This past weekend I had the sad honor of presiding over the funeral service for my Grandma, Judy Johnson. She was a wonderful woman who lived a rich, long life. It was indeed a challenge to capture her life in a few words–a challenge made all the harder by how well I knew her. Fortunately, her faith was solid and she’s with Jesus so I have no worries or fear about that. What I did want to share with you, though, is what I said. Thank you for reading this. I pray it might offer you or someone you know the comfort that can only be found in the Gospel.
Now, I said a little while ago that we were going to be reminded of the hope we who are followers of Jesus have in this time. Let’s do that now. As I was thinking through a passage of Scripture that really captured this moment, this hope for all of us, God made clear the one He wanted to share in light of all of this. I know this because as I started praying about it, this passage popped into my mind. Later when I was talking with my mom about the Scripture I planned to make the focal point of our time together this afternoon, she said, “Oh, good, you got my note about having just shared that with Mom over the past couple of days.” Except, I hadn’t. She hadn’t said a word to me about it. I hadn’t even seen where she had posted about it on Facebook. It was one of those moments when you just know this is something God is doing.
The fact is, there are a lot of places in the Scriptures that offer hope and perspective for a season such as this one. I’ve preached quite a few funeral services and have used a whole variety of Scriptures for them. But this time a passage came to mind that I’ve never once used before. I’m really not sure why I haven’t. I’ll probably come back to it many times after today. The passages comes in the second letter we have that Paul wrote to the believers in ancient Corinth. Second Corinthians has a different tone to it than his first letter to them does. First Corinthians deals with a whole host of issues that, frankly, leave us scratching our heads, wondering what kind of people they had in that church. They were a mess. The second letter, though, having mostly addressed the triage issues, focuses on some weightier matters and big picture aspects of being a committed follower of Jesus. About the middle of the letter or so, Paul turns his attention to the future and offers some reflections on what we have ahead of us as followers of Jesus. Specifically, he reflects on what’s going to happen when these bodies finally wear out and we die. Given the level of persecution and affliction he faced, these were matters that were very much present on his mind and heart.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul says this: “Therefore we do not give up.” Just before this he was talking about the frailty of our human bodies in light of the various trials and tribulations we face. He calls us jars of clay. And when these vessels finally break down and wear out, we have the assurance in the resurrection that we will be given new bodies that won’t be limited by such frailty as we know now. Because of that, we don’t give up in our pursuit of Christ. He didn’t stop there, though. “Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.”
Listen: Judy’s body wore out. It was broken. It was frail in ways you who haven’t seen her recently can only imagine if you’ve been with someone else at the end of their life. Her mind wore out too. As frustrating as that was, though, there was a mercy to that in a way that, frankly, reflected her character. As her dementia steadily advanced, she couldn’t remember things like what she had for breakfast, what you talked about with her even five minutes before, or even that she had been in terrible pain the day before. But she rarely forgot people.
As important as our bodies are, though, in terms of being foundational to the substance of our humanity, we are more than just our bodies. We have spirits as well. And though what happens to the body can certainly affect the spirit, there’s no one-to-one correspondence there. Judy’s faith was rock solid to the end. It was rock solid well before the end as she waded through a host of trials and tribulations over which she had no control stretching back to well before even my grandpa died. And because of that, her spirit was renewed day by day.
She faced her challenges with the same outlook she had lived the rest of her life: With a strong faith in God and a positive outlook. Just like a fire refines a precious metal, revealing its inner strength and beauty, the last years of constant, debilitating pain in Grandma’s life revealed her inner strength, her faith in God, and this most amazing quality of never even once uttering a complaint about that pain. She set a constant example for anyone who cared to look of how to walk through the very tough, even seemingly impossible times with grace and poise. You reflected on it, and then moved on to the next thing. She wasn’t a martyr, either. She was an example.
She understood what Paul says next: “For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” You see, the thing about Paul’s understanding of what makes us human is that we can just see the part that’s temporary, the part that wears out. But, there is another part to us that won’t. It will last forever. And we can feed and draw strength from that part even when the temporary part is failing. We who are left can be encouraged that even though what we see is wasting away—has wasted away—there is another part of a person whose state of being is not revealed by what we can see.
