At that time, Jesus went to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” – Luke 7: 11-16
I will be living a funeral for my Father in Law today. I once heard a preacher mention that Jesus ruined every funeral he ever attended. That sounds rather trite, but perhaps we too easily pass over the truth hidden there. There is power in the Gospel of the resurrection that we tend to ignore because we don’t see it as reality that applies to us. We usually think of resurrection being limited to Christ, and his resurrection being the only one that matters, for it brings us salvation. But, we fail to remember that Christ is the first-born of the dead, not the only born. The power of the Gospel does not rest solely in the resurrection of the savior. It rests in the fact that the resurrection of the dead includes each one of us. This is part of the Christian faith that is mostly forgotten. It needs to be reclaimed.
How many sermons have you heard lately on our own bodily resurrection? Almost none I would dare say. Most preachers usually make no reference to our own resurrection. Instead they proclaim that belief in Christ grants us “eternal life in heaven.” At most funerals the resurrection of the departed is rarely mentioned. Instead we hear such things as that the departed is now in heaven, or they have gone to a better place. Such statements may contain some measure of truth, but we do not die simply so we can go to heaven.
The truth of scripture is that we are not to grieve as those who have no hope. Instead we are to grieve as ones who have hope because we believe that our departed loved ones have not died, but only fallen asleep, and that they will be restored to us in body on the last day. This is the ancient and most vital part of the Gospel of Christ, and is displayed in the very name of the places we use to bury our dead – the cemetery. Cemetery comes from the Greek word koimeterion, which means a sleeping place or dormitory. It is the place we take our loved ones to sleep, until the time has come for them to rise.
Kallistos Ware describes death as a separation that is not a separation. The living and the departed are part of a single family of faith. The Church is those who have already died, those who live now and those who have not yet been born in all ages to come. Remember the words of Christ, God is the God not just of the living, but of both the living and the dead. The distinction between the living and the dead, to the Christian mind, is a false dichotomy. This is why the Christian Church has for so long insisted on the burial of the dead and abhors cremation or any destruction or desecration of the bodies of the dead. God became man and by so doing sanctified the physical world and the human body. The truth of our faith is that Christ has destroyed death, it no longer has power over us. We do not die. We merely fall asleep and one day everything, including our bodies, will be made new.
Bishop Ware describes death in the Christian sense as the dissolving of the present union of body and spirit so that God may shape us anew, and then re-unite body and spirit at the resurrection on the last day. This is what is described, he notes, in the funeral service of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the following prayer:
Of old Thou has created me from nothing
and honored me with thy divine image.
But when I disobeyed Thy commandment,
Thou hast returned me to the earth from which I was taken.
Lead me back again to Thy likeness
Refashioning my ancient beauty.
I love this image – of death being simply a falling asleep and during that sleep being renewed by the hand of God. I cannot wait to someday see my Father in law again refashioned into his ancient beauty.
May it be so.