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Sermon for Trinity 16

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ September 24th, 2012

 

Sermon on St. Luke 7:11-17

Trinity 16

For if we have been united with him in a death like his,

we shall certainly be in a resurrection like his. – Rom. 6:5

There are three traditional places for the liturgy of the Christian funeral:  the home, the church, and the cemetery.  These roughly correspond with the ancient funeral rite that Jesus interrupted in today’s Gospel lesson.  The funeral liturgy at home, the church, and the cemetery will teach us the good news that we have been united with Christ in death and in life.

I.

The liturgy of Christian burial begins in the home.  St. Luke does not record the events in the no doubt modest home of this widow at Nain.  According to Jewish custom, however, the following picture emerges.  After the boy died, his body would probably lie in state in the home, perhaps for one day, or maybe for three to four days at the most.  Mourners would come to the home and observe the body in its natural state.  The picture of the home at Nain is especially sad since it was the death of a young man and his mother was left as a widow.  Premature death was likened to the falling off of unripe fruit, or the extinction of a candle (Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, p. 152).  Death among older folks, however, was considered to be the death of strength.  Moreover, the widow was one of the lowest positions in society, a dependent with no one to depend on.  No wonder one custom, probably observed by this widow, was to rip a portion one of her garments, a symbol of mourning, and never sew it up again.  The scene at the home in Nain, then, was one of stark grief and grim death.

Our funeral liturgy does not always start in the home.  In modern practice, the body is usually promptly removed from the place of death, not to be seen again until the viewing, and that only after a full make-over.  There is nothing wrong with that per se.  However, we must realize the importance of grieving at the sight of the dead body.  Cremation and closed caskets keep you and yours from a very painful yet important ritual, namely, stepping right up to the casket to mourn the loss of an earthly brother or sister.  But we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  Rather, we see through our tears to the final resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  In our funeral rite, the first words the pastor speaks to the bereaved at the home (or the funeral home) are the following:

“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”

“Hear the promise of Christ, our Lord: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’” (LSB Agenda, p. 107).

The invocation recalls Holy Baptism, where we were forever united to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The promise that “I am the resurrection and the life,” etc., is richest and purest Gospel.  It reminds us, even at the death of a child, that those who believe and are baptized shall not die, but live.  And, like the widow and her newly raised son, we shall proclaim the praises of the Lord.

II.

The liturgy of Christian burial then transitions to the church or, in Jesus’ day, to a funeral procession that served as the funeral proper.  Even in a small town such as Nain, burials always took place outside the city.  The procession was very important, for it was an exodus from a previous life on this earth and the start of a transition to a new life in heaven for the deceased, and a changed life for those who had suffered loss.  Funerals in Galilee had a strict order of procession:  first came the women of the city, for it was through the first woman, Eve, that death came into this world.  An open casket or bier followed, with the body still visible, wrapped in various linens.  Hired musicians and mourners followed the casket, along with other people from the city.  This is where our Lord “ruined” the funeral at Nain.  Jesus and His disciples were coming to Nain as the procession was leaving it.  Courtesy dictated that they should let the funeral procession pass, or possibly join the people of the city to mourn the loss of a young man.  But the Lord of Life overruled death itself, much less ancient customs!  He stopped the funeral in more ways than one.  For not only did the local funeral home have to refund the funeral fee to the widow, but even more so, death itself was overrun by the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.  No wonder fear seized them all, and they proclaimed Jesus to be a great prophet.  And one can tentatively assume the processional of death turned on its heal, returned to the local catering hall, and raised their glasses to the gift of life.

Our funerals are rarely so interrupted.  The Lord promises the resurrection of all flesh, but for us, it is saved up for the last day.  Nevertheless, the hope of the resurrection, when we shall sit up and begin to speak God’s praises once again, permeates all that we do in the church funeral.  The pastor meets the casket and the mourners at the door of the church, just as our Lord met the widow and her son at the gate of Nain.  Romans 6:3-5 is read aloud as a pall is draped over the coffin:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (ESV).

These words of Romans 6 preach death and life in Christ Jesus, just as you have received the baptismal life of repentance (death to sin) and faith (new life in Christ).  The pall, usually radiant white and embossed with Bible verses on the resurrection, recalls the baptismal garment of Christ’s own righteousness.  And even the position of the body longs for the final resurrection.  The body is placed with the head at the west end of the sanctuary and the head at the east end.  So, if Christ should return during the funeral, the deceased can sit up facing the East, the place of sunrise and new life, to meet Christ face to face.  From baptism to the final resurrection, the miracle performed at Nain points ahead to the day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Choral Voluntary).

III.

After the liturgy at home and in the church, the funeral culminates at the cemetery.  As we know from our Lord’s own burial, the rich had private tombs, but the poor had modest plots of ground.  A funeral oration or sermon was delivered at the grave site.  A modest amount of spices might be used to anoint the body.  It was also important to see the body go into the ground, for it was returning to the very earth from which Adam and all men were made.  But even at the grave site, the resurrection was not far from the mind of the faithful.  There is a story, for instance, of one Rabbi who directed that he should be buried in shoes and stockings, and with a walking stick, in order to be ready for the resurrection! (Edersheim, p. 155).  Do you see how the funeral, though sorrowful and full of tears, also anticipates the final resurrection?  The shoes and stockings and walking stick for this Rabbi said that Christ Himself was coming to redeem these bodies, to re-create them in His own image, and to raise them from the dead on the last day.

The same faith goes with us to the grave.  The pastor, still vested, leads the body to the grave site, followed by the mourners.  Psalms, Scripture readings, and prayers preach the good news that the same God who created these bodies has redeemed and sanctified them in Christ.  And then, perhaps the most profound custom of recent centuries, earth is cast on the casket in the sign of the cross, while speaking the following words:

“We now commit the body of our [brother/sister] . . . to the ground . . . ;  earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”

Do you see how death and life converge in this rite?  The casting of earth on the body reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  But the casting in the sign of the cross recalls our Baptism into Jesus’ death for our sins, and a lifetime of receiving the benefits of His death in the Lord’s Supper.  And even after returning home and adjusting to life without a loved one, we take great comfort that Christ has put all things under His feet, that He is preparing a resting place for us, and He will raise these bodies to eternal glory.  “Young man, young daughter, I say to you, ‘Arise!’”

+ + +

Therefore, today’s Gospel Lesson teaches us the good news that Christian burial—at the home, in the church, and at the cemetery–is “the culmination of Holy Baptism” (Pless, GSI Proceedings, I:44).  Through Holy Baptism, you have been united in Christ’s death, for here sin and death were drowned to death.  And here, in this font, you have been united to Jesus’ resurrection, for you rose out of these waters to new life in Christ.  Perhaps the final blessing to one day be spoken over your body best summarizes the good news of the resurrection at Nain and of your own resurrection:  “May God the Father, who created [your] body; may God the Son, who by His blood redeemed [your] body;  may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified [your] body to be His temple, keep [the] remains of [your body] to the day of the resurrection of all flesh” (LSB Agenda, p. 130).

God grant it unto you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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