When I first entered the pastorate, I saw funerals as the "fine print" in my pastoral duties. I was expected to bury the deceased and comfort the grieving families, but it wasn't something I knew how to do, much less would enjoy.
I still remember my first funeral. I had no idea how to minister to the family (I barely knew them) or how to organize a funeral service or what to say. Thankfully my dad, a veteran pastor who has preached at dozens of funerals, was visiting our home that week and was able to coach me on what to ask, what to say, and how to organize the service.
A New View
I've done many funerals since then, and I now view them somewhat differently. While it is never fun to face death and never easy to comfort the grieving, I have come to realize that these are some of the best evangelistic opportunities I will ever have, because people are never more vulnerable.
Face to face with mortality, they are forced to think about life's most significant questions: Will I ever see my loved one again? Is this all there is? Is there life after death? Is death really natural? Is there any hope?
The gospel answers these questions, and it really is good news.
Of course, I always begin a funeral message by sharing memories about the deceased. Cherishing and honoring their memory is one way we can comfort others.
These memories by themselves, however, do not offer the hope and comfort people most need. Although the memories remain, the person is still gone. This is the tension everyone feels, and it is a tension only the gospel can relieve.
So I pursue that tension. Yes, death is sad, but it also feels so wrong. It feels like an invader who steals something precious. Although people may say that death is a natural part of life, it certainly doesn't feel that way when you're facing it. Nothing seems so unnatural.
Death's Questions and Answers
So death raises questions: Why do people die? Is it supposed to be this way? The gospel answers with a resounding NO. I think this takes people off guard; Christians so often seem to have made peace with death, if for no other reason than because they believe in an afterlife, in heaven.
While this is true, I don't rush there too quickly. I want my hearers to know that Christianity also views death as an invader; Scripture speaks of it as an enemy. Death is the result of sin; it is God's judgment, His curse on a world rebellious against Him. This is the bad news, the answer to the why question.
The good news is that God has not abandoned the world to death. Instead, He sent His Son to defeat death through His own death and resurrection.
As Puritan John Owen said, the atonement is all about "the death of death in the death of Christ." Or, to use C. S. Lewis' words, in Jesus' resurrection "death itself started working backwards." The gospel is about reversing death—defeating this enemy once and for all. This is the gospel's good news to those who mourn and fear death, and this hope is available to all who trust Jesus.
Most unbelievers think of Christians as religious people trying to live good lives. But the gospel is not about being religious or moral. It's so important to stress this. Christianity itself is not even hope for the moral or the religious, but it is hope for those who trust in Christ's righteousness to save them rather than their own.
I've rarely received an overtly negative response after sharing this message at a funeral. I don't shove it down people's throats, of course, but I try to clearly present the gospel and invite people to trust Christ.
I have two funerals this week, the first just a few hours from the time I'm writing this. Now, when I think about those who will hear the gospel—some perhaps for the first time—it makes me glad that I get to preach at funerals.