and what the Church’s Job Is
This past week we buried a family member; this week we will continue to bury the homeless and homely, the rich and the wonderful saints of God. I have done and do funerals as part of my work as a priest, but occasionally as a family member or friend I sit in the pews, and this shifts my perception. This week left me rung like an iron bell.
This week left me sure that a good explanation of what we are doing in a funeral and why you should have one in a church are necessary, not least because we gave a Christian burial to someone who was never really a Christian, but a good human being, and I am not sure anyone there really could say why we were there.
The Exposition (Where the author takes a long time to lay the groundwork for something more interesting.)
Jesus was the Son of God, according to what we believe, right? So he comes to inaugurate and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, or Rule of God. That Rule is already present in heaven, hence why we pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is the will of God lived out.
What is the will of God? That we live as we were intended from the beginning of Creation, as God’s image bearers, the children of God. We were to incarnate the love and care of God for the creation, and one another in companionship. That went wrong right from the beginning, as the nightly news attests, it still goes wrong.
We are made to be God’s stewards of creation. We were made for companionship and cooperation. But we go grasping after power and knowledge. This is clearly part of our nature. The story may be Scripture but it is also an accurate description of the human condition and growth. And just like in the Bible, we are not forsaken as we leave the Garden, but we have to find new ways of relating to God and each other. Law is introduced after failure.
Law is supposed to reveal a larger picture, a vision of God, humanity and creation. But we get stuck. We have to be born again, in Jesus’ words from John. We have to begin again in relationship to God, our separation forgiven and redeemed, set free from the bondages we inherit. As we get set free, we become full human beings.
I grew up with the need for salvation, but not much beyond that. This is the interesting part to me. We get set free, or brought up in freedom if we are blessed enough to be brought up inside the Rule of God. We get to begin again in new relationship with God. Now we are not newborns. We begin again with our now shaped brains and bodies, souls and habits. We have to learn how to live as human beings in relationship to God. We have to learn how to take care of the creation and how to love each other.
It is sad that after almost two thousand years, we still get so inspired by Paul’s and Peter’s and James’s letters. You would think that we would keep growing up, but that too is part of the story. In those letters we learn how they taught these new people to live into this new reality.
The Rule of God is a way of talking about the reality that God’s way is revealed in Jesus. God’s character is love and care, and God’s vision is a healthy creation and humanity that lives in right relationship to each other. You can see this in the Law of the Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament.
The idea of God’s Rule came to be located then in the Temple in Jerusalem. That created the classical problem of the location becoming the point, rather than the reality the location represents.
So Jesus is said to be the new Temple, see the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. He brokers God’s forgiveness and blessing, healing and restoration in his miracles. He incarnates God as the Temple had. The Spirit descends on him at his baptism, just as the presence of God had on the Temple.
The Gospels then have Jesus breathe on his disciples (John) passing the Spirit on to them, or sending his Spirit on them (Luke), or appearing to them to give them his blessing and authority (Matthew) telling them to go and make disciples, baptizing them into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This authority is sometimes called the name or the peace of Jesus or his disciples.
The disciples become the temple: brokers of forgiveness, blessing, healing and redemption. This is the most missed turn in the New Testament by believers. We are supposed to do what Jesus did. Every Gospel, every letter, every thing in the New Covenant is leading to this. As a restored humanity, we become Jesus’ body in the world. We incarnate God.
Paul puts this beautifully in one of the passages from Romans that we read at funerals. “The world waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In the New Testament, there is no ordained priesthood. The word that gets appropriated as “priest” in our tradition is really presbyter or “elder.” The priest or high priest refers to Jesus and then to the church community.
We are a royal priesthood: royal because we are God’s children and heirs, priesthood because now we stand between God and humanity. We represent God to the world and the world to God.
The Point (Where if one knows the author’s theology well, one should begin to read with some attention again.)
So it is appropriate and right for the church to bury people as an act of offering their life to the God who will receive them. As the priesthood, we are to love as God loves and embody the grace (forgiving and redeeming love that is not earned) to the world, especially at the moments of life and death.
We should be crying out to God for grace and mercy, as the prayers of our services do, and we should be crying out to the families and friends of the deceased to not wait to receive this grace and mercy because it is available right now. Be set free and born new to begin again and join in the freedom and life of the believer! But also, O God, receive a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
I sat in the pew this week and was a little put off that the priest in charge had chosen to wear purple-black velvet vestments, a shroud of mourning worship. But I was also shocked that he buried the deceased as a Christian, when his life was never put under the Rule of God. There was appropriate mourning for a life cut short by bondage and addiction to drugs. There was appropriate celebration of the signs of his humanity, a loving kindness from the depths of his being.
The priest proclaimed both mourning and hope in his sermon. I was impressed by his willingness to tell the truth in front of people who don’t love truth.
But that is why we have funerals. We offer our lives and our loved ones up to the God who made them, loved them, and loves them. A God of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. But we are remiss when we don’t offer people that grace and love in this life, before they die. So the funeral has to be both worship and an act of love, even when love demands that we tell the truth.
You should have a funeral. It is not an act of hubris but humility. Our lives get placed under the story of creation, fall, and redemption. We get held up to the one who made us, loves us, and before whom we will all stand one day, for judgement and a meal (see Isaiah and Revelation).
Your funeral should be at the church. We are the people of God, even if we suck at it, which we do pretty often. God set us free and made us new, but God still left us human beings. We will probably mess something up. But we will stand with your loved ones and hold them up and love them, no matter what. We will love you too, in our imperfect way. And we will offer your life to God.
I hope you don’t wait until the last day or later to run to grace and mercy, forgiveness and healing. If you do we will be waiting with open arms and really good music. But oh that you would find grace and mercy now.
It takes a while to unlearn the habits of a lifetime, many of us exhibit this in clear ways. We are all still working out issues. That is why we make such vows in our baptism. It takes work to live in the church with other Christians. But we are a committed lot. We are still, after two thousand years, working out all that loving God, our neighbor, and our selves means, much less caring for the creation. But we keep at it. Join us. We need you.
The Rule of God is your home. You were born to be God’s child. Everyone comes home eventually. Don’t wait.
Take your place at the table, and taste the feast today. Think about it. God loves you and wants you to be the you that you are. God knows you. And God loves you. This was Jesus’s message, and now it is ours.