And yet the temporary part of us does indeed eventually waste away. And so we naturally long for that to not be the case. We grumble about the inconvenience of feeling badly. We rage against the inhumanity of disease. We stare with dumbfounded horror at a body being consumed by frailty. And apart from Christ, we have no answer to any of this. We try to avoid experiencing it or seeing it or even having to think about it if we can help it, but we can’t escape it. This death clings to us in spite of our best efforts to stave it off. This may all be rather morose, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Apart from Christ.
In Christ, we have something different. Paul talks about that next. Listen to this: “For we know that if our earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands.” Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we know that we have a permanent dwelling waiting for us when the day arrives. We have waiting on us a resurrection body that will not break down or wear out. You’ve heard that before, but let it sit on you for just a second.
Think about all the aches and pains we face on a daily basis. Consider the sheer level of chronic pain experienced by my grandma over the course of the past nearly 20 years. Consider all the trials that Paul himself faced and would later detail to the Corinthian believers in this same letter. It’s quite a list. It’s no wonder he said, “Indeed, we groan in this tent, desiring to put on our heavenly dwelling, since, when we have taken it off, we will not be found naked. Indeed, we groan while we are in this tent, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed so that mortality may be swallowed up by life.”
Can you feel the weight of his words? Haven’t you shared in his groanings? Do you understand what he’s saying? Let me do a bit of record-straightening. It’s common for folks to talk about someone who has died in the Lord as now being in Heaven. If by Heaven we mean the final destination for the saints, then we’re mistaken. If by heaven we simply mean the presence of the Lord, then we’re right, but more careful language would help us communicate what we mean rather than something we don’t.
When these bodies expire, we who are in Christ will go to be with the Lord. That’s what Paul gets at a bit later when he says, “In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” But, until the final resurrection of the dead that John describes toward the end of Revelation, we will not have this “eternal dwelling in the heavens” Paul is talking about here; we won’t have our final resurrection bodies. But what we will have is relief from all the aches and pains of this world. We’ll have relief and we’ll be waiting with eager anticipation for the day we’ll become whole and complete for the obvious reason, but also because on that day, as Paul had earlier written to the believers in Thessalonica, we’ll be reunited with our loved ones who remain in our earthly tents for a permanent reunion.
In other words, what we can say with absolute assurance is that Grandma isn’t hurting any longer. Her mind is clear. Her spirits are lifted. And she’s waiting for the day when she will get to see all of us who are following the same Jesus in whose arms she is now at ease with an anticipation that eclipses even what we feel right now because she’s that much closer to it than we are. That’s a powerful hope.
But hear me well: It is a hope which apart from Christ we cannot enjoy. Absent the indwelling presence of Jesus in our hearts we can say what we will to try and ease the nagging burden of death, but there’s no comfort to be found there. We may look to other things to replace or distract us from the weight, but they will fail us and we’ll be left having to run from place to place and thing to thing just to avoid being crushed by the anxiety of it all. That’s no way to live. Literally.
Fortunately, life can be ours for the taking. The same hope that carried Grandma through all she faced over the course of her rich life can be ours. In Christ.
Let me say one more thing. It is somewhat appropriate that her journey came to an end in the way and time it did. She went home in Christ one day before the church season of Lent. Now, I’m not much for liturgical traditions. I didn’t grow up with them here and haven’t incorporated them into my ministry since. I can’t think of when I’ve ever intentionally celebrated the season of Lent. But, I do know what it is. Lent is a season of preparing and remembering. It calls believers to remember our mortality, the very burden under whose weight we just saw Paul talk about groaning. We remember not only our mortality, but the mortality of Christ Himself who drank the cup of suffering and death the Father gave Him to its very dregs. But the reason He drank it, is so that we don’t have to. We don’t have to because three days after He downed the final drop and was laid to rest in a tomb, He rose from that tomb, destroying death forever for all those who are willing to receive the gift He now gives. In all of this, we prepare ourselves for the joyful exuberance of Resurrection Sunday, of Easter.
In the same way, Grandma has now received the cup that all people experience in this world while our Lord tarries, but she didn’t have to drink it. Her body failed, her earthly tent finally rotted away, but her spirit is with Christ with whom she is preparing for the grand celebration that will come on the final resurrection from the dead. In the same way, we who remain wait for the same. My encouragement to all of us is to be preparing for it. Do the things now that will make that a day of joy as you are reunited with Judy and all those who have gone before you in Christ. Do that and receive the hope that is truly hope; do that and live the life that is truly life. Then you will be able to say with the great hymn-writer Philip Bliss that no matter what tragedies and trials life may cast my way, it is well with my soul.