Christ, The Risen Firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20)
- Christ. This isn’t just any human, but the God-man, Jesus. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary; the eternal Word who made our flesh his own (John 1:14), so that he could make our sin his own, take it to the grave with him, and defeat it by rising again in glory. His resurrection gives us a downpayment—a preview of our own resurrection to life.
- Is. Not a past-tense memory, but a present-tense reality. What we say about this Christ, we say in the present tense. He is risen, never to die again. And even more, this present-tense Jesus makes a future promise: the promise to return one day, to undo sin and the grave, and to usher in his kingdom in a remastered, remodeled, brand new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1).
- Risen. Of course, for Christ to rise, he first had to die. And in order to die, he had to have sin (Rom. 6:23). And in order to have sin, he had to take yours and make it his own (2 Cor. 5:21). And so, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, his ungodly enemies (Rom. 5:6-9). And on the third day, he rose. And still remains risen. In Christ we see the death of death.
All of that, and more, is bound up in Easter’s “Christ is Risen”. No wonder our response is “Alleluia!” God be praised, indeed.
But “Christ is risen” isn’t only a nice liturgical call and response for a blessed Easter morning. It is what informs all of what the Church is and does. As St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). Because Christ lives, he is able to make present-tense baptismal promises. Because Christ lives, he is able to put his true body and blood in his Supper for the forgiveness of our sins. Because Christ lives, he is able to daily send his Spirit through his proclaimed Word to create and sustain faith. And because Christ lives, he will return one day to bring his everlasting kingdom. We gather to receive Christ’s true and tangible gifts only because Christ is risen. We receive those gifts in the present, even as we long for the glorious future. We do not gather to hear mere memories or only historical facts, but to receive actual forgiveness through God’s Word and Sacraments. And our response? “Alleluia!”
In Life and in Death
The answer to that question is no doubt multifaceted. But there are at least three overarching theological reasons that we could discuss.
Contrary to popular belief, dying is not a part of life—at least not the life given by God in the beginning. God had created man and breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living creature (Gen. 2:7). Humans were created to be alive in God’s very good creation. It was only after Adam & Eve violated God’s will in their attempt to become gods themselves that death enters the picture. And it’s a bad thing.
In fact, it’s a curse. After doling out the curses upon the serpent and the woman, God speaks to Adam: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). God fulfills the promise he made earlier that “in the day you eat of [the fruit] you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). It’s no wonder that Paul declares that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is not an unfortunate accident. It is God’s curse upon sin. We die because we are sinful.
That death is bad actually fits perfectly within the overarching story of the Biblical narrative. Sin enters the world and therefore death. A promise is made to undo this terrible curse. Christ comes as the fulfillment of that promise, takes the sin of the world upon himself on the cross and that sin does what sin always does: it kills. But since this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, sin’s consequence cannot contain him. He rises from death, never to die again. Why? Because he has defeated the thing that pays out the wages of death. Not only that, he promises that those who are baptized into his death and resurrection are given the forgiveness of their sins. And with the removal of sin comes—wouldn’t you know it—the promise of death overturned. Resurrection. So while death will win the battle, it will not win the war. It is the last and greatest enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:26). Jesus will return on the last day to empty graves (1 Thess. 4:16) and usher in his deathless kingdom once and for all. And so Jesus and Paul can both describe the dead Christian as “asleep”, because they will one day wake up from death. “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” If death is bad, that is really good news. Indeed, it is the only news we have that is worth proclaiming.
