I often get help, though a sermon starter resource, with writing a “catchy” current introduction to the week’s message. Back at the first of March, as I was planning the messages for April, the suggested title of “Putting the ‘FUN’ In Funeral” seemed – for wont of a better word – fun and one that would catch people’s interest. This was, of course, before headlines like the following began appearing daily:
-Global Corona Virus Cases Top 1.5 Million As Economic Toll Continues
-Dr. Fauci: Virus Death Toll in U.S. Could Reach 100,000 to 200,000
-‘Chilling’ Plans: Who Gets Care as Washington/New York State Hospitals Fill Up?
-U.S. Jobless Claims Exceed 6.6 Million For Second Week in a Row
A mere six weeks ago, the global economy was bursting with growth. Stocks were soaring. Our globally connected world felt invulnerable. Most of us were already making plans for our summer vacations. To hear Paul speak in 1 Corinthians 15 of death as, “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) hardly seemed relevant. We’re all doing fine on planet earth.
But despite our scientific and technological prowess we can’t conquer the profound fragility and vulnerability of life on this fallen planet. As we’re all discovering with profound humility, our global economy and supply chains are deeply fragile. Our relationships are fragile. Our political process is fragile. The rapid spread of the virus overwhelmed some of Europe’s most advanced medical systems. The director of a hospital in Spain, traumatized by the images of the emergency care unit where he works, confessed that “we have sinned from too much confidence.” Our bodies and even life itself are deeply vulnerable not only to death but to what the writer of Hebrews called the “fear of death” that makes us “subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).
So there I sat this week with a sermon hook that seemed far less workable than it had a month ago. And yet, the message itself that I had running around in my head seemed just as important now has in had back in early March – if not more so. What to do? Unfortunately, though the President and the Governor can close down schools and events and have them open later; and league commissioners can postpone sporting events, no one is going to push Easter back from April 12th.
Then the Lord pointed out that the premise was valid, it was the initial execution that was weak. Of course, that’s not the first time He has said that to me. The idea, originally, was that it is getting harder to tell the difference between a wedding and a funeral. These days (pre-COVId-19) people are having “destination funerals” and in some places funeral directors prefer to be known as “death care providers” with less of an emphasis on death and grief and more on a celebration in general. Indeed, many funeral homes now have event planners on staff and they’ve removed the drab and creepy funeral parlors and replaced them with dance floors for upbeat life celebration parties. Some have even applied for a liquor license to enable the party to really get going.
But that was then (a six week ago then) and this is now (a COVID-19 has surpassed all other causes of death in the U.S. now). But the underlying point is still valid and that is that the trend toward “fun” funerals is disturbing; as if, by turning funerals into a party, was doing its best to ignore death.
More than one pundit has suggested that we live in a death-denying culture. We try not to think about death too much until it happens to someone close to us and, even then, we share a toast, say a few words, put up a few pictures, laugh at old memories and then do our best to go on with our lives. Grief can be managed with therapy, the pain will eventually go away. It’s all about getting back to being happy again as soon as possible.
And we have seen that reality played out even in the midst of this global pandemic. On March 17th, right after many states had asked people to stay at home, avoid large crowds, and only go out for necessities, bars in several major cities had people lined up around the block waiting to get in to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
California, New York, and Florida ordered state-wide lock downs and the weekend following those orders the beaches, farmer’s markets, and nightclubs were packed. Students didn’t let thousands of deaths stop them from enjoying their Spring Break activities. Some even looked directly into the lens of a news camera and said they didn’t care because it was an old person’s disease. All of them were saying – by word of deed – that it’s best not to think too much about death.
Uh, no. That’s not why we’re here this morning – even if is by video. The truth is that Easter isn’t about sentimentality, spirituality or the generic celebration of life. Easter, instead, confronts us with the in-your-face reality of death. If we had become too normalized to death to see it, Easter reminds us that death isn’t normal — it’s not a friend to be embraced or an event to be celebrated. Death is not a simple transition to a new life, nor is it a blissful transition to rest in heavenly splendor. No, death is a destructive, insidious force, not to be reconciled to, but to be reckoned with. As Paul says in I Corinthians 15:26, death is not a friend but “the last enemy to be destroyed.”
