and faith. I can only point to him as the one in whom we find the clue to what God is like and what God is doing.
John Wesley, the 18th Century Church of England priest and revivalist preached about the non-Christian and even the Muslim world. He preached: I have no authority from the Word of God to ‘judge those that are without’. Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them, who is the Father of the spirits of all flesh’; who is the God of the heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing he has made. Sermon: On Living Without God sec. 14
For those who do confess Christ, we have promises of eternal life. We can have freedom from the guilty conscience. Those who die without this faith, die without those comforts. They die without that certain hope. But still, we can trust God with our loved ones, even those who do not believe or who reject. God will be fair and merciful.
Facing our own funeral
A gentleman in the congregation I once served requested that I visit his distant relative in the hospital. I got the address and went to see an elderly woman whom I had never met. When I arrived at the hospital she was alone. I entered the room and introduced myself. Her eyes stared straight forward transfixed in a catatonic state. She did not acknowledge my presence. She didn’t even blink. I am not sure that she was even aware of my presence. So, I read a few verses from a familiar Psalm and then I said a prayer for her. The whole time her expression was stone. I placed my calling card on the night stand beside her bed and excused myself.
Some weeks later I received a call from a funeral director. He said, Rev. Crutchfield, Ms. Johnson expired and her family asked that you be the one to speak at her funeral. I wracked my brain to remember who she was. “I don’t think I know her,” I said. “You must have, you visited. You were the only minister who left a calling card by her bedside.” “Ah yes, I remember now. Does she have some family members with whom I can speak about the funeral?” “Well, there are three sons. One is very ill and in the hospital now. One is already en route from Tennessee. There is one left in a neighboring town in the next state. You may be able to contact him.” The funeral director gave me the number. I called. “Mr. Johnson, I am Kim Crutchfield the pastor you requested for your mother’s funeral. I am sorry for your loss. Will there be a good time for us to get together to discuss the funeral service?” “That is sort of hard to do, really. I don’t have the time.” I was stunned. But I persevered, “Perhaps we could discuss it over the phone then?” “Yes, that’s much better.” So I gave him my usual beginning. I try to help get people talking about their loved one. Sometimes they have repressed their sorrow and only need the right question to open the door for flood of grief that needs to come out. So I said, “A funeral is a thanksgiving service. We will thank God for the life of your mother. What are some memories of your Mother that you are thankful for? I want to weave those memories into my prayers and the homily.” Usually people begin to call up memories of their loved one. They usually start talking and have trouble ending. But instead there was an icy silence. After a few moments he said, “You know, pastor, you have asked a hard thing. I can’t think of anything about my mother that I am thankful for. She was a mean woman and didn’t have any use for anybody. She never wanted to have anything to do with us or her grandchildren. Besides, I haven’t seen her since 1957.” That took my breath away. I thanked him and said that I would plan the service as best I could. I hung up and thought, “This will be a love of God sermon.”
Apparently his words were true. The brother who came from the south was a Christian; his wife a Lutheran Deaconess. They confirmed that she was not a nice person. She was reclusive and bitter and wanted little to do with her own children although they had reached out often to her. I thought, how sad; how very sad. The irony was that when they told the third brother about the death of their mother, he went into asthmatic convulsions and died. His funeral was the very next day.
But what would you do? What would you say if you were the minister? How would you preach the Good News to family about someone who died in bitterness with so many unresolved hurts? I cannot preach her into heaven. Nor is it my prerogative to pronounce her lost and in Hell. That is God’s business. I did however share with the people that we cannot place any limits on the love of God. I assured them that God’s love extends beyond the boundaries of the manifest church. I told them that the Father’s love may embrace those who have not yet embraced Him. I also made it clear that we are not the judges and we can trust the Divine Judge who has never made a mistake has never been fooled or hoodwinked. I also reminded them that there is nothing else we can do for her. She was gone. We can commit her with confidence to the God who loved her.
But I added that we can do something for ourselves. We can reflect upon our own life and take note of the footprints we leave behind. We have only one life. We will ourselves depart this life and what we did people will remember for good or ill. The love we showed or failed to show, the persons we helped or hindered, the kind words we uttered or the gossip and slander we spread will be there like footprints. The generosity we extended or withheld will be how people remember us. Will they breathe a sigh and say “good riddance, he will not be missed”? Will they say our lives inspired them? Will they think themselves better more noble people because they knew us? Will they say, “I understood God better because I knew Suzanne?”
What if we could write our own funeral sermon before we die? What if we could fill it with pleasant memories about our patience, our love, our hospitality? What if we could get it all down on paper, early so the preacher could deliver the homily in our funeral service? What would you write about yourself?
“Kim was a good man. He loved everyone and was generous to all. He always thought about others. Not an unkind word proceeded from his mouth”.
Would you write something like that and give it to the preacher of your funeral for the eulogy. Would others agree? Or would they know the preacher was telling little white lies about you? Well, we are writing our eulogy, our final funeral sermon, not with ink, but with our lives every day. We leave footprints every day. Maybe we should pray with the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)