But what if death is not seen as bad? What if death is the “doorway into glory”? What if death is a “beautiful release into eternity”? What if death is “going to our eternal home”? If death is not seen as bad, it’s no wonder that “Christ is risen” never shows up in a funeral service, for to say such a thing is only intelligible if death is our enemy. Instead, the focus is not on this person’s being in Christ and therefore their resurrection to life on the Last Day, but rather, inevitably on their temporal life in the present. We “celebrate their life”. They had a good go of it, and now they’re with Jesus. “The funeral is for the living, after all,” so we say. And so we gather, not to rehearse the remarkable drama of the Scriptures that take us from sinful death to resurrection life through the cross and tomb of Jesus. Rather we gather to enact a self-centered therapy session that will bring sentimental comfort to those left behind. The “action” of the funeral happens not in the Word of resurrection proclaimed in the face of real, nasty death, but rather in the psyche of those gathered as they remember their friend. This is how many say the person will “live on”: in our memories. And so the best we can come up with is to share stories about them, to sing their favorite songs, read their favorite poems, and eat their favorite foods. All of it is an attempt to make sense of death—and to do so by making it somehow alright. “Fred really loved to golf and drink Budweiser. There was this one time… Well, at least he’s with Jesus now, enjoying the best 18 holes of his life…” While such things may ease a certain (small!) amount of grief, is this really the best that the Church can say? Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them with Singing: the Christian Funeral (2009), notes the danger of such a perspective:
[A]s compelling as the needs of the grief-stricken family may be, a funeral is an event larger than these immediate needs, more encompassing than this family. Part of the power of a Christian funeral is that we do not do this alone; the funeral is not just a ceremony for a single family, to which guests are invited. It is a service of worship involving the whole church—indeed, involving the entire communion of saints—and it is a joyful duty of the church to reenact the promises of the resurrection on the occasion of someone’s death. One role of a pastor is to be sure that the witness of the gospel is not lost, this hopeful vision does not get whittled down to the small story of our private grief and mere personalism. (p. 145-146)
The words, patterns, and meanings of the funeral service transcend grief’s desire to curve in on itself. They allow us to journey outward and beyond with our dead to the place of farewell, bearing witness to the gospel and singing words of praise as we go. They do not bind us; they gird us. Pastors should be strong enough, loving enough, to do all they can, not to let their people miss the deep waters of healing by spending their energies languishing only in the shallows. (p. 148)
Consider the effects of this confusion when it comes to how we grieve in the face of death. If we ignore the very thing that the Scriptures point us to for hope, we will grab on to almost anything else. And because the Scriptures are silent about this state in between death and resurrection which we often call “heaven”, we are usually happy to fill in the blanks as we see fit: we become (guardian?) angels; we play harps; we float on clouds; we look down from heaven lovingly upon our family and friends and maybe even communicate with them in mysterious ways; we get to fish, play golf, crochet, read, or enjoy any other hobby for eternity; we get to see the impact we had on others while here on earth. Certainly the list could go on and on. None of these things are given to us in the Scriptures, but if you listen carefully at the next funeral you attend, odds are likely that these are the very things that will be dragged out as mourners grasp for comfort. The ultimate hope of Christ’s return to undo death is replaced with present-tense “comfort”, which is vague at best, and just plain false at worst. It is a primed pump for “celebrating life”, rather than proclaiming “Christ is risen” even as we mourn death.
Consider, also, the effect this vague, ethereal kind of thinking has upon how we view the body of the deceased. “That’s not dad/mom/Tom/Brenda/etc.” is a common sentiment. “It’s just his shell.” The “real” him is in “heaven” now. What we do with “the body” is really of no consequence. It has served its purpose as the vessel of the soul. Of course, this is not how we think and speak before dad died. When he was alive, dad was not some sort of animated “shell”. He was, well, dad. You couldn’t know him except through his body. His smile was unique and you knew it well. His hands were the ones that held you when you were an infant. His eyes were the ones that cried at your wedding. His voice was the one that spoke your name. And none of that changes when dad dies. He is still dad, only he is now dead, which is perhaps one of the most profound things we can say about a person, for it is a violation of their very humanity. Death is a state that God does not desire for his creatures, and so it is a state which he promises to reverse.
Yes, Christ is risen, and he is so for this dead lamb of his. It is this lamb that Christ has died for, this lamb that Christ has baptized, this lamb that Christ fed with his body and blood, and this lamb that Christ promises to raise to life on the Last Day. With this in mind, perhaps we ought not be so quick to hand over this lamb’s flesh to the flames of the crematorium and his bones to be pulverized by the “cremulator”. Perhaps we might treat this lamb in death, the same way we treated him in life: as someone for whom Christ died and for whom Christ is returning. Furthermore, perhaps it might aid our proclamation to have this lamb invited to his own funeral. To have him there to worship with the saints one last time before being laid to wait. We wouldn’t perform a baptism without the baptismal candidate present, or a wedding without the bride. Why a funeral without the deceased? Probably because we don’t believe the deceased is actually there. We have come to view the funeral in less-than-resurrection terms. We have come to think that this death is the final chapter of the story, and that the body is therefore no longer part of that story. Long puts it this way:
The revised funeral story is that we are simply summoning memories, comforting each other, invoking some inspiring thoughts, doing effective “closure,” and managing our grief; so it is better not to have an embarrassingly dead body cluttering up our meditation. (p. 33)
…the current shift to a memorial service with the body absent means that Christian death practices are no longer metaphorical expressions of the journey of a saint to be with God. The saint is not even present, except as a spiritualized memory… The mourners are the only actors left, and the ritual now is really about them. Funerals are “for the living,” as we are prone to say. Instead of the grand cosmic drama of the church marching to the edge of eternity with a fellow saint, singing songs of resurrection victory and sneering in the face of the final enemy, we now have a much smaller, more privatized psycho-drama, albeit often couched in Christian language. Taking the plot of the typical memorial service at face value, the dead are not migrating to God; the living are moving from sorrow to stability. (p. 72)
Or consider “For all the saints”, whose penultimate stanza declares, “But, lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day: the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of Glory passes on His way. Alleluia! Alleluia!” (LSB 677)
Or how about “all the vault of heaven” resounding because “Christ has triumphed”? (LSB 465)
Or what about “God’s own child I gladly say it”, where we proclaim, “Death , you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ. When I die I leave all sadness to inherit paradise.” Or “Open-eyed my grave is staring, even there I’ll sleep secure. Though my flesh awaits its raising, still my soul continues praising. I am baptized into Christ. I’m a child of paradise.” (LSB 594)
Where “In the Garden” would have just me and Jesus tarrying among the dew-covered roses, the songs of the saints would have Christ and his whole bride, the Church, surrounding him in endless worship at the Lamb’s high feast. Where “In the Garden” would have Jesus speaking sweetly to my ear and within my heart so that even the little birdies hush their tweeting, the songs of the saints would have the crucified and risen, Almighty Lord of Creation, whose booming voice echoes with resurrection authority throughout the world calling the dead to come out of their graves once and for all. There’s no contest as to which one contains worthwhile content and should therefore be sung at a funeral. And yet many people would choose the empty words of “In the Garden”, because, “It was one of dad’s favorites.” Why is this?