Oh sure, Easter is a party, but we need to make sure we’re partying for the right reason.
It’s not death that we celebrate on Easter, but rather death’s destruction. It’s not spirituality that we behold; it’s the physical reality of a human body that was once dead now being alive. It’s not a sentimental metaphor, but a historical truth claim that we must deal with today — a truth that, if we really believe it, will shake us out of our complacency and complicity with death and cause us to reorient toward the life we were created to live from the beginning.
It’s not about putting the “fun” in funeral, but putting the “un” in funerals — as in negation, the end, the cancellation, the destruction and final victory over death.
It’s that reorientation of life that we see at work here in Acts 10. The spotlight is on Peter, whose attitude toward death had undergone a transformation, moving from the bold claim that he would gladly die for Jesus (Luke 22:33), to being so afraid of dying that he claimed to not know Jesus at all (Luke 22:54-62).
It was Peter who ran to the empty tomb in response an unbelievable report that Jesus had been seen alive (Luke 24:12). Then, Peter confirms the report! (Luke 24:34). Peter had seen death up close and personal and it was no picnic. Because of his encounter with the risen Jesus, however, and seeing death beaten, he was more in the mood to party.
It was God who extended the invitation to that party, and it was a party to which everyone was now invited. As Acts 10 opens, a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius had a vision in which God commended him for his prayers and giving to the poor (v. 4). The angelic messenger told Cornelius to send for Peter who was staying in Joppa and to invite him to come to visit. This was an invitation that Peter would normally politely refuse as a pious Jew because going into a Gentile home and eating Gentile food would make him unclean.
But the next day, Peter had his own vision of a party — a feast lowered down from the heavens to which God invited him. The feast contained unclean animals that Peter rightly refused, but a “voice” corrected him saying, “What God has made clean, you must not profane” (v. 15).
As if to reinforce the message, Peter got the visionary party invitation three times (v. 16). When Cornelius’ messengers arrived, Peter took the hint and went with them, stepping across the threshold of a Gentile home and inaugurating the kind of party that would have previously been unthinkable. And it was all because of the defeat of death accomplished in Jesus Christ.
That’s what Peter tells Cornelius and his household. “God shows no partiality,” says Peter, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (v. 35). God had sent out that message through Israel, but it was now open to everyone, Gentiles included; a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that “all the nations of the earth” would be blessed through his family (Genesis 12:3). Jesus was the embodiment of that promise, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, doing good and battling the work of evil (v. 38). Peter had been a witness to all that Jesus said and did, and although Jesus had been crucified, “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (vv. 40-42).
Peter, in other words, had partied with the risen Christ. It wasn’t feasting at a funeral but feasting over a new kind of reality. Now that feast was going to be extended to Gentiles like Cornelius. The Holy Spirit fell on the household and all were baptized (vv. 44-48).
Don’t miss the irony here. Just a few weeks prior to this, Peter was terrified that a Roman centurion like Cornelius would find him hiding and nail him to his own cross, just like Jesus. Peter had feared death. Cornelius had likely dealt in death himself at one point in his career. Now they were dining together, partying like it was the dawn of a new creation. Which, of course, it was. When death is defeated, so are the barriers between people and between people and God. What happened that day wasn’t an end of life celebration, but a beginning of life party!
This is what we celebrate on Easter, and it’s also the actual reason why we can celebrate at a funeral in the first place. Death is the one thing that is common to us all, as is the sin that causes that death. Christ has defeated both sin and death on the cross and in the empty tomb and He opens up this pathway to eternal life to all people, regardless of their ethnicity or their past. All who believe in Him and who respond to the good news with their lives have a secure future in a new creation. Yes, death still stalks us all, but it doesn’t have the last word.
That’s something to celebrate!