(The Hill Baptist Church holds an annual Memorial Service at which we remember those church members who died during the last year. This is the sermon I will deliver today, October 26, 2008, at that service. The text is 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.)
We all know about death.
Over the years a pastor has the blessed privilege of being present with people in the final stages of life, sometimes even at that moment when a person takes the step from this life to the next. All of us have dealt with the deaths of loved ones; some of us have had close brushes with death ourselves. When we think about grief we naturally think about the grief we feel when a loved one dies. What do we need to say about death from a Christian perspective?
The Cost of Death
A death in the family is surely a crisis, for after someone dies things will never be the same for a family. Grief is surely the human reaction to the crisis for there is a severe loss to which we must respond and adjust. The critical nature of death is underscored by the cost involved when someone dies. Death is very costly to us because of what we lose when someone we love dies.
Death Costs Us the Presence of Another
You have heard it said that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but the saying assumes that the absence will be replaced with renewed presence so that the increased fondness can be expressed. Death creates a situation of absence which will not be replaced with renewed presence, at least not in this life. This absence makes the heart grow sad, and, if grief is not dealt with and worked through, it can make the heart grow sick. Death costs us a person, then, and that is a terrible loss.
It is a loss because people are loved. We do not live unless we love. There is no human relationship that can compete with the relationship based on love. Love is costly, though. Love necessitates the giving of ourselves to another person. There is the potential for great joy in that giving, but there is also the potential for great pain, particularly if the person we love dies.
“Grief is love’s inevitable price,” Chuck Poole has said [Don’t Cry Past Tuesday (Greenville: Smyth & Helwys, 1991), p. 68]. To truly know someone we must love someone, but human life being the temporary thing it is, we will lose those whom we love. Thus, to love is finally to grieve. Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his twenty-five-year-old son Eric to a mountain-climbing accident. He wrote a book entitled Lament for a Son that contained his reflections on his grief. In that book he contemplated the reality of suffering and concluded, “Suffering is for the loving” [Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 89]. Indeed. If we love we will suffer. If we love we will grieve. Death is a costly thing, for it deprives us of the people we love.
It is a loss because people are missed. As Christians we affirm the goodness of God’s gift of each other for whatever time we are together here. And we are thankful for the blessing of memories. But if we are honest we must agree with Wolterstorff who said, “The pain of the no more outweighs the gratitude of the once was” (p. 13). We miss the one who has died.
As Christians we also affirm the past resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future resurrection of those who believe in him. Therefore, when someone we love dies, we do not believe that we will never see him again. We believe that the messianic banquet will also be a family reunion dinner. Our problem is not vanquished, though, because even while we live in light of the “then” we live in the reality of the “now.” The one who has died is not with us right now. As Wolterstorff put it, “Though I shall indeed recall that death is being overcome, my grief is that death still stalks this world and one day knifed down my Eric” (p. 32). We miss the one who has died.
Death Costs Us the Illusion of Power
Death costs us the presence of another, and that loss is a very real, literal and physical loss. The person who has died is gone. Something else is lost in the death of a loved one, though, and its loss is perceived a little more subtly and not quite so literally, but it is just as real. This is the loss of the illusion of our own power.
The loss of the illusion of our ability to help another. Love is giving, and when we love someone, we expend much effort in helping the one loved. We want to protect her and we want to deliver her from harm. And we may have the illusion that our loving help will always be enough. But finally it will not be. Finally, all of our love and all of our help, even when combined with the best of medical technology, will not be enough. Death is finally unmanageable; it is beyond our control. It is a terribly frustrating experience to discover that we are ultimately powerless to help someone we love.
The loss of the illusion of our ability to help ourselves. The death of a loved one is a crisis event because we lose that person. But it is also a crisis event because it reminds us of the eventual loss of our own lives. Sometimes we manage to pretend that, as the saying asserts about diamonds, we are forever. Well, diamonds are not, and neither are we. The death of another hits us right in the face with the reality of our own mortality. We are not permanent, and we are not self-sufficient. “God helps those who help themselves,” we may have been taught and we may believe, but at the end we cannot help ourselves. It is frightening and it is frustrating.
Death really is the last enemy, and we cannot beat it.
The Christian Experience of Grief in the Face of Death
Therefore, the question is not do we grieve, for grieve we must. Death is too costly not to cause grief. The question for us is how do we grieve? We discover that we grieve as human beings do, so that there is a commonality with the whole of humanity in our grieving. But we also discover that we grieve as Christians do, so that there is a distinctive difference of progress which is potential in our grief.
We cling to the familiar and we journey into the unknown
When someone dies, it is a normal human reaction to cling to that person, refusing to let him go. We wish we could do so physically, but since we cannot, we do so emotionally. “I just cannot give her up,” we might say. When grief is processed in a healthy manner, one eventually moves beyond this stage of denial and of refusal to move on. It is possible to get hung up here, though, and to hold on to the past, even though the past is gone.
Then, grief is clung to even though it is painful. As William Oglesby has said, “However painful and distressing the present situation, at least it is familiar” [Biblical Themes for Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 150]. Our grief becomes what we know and we gain a kind of pained comfort from it, so we cling to it for all it is worth, which seems like a lot to us at the time.
Now, memories are good things. They are God’s gift to us to enable us always to have what we had. But they can become idols to us if we are not careful. As Christian families, we are little groups of believers. We must learn together to do things God’s way. We must not stay in Haran when God wants us to move on to Canaan (Gen. 11:32-12:1)! I do not take lightly the great difficulty in “letting go” (of a deceased love one or of an uncomfortably comfortable grief) and of “moving on” (to the assimilation of our memories and to living of a full life), but that is what we are called to do. It takes a lot of faith, which as Wolterstorff said, “is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you until you’re forced to walk out onto it” (p. 76). As humans, we want to cling to the past and to the familiar. As Christians, we walk faithfully into the unknown, for such walking is a basic part of the biblical experience in which we share.
We feel alone and we feel the presence of others
There is an isolation in the human experience of death. We may have many other people who love and care for us, but somehow when we lose an important person, we feel all alone, at least for awhile. But we are not alone. We do have the others who love us and who thus stand with us, sit with us, and cry with us. Others share our particular grief, and the larger human population shares the overall experience of grief.
Again, though, we are Christians. We are a part of the community of Christian sufferers. All of us who believe in Christ are in this together. We understand that we are to bear one another’s burdens. We understand that somehow in Christ suffering is transformed. We understand that in the sharing of suffering we are bonded together in community and in love.
But we understand something else, too: God is with us in our suffering! Somehow, God took our suffering upon himself: “We cannot explain suffering, but we can say that God took it upon himself to follow this way,” according to Alister McGrath [Understanding Jesus: Who Jesus Christ Is and Why He Matters (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987), p. 117]. As Wolterstorff put it, “Instead of explaining our suffering God shared it” (p. 81). And Wolterstorff, who obviously has spoken to me in profound ways, helps further: “God is appalled by death. My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death” (pp. 66-67). Here is a great secret known by the Christian that must be learned by all in our Christian homes: somehow, we are all in this together, you, I, and God!
We experience insecurity and we trust in the final victory of God
Death is the crisis above all crises, because it brings change above all change. Never will a family experience more instability than when one of its members dies. When such instability comes, it is a threat to our security, and we react with fear. We fear the implications of the death for our immediate future: what happens to me now? But we also fear the implications of our death (which is implied in every death) for eternity: what happens to me then?
Christians need to celebrate the good news: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” This greatest of all those enemies which threaten us, this thing over which we finally have no control, will be wiped out by our Savior when he establishes his complete reign. Everything is being subjected to him; everything is in the process of being put in its proper place. And one day, one glorious day, the victory of God will be won through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We may rest now, even in the midst of our human insecurity, in God’s security.
Yes, you and I know about death. We know that it is costly. It costs us those we love, and it costs us our illusions about ourselves. And you and I know what it is to grieve, to cling to the familiar, to feel alone, and to know insecurity. But you and I also know what it is to walk into the unknown in faith, to have the comforting presence of suffering Christians and a suffering God, and to trust in the final victory of God over death. Even in death, we believe—and we live!