|Christus Victor (1450) by Fra Angelico|
I'm sure a lot of people at the service took comfort from Sister Caroline's story.
I, however, was not one of them.
Instead, I was stunned by how the poem's depiction of death runs so counter to the biblical picture, particularly the role death plays in Paul's gospel. According to Paul, death isn't "a welcome friend" or a dutiful servant carrying out the will of God. According to Paul, death is the enemy.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is retelling the past and forecasting the future of redemption. He first tells of Jesus's death and resurrection, and the apostles' mission to take that good news to the world (15:3-8). Then he begins to correct those in his Corinthian audience who reject the very idea of resurrection—"if the dead are not raised," he writes, "then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins!" (15:16-17) Not only has Christ in fact been raised from the dead, but, Paul points out, he is just "the first fruits of those who have died" (15:20). This is when Paul shifts gears and, instead of reminding the Corinthians of what God has already done, he starts to pull back the curtain and reveal some of the promises still to be fulfilled. Those who belong to Christ will also be raised when he comes again (15:23; see also Rom 6:5). And then
comes the end, when he [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (15:24-26)Death is an enemy—the final enemy!—that Jesus will destroy. "Death will be no more" (Rev 21:4). Obviously, Christ's work isn't done yet, but already, because of the resurrection, "Death has been swallowed up in victory!" (15:54; see also Isa 25:7-8) For Paul, death isn't a faithful servant of God. Death is the enemy. It's the wages of sin (Rom 6:23). We know this.
And yet, when we come face to face with death, we often tell ourselves a different story. We try to downplay the horror of what has happened by dismissing death as no more than a bridge to eternal bliss. When we come face to face with death, suddenly we cling to a different gospel that is all about rest in the hereafter and misses the whole plot of the Bible: the story of a God who sees how the devil and sin have wrecked this world and refuses to let that stand, a God who is doing something about it. Death would have locked us all in its dark pit, forever, and Jesus needed to beat that door down to set us free—so that's exactly what he did. (That's what I love about Fra Angelico's painting up top: the risen Jesus has knocked down the door to death's prison, and there's even an unlucky demon squished under the door.)
Even at funerals we try to get around the terrible reality of death, but in the process we misrepresent the gospel. We even inadvertently lay the blame for tragedies at God's feet! "God just wanted another little angel" doesn't put the Lord in a very good light in the eyes of a grieving parent. What a grieving parent needs to hear is the truth: 'This is awful. This is the most awful thing imaginable. It's wrong, and Jesus is crying with you right now. But he conquered death for your baby. He hung on the cross to win eternal life for your baby, to make sure this isn't how things end'. That is what we have to proclaim in the face of death.
I don't find comfort at funerals from being told that death is really no big deal, that it's a friend, carrying out God's will. Anyone who knows how much the death of a loved one hurts knows that death is no friend. Anyone who's felt the shockwaves of a suicide, a murder, an overdose, a car wreck, or cancer can tell you that death has nothing to do with God's good will for our lives.
What gives me comfort at a funeral is hearing that death is not what God wants for this world, and so our Father sent Jesus, who conquered death and sin, and "thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (1 Cor 15:57) What gives me comfort is hearing the gospel.
We don't have to dodge the awful reality and the hurt, because Jesus stood in between us and the very worst that death can do. We can face our losses and our tragedies because Jesus is our Savior. We don't have to misrepresent the gospel, because it's still good news, even in the face of death.
In fact, it's exactly the good news that we need to hear.