It has been a very difficult time for our church fellowship since Christmas. We said another difficult goodbye to another member of our church family a couple of weeks ago, to Pete, who died from cancer, only 54; still so young. His death has raised many questions, I know, so I hope some people will find helpful the text of the sermon I preached at his funeral, based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Please do pray for his family and friends as they grieve. --------
Life is full of glory, beauty, mysteries, questions. Some of the answers we discover over time, some we’ll never know the answers to. One of the questions I know that many have asked in the past few months is simply, why? Just 9 months ago Pete ran a half-marathon. He was fit and healthy. He was happy. We’ve heard how secure and loved he was in his family, with Heather, Emma and JB, and with his church family, and with his friends, family and colleagues. He was enjoying his present and planning for the future. There was no reason to expect that this would change. And yet, here we are today, saying goodbye. Why him? Why did he have to go through such a terrible illness and why did he have to die so young – only 54? Why? It doesn’t seem fair. And you know what, it’s not. It stinks. Illness is awful. Cancer is particularly awful. Why does God allow this sort of stuff to go on? I don’t think we will ever really know the answer to that question. But I believe we have the right to shout at God and ask him why, to tell him it’s not fair. He’s our heavenly Father. He loves us and quite frankly, he’s big enough to take it. At the heart of the Christian faith we remember Jesus on the cross, crying out in desolation and loneliness – why? Where are you God? If Jesus could cry out like that, then we can too.
And how, do we imagine God would answer that question? Where are you? I think he’d answer, I’m right here. I’ve always been here. And you know what, Pete knew that. I had the privilege of spending time with him in the past few months of his life, and he knew that God was with him; he was given strength to withstand his illness; God was also present through the way Pete was loved and supported by his family and friends who loved and cared for him. Pete also knew that whatever happened to him, he’d be ok somehow. He was given strength by God and his faith stood firm. Some of you might be wondering how he could be given such strength. After all, many of us are terrified by the thought – either of our own death, or of the death of a loved one. Woody Allen, the American comedian, actor and director, certainly is. He is so terrified of death that he makes jokes about it. “It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens. I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Woody Allen isn’t alone in fearing death, is he? But Pete wasn’t afraid. Why? Because his hope was in Jesus. Because of Jesus’ lived, died and rose again, we can have hope in the face of death. This is what we see in our Bible passage we just heard.
Saint Paul was writing to a community like ours that was grieving. People they loved had died. Those left behind were devastated and left with many questions. Paul deals with these issues head on. “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” Paul is not suggesting that grief is wrong – not at all. There is no doubt that death is a terrible thing and that it is devastating when people die, especially in tragic or unexpected circumstances. Grief is right and proper. I mean, I’m gutted to be standing here saying goodbye to Pete, who became a real friend. I can’t imagine what you must be going through when you loved him for so long. But we can be givencomfort and strength through our hope in Jesus. As St. Paul explains, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v.14). In other words, he’s saying, don’t let your grief be sharpened by worrying about those who have died with faith in Jesus. Pete’s ok now. He’s with Jesus. Jesus died and rose again, to take away the power of death. He dealt with the sin of the whole world on the cross. The sinless one took on the consequence of our sin, and died. In rising again he defeated death once and for all. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul exclaims – “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).
Those who have faith in Jesus have only “fallen asleep”; death is only temporary. If Jesus died and rose again, those who have died having had faith in him will rise again too. We die physically, but faith in Jesus makes us alive spiritually and that’s why we shouldn’t grieve like other men – we have hope. Hope that will never die. Death is not the end. There is an amazing future that God has promised for us. Though the world is messed up, hurting and broken, Jesus will return and restore the whole creation to its former, perfect glory, and there will be the most wonderful of reunions – as Paul writes, “we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” – in other words – those Christians who have died are in God’s care and they won’t be missing out at all when Jesus returns – they will be with their saviour who lived and died for them – and they’ll come back with Jesus to meet those who are still alive. There’ll be the most incredible reunion. And most wonderfully of all, there is that promise, “we will be with the Lord forever.” Wow!
Brothers and sisters, this is good news and I would suggest that it is news that we need to hear over and over again. Especially at times like these. Especially in the days, weeks, months and years to come when we ache for Pete and other loved ones from whom we’ve been separated, when the silences are deafening and things you’ve enjoyed simply aren’t the same anymore. We may wonder when the pain will end? When will it go away? This passage tells us the answer – the pain will end for good when Jesus returns, when everything will be made perfect again. Listen to this from Revelation 21: “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself willbe with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (vv. 3 and 4) I love that passage of Scripture. It paints a wonderful picture of what it will be like when we will live with the Lord forever. It’ll be the end of suffering, the end of sin, and the end of death. This is great news. Jesus is coming back! The Lord is coming back! It is really going to happen. Jesus has given us hope in the face of death. Pete knew that hope. I can’t wait to be reunited with him one day. Maybe we’ll go for that run with him that I always promised I’d do.
Of course, we don’t really know what heaven’s going to be like, but I do believe in faith that Pete’s there now. He’s at peace now. He’s not suffering. He’s with Jesus, in the arms of the God who loves him and will wipe every tear from his eyes. He’s home, where we all belong. In the meantime we ache, because we miss him. We’re the losers here. We’re the ones who have to say goodbye. And it’s going to be hard. There will be dark days ahead, but the same God is with us, ready with his heavenly hankie, offering to wipe away our tears, to hold us in his arms and allow us to cry on him. He’s whispering to us, I’m with you. I’ll always be with you. You’ll never be alone. So let’s allow Jesus to comfort us, and let’s be Jesus to each other. And let’s not lose hope. Jesus is alive. He’s defeated death, and he will come back again. Jesus gives us hope. The tomb is empty. Love and life have won.