The first man and the first woman “heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening;” and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God. The Lord called to Adam, “Where art thou?” And Adam said, “I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.” The Lord responded, “Who told thee thou was naked; hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?” And Adam gave a perfectly human response, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” In spelling out the consequences of their disobedience the Lord God gave the sentence we hear each Ash Wednesday, “dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19)
I was asked to speak about death. Death is real. Death is separation. Death is painful. And death is not the final answer. Christians believe in the death of Jesus, and Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus for all who believe in him. As St. Paul wrote the church in Corinth, “As in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22)
At the Committal we will say, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace. Amen.”
The last part of that prayer comes from Numbers 7:24-27 where the Lord spoke to Moses, “Speak thus unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, on this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel.” Following the words of the blessing we read, “And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
The sentence of God is real. We are dust, and we die. The mortal body dies and returns to dust and ashes. But death is not the final answer. God has put his name on us and God blesses us. Baptism begins, “Name this child.” We receive our Christian name at baptism. At baptism we are washed clean of the sin we receive as an inheritance from our families and our humanity, we are born again in Christ, and we are “marked as Christ’s own for ever” with the sign of the cross – Christ’s cross, on which our Savior died to redeem us.
We affirm in the creed that Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” As Jesus died, so our brother in Christ died. And as Jesus rose, so in God’s good time our brother will rise, not in the physical body but in a new and perfect spiritual body. That is God’s promise, and God’s promise is true.
But we cannot misuse God’s true promise so as to avoid the reality and pain of true death. We go through the pains and difficulties of life and death and not around them A Swiss physician noticed five emotional stages in grief: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and, some degree of acceptance. Too quick a jump from death to resurrection may be a sign of denial. Death is real; death is separation – separation of the body and spirit, the end of life and of relationships in this life. The relationships continue. We continue to love despite death. But we mourn the loss.
Anger is a normal and natural reaction to change and loss. We can be angry with God for cutting life short too soon; God can take it. We have a right to be angry. Life is too short for all we want to do, and sometimes it seems too long, and it is hard. We want to bargain and we think of the “if only.” But it is what it is and we play the hand we’re dealt. Our brother certainly did that, and when his wife called to tell me of his untimely death my first reaction was to remember the grace with which he lived his life - as son to his mother, as husband, as friend to us all in his many areas of community service, and in business.
We have all lost by his death, and we have a right to be depressed. Depression can be anger turned inward. Depression is real. We all have much to be depressed about, in our personal lives and in the world around us. But by God’s grace we have the time if we will take it to feel that depression and to hold on with two hands to the blessed hope of God’s continuing love in Jesus Christ.
We have no assurance of universal salvation; we are certainly not made right with God by our good works. Our assurance is in Jesus Christ - in his death to redeem us from sin and in his resurrection to new life for all who live in him. The church at its best is the company of those who share this faith and assurance in Jesus Christ seek to live as he would have us live. And the church at its worst is a place where the envy, hatred, malice, and uncharitableness of the world are made more evident by the gap between belief and practice. But our faith is not in the institutional church. Our faith is in the church’s Lord, Jesus Christ. I know our brother lived that faith. I know he can claim Jesus’ resurrection.
As we will say in the Commendation at the end of this service, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Amen.