Sitting down to write this, I’m reminded of the memorial services I’ve attended recently — two in the past month. There was a time I preferred to be at a wedding rather than a memorial, whether I was the minister or a guest. Weddings were bright, cheery occasions by design, while funerals were supposed to be…well, funereal. Who doesn’t prefer laughter to tears, dancing to mourning?
But I’ve since changed my mind.
I know what it’s like to work with couples who bring serious issues into their marriage, and during their wedding service I would preach the nitty-gritty of real love between real people in the real world. But I would wonder if they were really listening. For all their glitz and glamour, weddings can be busy and tense affairs for those involved. Would the bride and groom really take what the Scripture says about love to heart? Would it help them persevere in their commitment? Despite the vows taken, the promises made, their future as a couple was open-ended, uncertain.
Memorial services — what are now often called “celebrations of life” — are different. Weddings, in a sense, are beginnings, while funerals are endings. Weddings celebrate the love a couple has now, hoping that such love is robust enough to see them through the tough times. But memorials celebrate a life that has already endured the tough times.
And for believers, funerals aren’t just endings, but new beginnings. For the faithful, the future isn’t uncertain. True Christian hope is not mere optimism, nor wishful thinking, nor the denial of grief and loss. We trust the promise that after death believers will be with Jesus and eventually live joyfully in resurrected bodies on a restored earth.
When we come together, therefore, to commemorate an earthly life that was lived gracefully, with love and humility, we celebrate indeed. We tell stories that bring not only somber tears, but knowing smiles, fond chuckles, and outbursts of laughter. We remember the gift that the person was to us and to others. We realize that there was so much more to them than any of us realized. We rejoice to think of them in the presence of Jesus, who knows their whole story and welcomes them with open arms.
And we look forward to the promised day of resurrection.
. . .
Among the many pastoral difficulties Paul faced with the church he planted in Corinth, one was that some of the people there had stopped believing in a future resurrection. Horrified, he tried to set them straight, reminding them of all the appearances of the resurrected Jesus, including to himself. It’s as if to say, These people are still around; if you doubt the resurrection of Jesus, just ask them.
But then Paul connects the dots. The past resurrection of Jesus is not only the core of the gospel message, it points forward to their own future resurrection:
If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. … If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else. (1 Cor 15:13-14,17-19, CEB)
In his letter to the Romans, he puts it differently: through baptism, we have been joined with Christ in his death, and “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5).
What Paul addresses with the Roman Christians, however, is different than what he was addressing with the Corinthians. The latter had stopped believing in the resurrection. But the former had twisted the message of the grace of God into a gospel of “anything goes”: sin doesn’t matter because God forgives everything. Here’s the context of Romans 6:5, the verse quoted above:
Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. … This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. … So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. (Rom 6:4, 6, 12-13)
Resurrection, in other words, is a past, present, and future reality. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter points forward to the future destiny of those who are in Christ. But in the meantime, there is what Paul calls “newness of life”: we are to live as people who have already been raised from the dead, to live as those who are no longer slaves to our sinful desires.
On this day, we rightly celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. With gratitude, we remember the promise of our own future resurrection. We shouldn’t have to wait for a memorial service to do that! But we miss much of the gospel if we think only of the past and the future of resurrection and not the power of resurrection life in the present. We are not saved just so we can go to heaven sometime after we die; we are saved to discover and demonstrate what newness of life means now.
May your Easter be blessed. And may resurrection be your truth every day of the year.