Because “Christ is risen” has been traded for a thoroughly narcissistic faith. American Christianity has perpetuated the idea that everyone’s experience of Christ is unique and valid. No longer is Christ’s resurrection seen as the “hinge of history”, to use the words of philosopher Carl Michaelson. Instead it has been turned into a private and personal faith experience. What “Christ is risen” means to you, might mean something different to someone else, whose faith experience has led them on a different—and supposedly equally valid—journey. The church has lost sight of the fact that “Christ is risen” is actually the overarching, true story of the whole world—whether they know it or not. Instead, we have settled for a buddy Jesus, who helps us cope with low self-esteem and gives us principles for healthy finances and successful marriages, and tarries with us among the roses. It’s no wonder, in such a privatized Christianity, why the funeral services surrounding death would mirror such narcissism. After all, we want to have a service that would “honor” the dead by capturing his or her personality as accurately as possible. Such a thing, we think, will reflect their own personal faith experience. Such a thing is how we truly can “celebrate” their life.
“In the Garden” is but one example of such privatized funeral fare. Poems, favorite songs, and themed services are all ways that people will strive to create an experience that is as unique to the deceased individual as possible. A “good” funeral, it is thought, is one that “would’ve made mom happy”—not one that proclaims “Christ is risen.” Mourning has been replaced with fanfare. Long recounts the story of a journalist’s perspective on this shift:
Time magazine correspondent Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, who spent several years studying changing death rituals in America in order to write a book on the topic, concluded that the “new American way of death is personal, spiritual, and emotional. It is altruistic, futuristic, and individualistic.” When she began her exploration, she was, by her own description, “an unabashed advocate of the new American way of death, a way I believed involved celebration in place of mourning.” But near the end of her research, two beloved members of her family—her grandfather and a cousin—died, and her mother’s cancer, once in remission, returned “with blinding speed and terrible fury.” These sudden and sobering encounters with mortality prompted Cullen to question her “blithe convictions” about mourning being displaced by celebration. “If [my mother] died,” she wrote, “if I lost this woman who raised me, would I have it in me to throw a party?” (Long, p. 7)
Again, Long puts it quite well:
Baptism, marriage, funeral—these are not polite dinner parties needing good decorator ideas. These are sacred ceremonies of dramatic transformation, torches marking the perilous way between life and death. No pastor, out of a well-intentioned but ill-advised desire just to serve people where they are, should assume the posture, “Whatever you’d like at the funeral, whatever would be meaningful to you, will be fine.” Pastors have a responsibility to help people in a season of loss receive not merely those things that they, in the terrible crush of mourning, most think they need, but the very best gifts and the most grace-filled vision the gospel has to offer. (p. 145)
And so the funeral is not the “last stop” for the Christian deceased, any more than his or her death is the last stop of their life. It is not our final chance to send so-and-so off with a party. No, the funeral is a sacred stop on the journey to the new creation, and it is a stop for the entire church. While at that stop, the Church does what she has always done: she bears Christ’s baptized on the way—in life, and in death. She bears Christ’s baptized by singing songs of joy and mourning, of Christ and his work. She bears Christ’s baptized, proclaiming endlessly that “Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” even in the face of death itself—proclamation which propels us forward to the Last Day, when death is dead, and our faith will finally be sight. So may we bring the Christian funeral back to life, for it is nothing less than the resurrecting proclamation that “Christ is risen,” followed by the prayer of longing lifted to the risen Christ, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.”