Over the years I have witnessed a change in focus in the typical evangelical funeral service. However, the changes were so subtle that I did not notice them until I recently attended a Lutheran Funeral service. What I encountered at the Lutheran service has left me thinking hard about how far the evangelical focus on Christ has fallen, even at a funeral. As a child I remember hearing both Law and Gospel at funerals. We were reminded that the person was saved, not because of anything they’d done but because of Christ. However, the past few funerals I’ve attended in the past two or three years, that focus is now on the person. They were a “good person”, “loved the Lord”, etc. However, knowing some of them I know even by the world’s standards they weren’t “good” nor did they evidence any love for the Lord as they hardly attended a worship service. Granted, none are good as the Bible tells us, but sadly I’ve found that even evangelicals are forgetting to focus on Christ and the power of His Resurrection and instead zoom in on the deceased. So, my experience recently told me that even in funeral services Lutherans have neither forgotten the Law or Gospel.
One week ago this past Sunday, my husband and I attended the funeral service for our Pastor’s mom. To say that a Lutheran funeral is different than an evangelical one is to try and compare the burst of sunlight with that of a candle. This funeral made quite the impression on me…and that’s an understatement. Now, my mom converted to Lutheranism about 5 years before she died and her funeral was quite beautiful, but I think with the emotions I was going through I probably did not fully see the stark contrast. I was more aware of the content of the service at this funeral and that is where my thoughts go today.
This Sunday, before church, I was reading The Defense Never Rests by Craig A. Parton. In it, this line jumped out at me: “A good barometer of a church is what it does for a funeral, and especially what it does with Good Friday.” I’ve been Lutheran now over a year and I can certainly say that the Good Friday service was one unlike any I’d attended before. It focused upon sin, death, the Law, judgment and ended with that work of redemption which Jesus did for the world on the Cross of Calvary. However, attending a Lutheran funeral was going to be something even more foreign to my evangelical and even reformed experiences.
We arrived a few minutes late and the congregation had already begun singing songs which she had chosen before being called Home. That is one difference. Our pastor actually encourages us to choose the hymns to be sung at our funeral ahead of time, which I’ve have been compiling for my own funeral. When we arrived the congregation, pews filled with those she’d worshipped God with, her friends and family, were singing loudly Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty. Immediately our attention was placed exactly where it should be; on our Great God and Savior. Next the Pastor briefly explained why the coffin was draped in white. This was never done in an evangelical service and, to my new Lutheran eyes, reminded me a bit of Roman Catholicism. However, since Luther’s intent was never to destroy the good things of the Church in its History but only to correct what was corrupted, I listened carefully to the pastor’s explanation as follows:
The casket may be covered with a funeral pall. The pall serves as a reminder that the deceased was baptized into the Christian faith and covered with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that Jesus purchased through His death and resurrection.
From there, the service remembered her baptism. Now that is odd from an evangelical perspective. Why remember her baptism? After all, that was just her public announcement that she was going to follow Jesus, right? Wrong. Baptism is God’s gift of saving faith to us through the blessed waters. Peter reminds us that “baptism now saves.” So, properly remembering her baptism is the right thing to do because it once again points to the work of God in her apart from anything she could or had done. The pastor said, “In holy Baptism she was clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covered all her sin. St. Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Then the pastor briefly shared the faith in which she lived, and her expressions of that faith through service to others. This is where the difference lay: the focus was not on the decease. It was on the work of God in Christ through the Means of Grace (baptism, the preached/read Word and the Lord’s Supper).
I’ve been to plenty, too many, funerals of friends and family, those of my own father and mother and have never seen the focus so heavily weighted upon the work of Christ done to us and for us as I heard last Sunday at this one. From this point on, the Introit focused on praising Christ, in the Kyrie we were reminded as we sang “Christ, have mercy upon us…” that THAT is exactly what we all need. The Scripture readings, Old, Epistle and Gospel, all moved us from the need for mercy, that of Law, to the provision of mercy, Christ in the Gospel.
Together, we all recited the Apostles Creed as united in Christ, through the grace of
baptism, we were all one in Him. There was this union of varied voices all confessing their faith in Christ. Though we were many, as I could hear the voices of men, women and children, it struck me that no matter our age or gender we were one in Christ Jesus and we too believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”. This unity of hope in Christ, His work of redemption alone, was drastically different. There was no referencing the works of the deceased, as if to say she was a innately “good person”, instead it focused upon Jesus Christ and the salvation He bought for all.
Now, I did not know her. In fact, I’d met her only one year ago at the 500th Anniversary Celebration of the Reformation. However, when the pastor began to preach his sermon, on the Gospel Reading (John 6:27-40) his focus was not on her but on Jesus Christ. He reminded us that His work saves us not our work. He reminded us that the work of God is that we believe and even believing is not, as he put it, a work we do on our own but is worked in us by God from outside of us; baptism. He exhorted us that He also strengthens our faith from outside of us; the Lord’s Supper (the True Body and Blood in, with and under the Bread and Wine). None of this service was anything like the funerals I’d gone to before. However, even though I didn’t know her, I knew her faith because it is the same faith, given to her at baptism, that was given to me at baptism. Her God and Savior is also my God and Savior.
The service ended with the hymn: I know that My Redeemer lives. Once again, this service wasn’t about her, rather, it was about Jesus. Most funerals today that I attend aren’t about Jesus, even those “Christian” ones I’ve gone to lately. It seems to me that even Christians/evangelicals have begun to make funerals about the person. Granted, we want to remember them. However, isn’t it better to remember what Jesus Christ did for them in forgiving them all their sins, of their being buried with Christ in those blessed baptismal waters? Shouldn’t the eyes of all the mortals gathered at the funeral be redirected to the One who made us, redeemed us and calls us His own? It appears to me that too much emphasis, and not just at evangelical funerals, but all worship services, are placed on us, sinners still, instead of on Christ Jesus who not only died for us but rose from the dead and lives for us.
This was very different than I have experienced at other funerals, or as they now term them “Celebration of Life Services”. See, the point here is that these new type of services focus on the person. While we do remember and grieve the loss of that person, our focus should rightly be upon Christ, His work of salvation and His power of the Resurrection that is every believers sure hope. Instead of looking to celebrate the person, I found in the Lutheran Service a celebration of Christ.
That brings me to why I titled this blog entry as I did:
“Celebration of Life or Celebration of Christ”
This week we’d also heard from a friend that they’d lost a friend. They were posting the funeral information and phrased it this way: Celebration of Life Service for (name redacted). I said to my husband as thoughts of the Lutheran funeral we’d just attended ran through my mind:
I don’t want a celebration of life service when I die.
I want a Celebration of Christ service.
As Craig Parton wrote in his book, it is a “barometer of a church is what it does for a funeral”. I suppose it is just another reason we became Lutheran. When all Divine Services (evangelicals call them worship services) are Christ-centered and thus Gospel-Centered, when the order of service brings you to confess your sins, hear absolution from those sins, feeds you on the spoken Word of God and then upon the True Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ it makes you also long for a Christ-centered funeral service.
Thinking deeply about this I’ll simply reiterate:
I don’t want a celebration of life service.
I want a Celebration of Christ service.
By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;
In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;
For though I know my heart’s condition,
I also know my Savior’s voice.
My heart is glad, all grief has flown
Since I am saved by grace alone.
(By Grace I’m Saved, 566 Lutheran Service Book)
Parton, Craig A. The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer Among the Theologians. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2015.
 Craig A. Parton, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer Among the Theologians, 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 42.