What should our attitude be to death?
As an Anglican minister I preside at a great many funerals, and only recently it occurred to me that Jesus, as far as we know, never presided or preached a sermon at a single funeral. In fact, he broke up every funeral he attended! If you were at a funeral in first century Palestine and Jesus was in the congregation then you had better watch out! He was the ultimate funeral ‘crasher’, for when the dead heard his voice they sprang to life, whether it was the daughter of Jairus, the widow’s son, or Lazarus being called forth from his tomb.
The raising of Lazarus is the last of seven signs or miracles in John’s gospel that point towards Jesus’ own death and resurrection. If you need a reminder they are:
- Changing Water Into Wine (John 2:1-11)
- Healing the Royal Official’s Son (John 4:46-54)
- Healing the paralytic at the pool (John 5:1-18)
- Feeding over 5000 people with fish and loaves (John 6:1-14)
- Walking on the water (John 6:15-25)
- Healing a man born blind (John 9:1-41)
- Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-46)
Seven signs that, as scholars tell us, perhaps echo the seven days of creation, with the eighth day — the resurrection of Jesus — being the start of a new week and a new creation. And despite the seven signs forming an overarching arc to the narrative of John’s gospel, and each miracle being selected for a reason, we must not forget that at the heart of each one is a very real, human story of friendships and relationships filled with every kind of feeling and emotion, including embarrassment, doubt, hunger, fear, pain, bereavement, and suffering.
Sometimes preachers try and super-spiritualise suffering, for example, Baptist pastor and evangelist Frederick Mayer wrote, “The child of God is often called to suffer because there is nothing that will convince onlookers of the reality and power of true religion as suffering will do, when it is borne with Christian fortitude.” For the record, I do not agree with this point of view, and I think it comes out of the prevailing idea that there must be a deeper or spiritual reason for everything, however, sometimes in life ‘sh…tuff happens.’ Bad things happen to good people, it is through no fault of their own, and there is no ‘divine purpose’ behind it, but of course, and absolutely, God can bring encouragement and hope out of even the most dire of circumstances.
When my niece committed suicide at the age of 15, our family were devastated. There were very real reasons behind her suicide but no ‘divine’ reason. It was not a punishment, nor the consequences for sin, and not because God wanted to ‘take her’ before her time. It was just awful — for her and for all of us. Standing with her parents and sisters at the graveside, on that damp winter’s day in the remote Scottish Highlands, it was the only time I have ever been unable to speak. I tried to offer her father some comfort, but the grief was so overwhelming I could utter no words. Yet, at her memorial service afterwards, Jesus was very present and his presence was tangible. You see, my niece had a faith, and over and over again people spoke of the impact her faith had had on their lives, and even close family members were so affected that they reassessed their own faith in the light of all they saw and heard. It was not my niece’s ‘calling’ to suffer in the way she did, but God managed to bring forth something beautiful out of the most tragic of circumstances.
There is a telling phrase used by Jesus in John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. We read in our Bibles that Jesus was, “deeply moved in spirit” or that he “groaned” or “sighed” or “was deeply touched,” but this is a gross misrepresentation of the original Greek which reads, “He was outraged in spirit.” Jesus wasn’t moved, groaning, sighing, or touched, he was angry.
When confronted with the death of my niece I felt every kind of emotion but I also felt angry — very angry. Angry that someone so beautiful, kind, and generous should go through so much pain that she had to take her own life at such a young age. Angry that I would never see her again. Angry that there was nothing I could do to help. Angry for the excruciating pain felt by her family. When someone we love suffers or dies, it was and is okay to feel anger.
Eighteenth Century minister, Matthew Henry, wrote, “the sickness of those we love is our affliction. The more friends we have the more frequently we are thus afflicted by sympathy, and the dearer they are the more grievous it is. The multiplying of our comforts is but the multiplying of our cares and crosses.” This is so true, therefore, what should be our attitude to death and suffering? As Anglican cleric and theologian John Stott reminded us, “Death is still an enemy, unnatural, unpleasant and undignified, yet it is a defeated enemy!” It is into the messiness and tangle of our human condition that Jesus steps, and because Jesus defeated death, he can be present in every aspect of our human suffering, and therefore be present at every funeral.
I have presided at many funerals and I will, no doubt, preside at many more, and I can tell you that if Jesus is invited, he is still the ultimate funeral ‘crasher’ and as I stand beside coffin, casket, or grave, I quote these words of Jesus with conviction, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
On that incredible day, the day of the seventh sign of John’s gospel, Lazarus was raised from the dead, but eventually he died again. Jesus promised that he would never die, and that we will never die, meaning that we will be resurrected, we will escape death, and one day we will seamlessly transition into the fullness of life, therefore, my prayer today is that, as you stand alongside those who suffer, or if you are bereaved, may Christ be present with you and assure you of the life-giving hope that can be found in him.
If I may, I would like to leave you with this prayer from the Anglican funeral service.
God of all consolation,
your Son Jesus Christ was moved to tears
at the grave of Lazarus, his friend.
Look with compassion on your children in their loss;
give to troubled hearts the light of hope
and strengthen in us the gift of faith,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
We have all encountered
pain, suffering, and the trauma of death,
have all been shaped by our experiences,
and carry the burden of them in our hearts.
Lord, we are but shadows of who we will become
at the day of our resurrection, when
we will continue into fullness of life in you.
Therefore, merciful Father,
grant that we might continue to have hope;
in your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ,
who conquered death and entered into glory.
Help us be confident of his victory
and claim his promises,
that we will never taste death
and that nothing will ever separate
us from your love.
Through Christ our Lord
We hold before you those that suffer
and those that are afflicted by the suffering of others;
especially those that grieve and mourn
at the loss of loved ones held so dear.
May your encouragement and hope.
burst forth like a flower.
May your presence be deeply felt
that they may experience fullness of life
in the here and now.
Bring them friends and family
who can comfort them,
and remind us how we can be the
loving support they need.
In the name of our merciful redeemer,
our Lord Jesus Christ
We thank you that you have not left us alone.
We thank you for our church family here;
who reflect your welcome, your inclusivity,
and your wonderful diversity.
Help us to shine like lights in your world;
proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord
and being witnesses to your unfailing love.
Help us to love you with our whole hearts
and to love others as you love us.
Help us do good to those that harm us
and help us to never give up loving
with all we have and all we are,
even when it is costly.
For when we were far off
you came to meet us in your Son.
You gave your all for us
and so we give you our all in return.
You are our God and we are your people,
and this day, we give ourselves in service
to you and to one another.
In the name of Christ,
our Saviour and Lord,