What Jesus Says at Funerals
People often say, "I don't know what to say at funerals." We can get some clue based on what Jesus says at the funeral in our text.
The first of three statements Jesus makes is, "Don't be afraid; just believe." Fear always mounts in the face of death. Really, and perhaps rightly, we never grow much beyond that little boy or girl finding a dead bird for the first time. We can't get our head around that this person we just saw yesterday, we won't see today or the next or ever again like we once did everyday. We fear what we can't understand.
Fear also rises in our hearts because between us and death there's only the beat of our heart. I think people spend a lot of time avoiding that thought. At a funeral you can't. Everyone is gathered because there's been a death, so fears rush in like gangbusters. And the closer you are to the death the harder and heavier fears come. Fear can reach an insanity pitch when the loss is, as in the case of Jairus, an only child.
What does Jesus say at such a funeral as this? "Don't be afraid." Jesus says that you don't have to go on being afraid. Death claims you're at its mercy. Death proudly marches into your life saying, "I can take anyone I please. And who I take I never give back." Jesus says you don't have to be afraid of Death. The facts would argue otherwise. Science would tell you, "No Death is right; once it has you you're gone for good." Others would agree. Jesus doesn't.
Jesus says at funerals, "Don't be afraid; just believe." Your faith is not to be based on what you can understand, know, feel, or think possible. It's to be based on Jesus and what He can do, has done, or promises. No one gets to heaven and hears Jesus say, "You shouldn't have believed in Me so much; you had too much faith." How could that ever happen if as Paul says Jesus does far more than we ask or even can think?
We wither in the face of Death. It exposes that we are no more enduring than dust when it's all said and done. But Jesus isn't just dust but the Creator of dust. Death announces at this funeral, "Your daughter is dead! Why bother the teacher anymore" implying He can do nothing. But what does Jesus do in the face of Death's pronouncement? He ignores it. We can too. We can go by what Jesus says rather than what Death proclaims.
This was quite an intense funeral. Mark says people were "crying and wailing loudly." Luke says, "All were weeping and bewailing her." Now it's true; it was common to hire professional mourners. Even the poorest felt obligated to have a minimum of 2 flute players. Matthew reports them being present. However, the fact that professional mourners were there doesn't take away from the intensity even as the presence of a professional funeral director doesn't diminish our grief.
At this intense funeral where grief is thick, heavy, and sharp since the death had just occurred, Jesus announces. "The child is not dead but asleep." To us Death is a wide river which we have no means to cross and can't even see the other side. Not to Jesus. To Jesus, Death is a sleep, a nap. The dead are no farther away from Jesus than a sleeping person is from us. Moreover, as easily as we can raise the sleeping Jesus raises the dead. We use a gentle word and perhaps a touch to get the napper up, and that's how Jesus gets the dead up.
Can you see why Jesus says, "You don't have to be afraid of Death?" Are your afraid of going to sleep? Do you panic when your loved one takes a nap? Even if you had a Rip Van Winkle who slept for 20 years, it would be because you let them. You might miss them, but you'd be assured of seeing them again and know that anytime you wished you could wake them.
This is Jesus' power over all the dead of all times. Anytime He wishes He can raise them. On the last day, He will raise them all. That means the likes of Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett, Steve McNair, and Ed McMahon will all rise, and this is where things get really interesting.
But first back to what Jesus says at funerals. He says, "I say to you get up." We confess in our Catechism, "On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead." This is a powerful statement. Ecclesiastes says that no man has power over the day of his death, yet we say the Man Jesus has power over the death of all men. The issue is not whether God can do this. Of course, He can. The issue is whether Jesus can because only in Jesus is God's power and might safe for us.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As true God Jesus could not and would not have died, but by taking on our dust He took on our being able to die. But Death is the wage sin pays. Jesus had no sin. There was no reason for Jesus to die. He was innocent even as Pontius Pilate 6 times declared. Jesus lived a perfect life. No one could point out one thing Jesus ever said or did wrong. Scripture says though He was tempted in all ways just as we are nevertheless even in His thoughts He was without sin.
Yet Jesus died. Jesus soul separated from His body. Jesus heart stopped beating; His lungs stopped breathing, and His blood stopped flowing. But Death didn't take Jesus. Jesus gave Himself to Death for our sakes, in our place. Jesus died the Death we all should fear: the Death of a damned sinner, one without mercy; one heavy with guilt and shame. Imagine the few sins you do remember that can still bring guilt to your soul and color to your face; imagine dying with the guilt and shame from just those few sins. Jesus died under a mountain of guilt and shame from a whole world of sins.
Jesus rode our flesh and blood all the way into the grave, but because He was also true God Death couldn't swallow Him. He only died because He pled guilty to our sins. Once He paid for them in full, Death had no right to hold Him, and as true God, not only couldn't Death hold Him, it had to spit Him out. Where the Divinity of Jesus goes, so goes our humanity because our human nature is forever joined to His Divine nature in Mary's womb. Paul says succinctly, "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Everyone from Able to Zapata will rise on the Last Day.
But not everyone rises to everlasting life; some, most rise to everlasting death. What determines that is not what you hear on the Last Day but on the days before it. Jesus speaks to sinners dead in their sins, "I forgive you," and they rise. Sinners dead in their transgressions are no more moving His direction than the little girl in our text was. That little girl was stone cold dead. There were no brainwaves; there was no blood flowing through her eardrum to transmit sound waves. She was dead as a doornail; dead as rock; dead as can be. Yet, Jesus spoke words to one who could not hear, and those words converted her to life.
Do you see the parallels between resurrection and Absolution? Jesus speaks in both. In raising someone Jesus speaks to the dead and behold they come to life physically. In forgiving someone Jesus speaks to the dead in their sins and behold they come to life spiritually. On the Last Day, Jesus will speak His Word of resurrection to all the dead and all will come alive physically. Before the Last Day, He speaks it to very few. With the Word of Absolution it's different. On the Last Day, it is not spoken, but before the Last Day He speaks it to all.
I ran too far ahead too fast. Let's back up. Jesus is recorded as raising only 3 dead people. In all 3 accounts Jesus limits His Word of Resurrection. Here it's, "Little girl, I say to you, get up." At Nain it's, "Young man, I say to you, arise." At Bethany Jesus raises by name, "Lazarus, come out!" If Jesus hadn't been specific, then His Word of resurrection would have raised all the dead within earshot. Think of that at Bethany. Jesus spoke in a graveyard. Had He not only spoke to Lazarus all the dead would have come forth at once.
St. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians that on the Last Day, Jesus "will descend from heaven with a cry of command" and all the dead will rise. At that moment what counts is not the word of resurrection calling all the dead but whether a person has heard the Word of absolution calling all those dead in their sins. All the dead whether as famous as Michael Jackson or as obscure as the homeless will rise, but life only comes to those who heard and believed the Word of Absolution before they died.
The Word of resurrection is limited before the Last Day. As I said Jesus is recorded as raising 3 and Paul and Peter only one each, so it's not likely that you're going to be at a funeral where Jesus says, "Get up." However, the Word of Absolution is unlimited right up until the moment the last trumpet sounds. That Word of Absolution that sends sins away for Jesus' sake can be spoken to anyone dead in their sin and guilt with no hope other than a long life here and a sudden entrance into the hereafter.
You know the joke about what people want to hear at their funeral? One says, "I want to hear that I was a good father." Another, "I want to hear that I defended my country." Still a third says, "I want to hear that I lived a long, long life." Finally one guy says, "I want to hear, Look, he's still breathing.'" That might be the next best thing to hearing Jesus say at your funeral, "Get up," but both are a far cry from hearing now, "I forgive you in Jesus' name." Because hearing that now determines what the pastor says at your funeral and Jesus says afterward. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (20090712); Mark 5: 35-45