It’s been an exhausting week. You spent much of it at the hospital, praying for a dying Christian, giving comfort to a grieving family. You missed time with your own family to be a pastor to the parish. You sat with a beloved parishioner’s children as they argued over how they wanted the funeral and burial to go. It was a mess of grief and resentment and untold regret. Some of the children and grandchildren aren’t believers, and so what do you do with that?
And now, you have to rise to the challenge of preaching a sermon before a bunch of people you don’t know, and it has to be good. You have to proclaim the gospel. And you have to give comfort and hope to people who are full of grief. All of this while you have the ordinary pressures of a parish priest.
I’ve preached dozens upon dozens of funeral sermons. As an Anglican, I’m always glad that we have a beautiful liturgy – one that speaks of the hope of the gospel, even if I’m out of sorts, or tired, or stressed. But, through the years, preaching at funerals has become a task that I actually enjoy. It helps me to grieve. It helps others to grieve. But, it’s also a moment when I can proclaim the gospel with utter clarity.
Let me say before jumping into these five essential elements what a funeral sermon should not, indeed cannot, be. It cannot be a eulogy – a good word about the dead, wrapped up with “And aren’t we all so glad he’s in heaven now, looking down on us?” These messages undermine the gospel, especially when Christians in our day are woefully unclear as to what we actually proclaim about life after death. This is also not a time for detailed exegesis of Holy Scripture. There is a time and place for that. This isn’t it. The funeral sermon is an occasion for explicitly catechetical and kerygmatic preaching on what we Christians believe about life, death, hope, faith, and the goodness of God, especially in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. Christian hope is not in a disembodied future, but in the resurrection of the dead
Very often, in a desire to offer comfort and peace to a grieving family, there is a deep temptation to what can only be called sentimentality. He’s in a better place. She’s looking down upon us now. She’s relieved of pain. He’s holding the hand of the Savior.
I’m not going to say explicitly that those things are dead wrong, only that they obscure the basis of Christian hope. Our hope does not consist in looking forward to “When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away” or plucking a harp from a palace in the clouds. Christian hope is built upon the sure foundation of the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His victory over death in His rising from the grave and gate of death. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of our hope that we, too, will someday by the power of the Holy Spirit be raised up to a new life, our bodies remade after the likeness of our Savior. And that hope is so powerful that it is the basis upon which we Christians live our lives.
If remains are present, I like to, at some point, extend my hand to the remains and simply say something like: “This is what sin wrought: death! But, Alleluia, and thanks be to God, what happened to our Lord Jesus in His Rising from the dead will happen to N.!” That’s good news. We can say it universally of every human being – including those who do not believe. If you say nothing else in a funeral homily, this is the key proclamation!
2. Christian faith is not in the goodness of human beings, but in the righteousness of God
There is a vast temptation to say something nice about this deceased brother or sister. I get that, and a bit of that is appropriate. It is good to say a bit about conversations you may have had with the person, or ways they served the church, or their life as a parent, of their career, or military service. What funeral preaching should not become is a kind of extended hagiography: how good and holy this person was. If this goes on too long, the impression (already vastly present in your hearers) that Christian faith is in our own goodness will be solidified further. The majority of people believe that by being a generally good person, you get an eternal reward. This is, to put it simply, the anti-Gospel.
Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV) The flip side of the gospel is the Church’s insistence that the shared condition of human sin is not only that we are guilty of it, but that death is the penalty. The gospel is that Jesus Christ loves and saves us in our sin, dies for us, rises from the dead for us, and triumphs in glory and righteousness on our behalf. Faith means that we no longer trust in our own “goodness” but place our minds, hearts, and souls in surrender to this gift. Thus, it is appropriate that if the deceased person put their faith in Jesus, you say as much.
3. Here lies a sinner, washed in the blood of the Lamb
Concurrent with this message is the message that whatever this brother or sister was, he or she was a sinner, and being baptized, had been washed in the blood of the Lamb, sacramentally crucified with Christ and raised with him to a new life. The message for a funeral is this: this man or woman participated bodily in the death and resurrection of Jesus – it was not simply some past event, but the very reality that undergirded their daily battle against sin in all its forms.
Paul’s message is that everyone who has been baptized into Christ has “put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) This is not only the basis of our identity before God, but it is the very ground of our membership in Christ’s body, the Church. Paul continues: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:28–29 ESV) This how the gospel takes shape in the liturgy: we consider a life lived in union with Jesus Christ, a human person who is an heir to the very riches of God.
4. Unless you likewise repent
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comments on the collapse of a tower which killed eighteen people. Did they perish because they were worse sinners? Was this some kind of divine retribution? The answer is this: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5 ESV) All of us will die. Death is always a tragedy. But, we should not look upon human death as divine retribution for specific acts. It is often the case that family members or friends blame themselves for the death of a loved one. If only they had done this or that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. If only the right doctor had been there, etc. You’ll remember that Martha says this very thing to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32 ESV)
The sermon is a great opportunity to correct these assumptions. It’s a time when we can say that death is a tragedy, and we all face it, no matter how good or bad we are. The sermon is a great place to make an evangelistic overture. I usually wind up saying something like this:
You may be here today and have no idea what these crazy Christians are talking about. You may also be thinking that you bear a lot of guilt and regret, and you’d like to do something about it. I’d love to talk with you after this about what it might look like to turn your life over to the grace of Jesus in repentance and faith.
Every sinner faces death. The question is: will we repent of our misdeeds and turn to a loving God for His grace?
5. The Eucharist brings the living and the dead together as one Church, one Body
If the celebration of the Eucharist is part of the funeral, the sermon is a good time to not only “fence the table,” but to say something about what it is we’re about to do. We Christians believe that the Eucharist is not just a memory of the Last Supper or a nice way to think about Jesus, but a sacramental means of participation in the Body and Blood of the Lord. We believe that the Church is constituted through this act: we become what we truly are – the Body of Christ. And this Body does not include only those who happen to have a pulse, but the whole of those who believe and have been baptized into the Lord. When we enter into participation in the sacred mysteries of Jesus, we actually share a life with the dead in Christ as well as the living. This is why the Eucharistic prayer says “Therefore with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”
For most of Christian history, the Church has worshipped surrounded by the dead: in church-yards, in columbaria, and in catacombs. This has been a way of saying: we are partakers in the Communion of Saints! We worship in solidarity with them! What a joy it is to proclaim that! That the person we remember in tears and grief we also share with in this act of worship and communion!
A funeral for a person who was not known to be a believer
All of the elements above are focused on the death, resurrection, and victory of Jesus Christ. The BCP burial liturgy is for the funeral of a baptized Christian. But you should preach all of those elements at any funeral in which you are asked to preach. If the person was not known to have been baptized, or was known not to believe in Jesus Christ, you can still preach all of these things at any funeral. In that case, highlight the life of the person and commend their soul to God. Comfort those who grieve, and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Your ministry at this time is so vital and important in the proclamation of the gospel to the everlasting comfort of all who grieve in this life.
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses. He is currently the Chair of the Committee for Catechesis of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism.