In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
The spirituality of our culture can be boiled down to the belief that you should always be positive and nice. And that even goes so far as applying to the subject of death. Instead of a funeral, it’s much nicer to call it a celebration of someone’s life. Obituaries try to speak positively, too, talking about how the deceased is said to have “found peace.” Our culture wants to talk pleasantly about death as just another step in life’s journey, a natural and even beautiful transition to “a better place.” But those things are partial truths at best and are often based on false beliefs.
Scripture, on the other hand, is honest about death in a way that is not very positive or nice. It speaks of death as a curse. It says that death is not a friend but an adversary. We heard it in the Epistle: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). It is a nemesis and a foe. And anyone who tries to sell you on the notion that dying can be a beautiful thing either is a fool who hasn’t actually witnessed what it’s really like very often, or is a false teacher who is not from God. If you get one of these types coming into your hospital or hospice room, just kick them out. Don’t waste your time with false prophets.
We need to think and talk about death the way Scripture does. For only then will we fully grasp the joy of Easter. So let us not talk about death the way the world does—as if the human body God created is merely a container, as if it’s actually good to escape the body into some purely spiritual existence–no, not that! That’s the way the Corinthians were thinking in the Epistle. They were Greeks, and Greek philosophy said that material, physical stuff was a sort of lower level reality. What’s really real, what really matters, they said, was the soul. The body was just a shell, a tin can, something almost that imprisoned the soul. To be released from that was seen as good. That’s why they said that there was no resurrection of the dead. They thought only the soul existed forever. Why would you want to have a dead body raised, anyway?
That sort of thinking has infected our own age, too. People often think of the body as limiting and a hindrance to who they supposedly really are. They imagine that they can be Christian in their hearts while living bodily like the unbelieving world, rarely being present for the external preaching and Supper of the Lord. They treat the body as if death is the end of it and only the soul lives on. Might as well scatter the ashes to the wind; that was just an empty casing, anyway, they think. The things we do at a time of death reveal much about what we believe regarding the body and eternal life–which is why the women in the Gospel are good examples and role models for us. They wanted to care for the body of Jesus and treat it with the deepest respect, even though they didn’t yet fully grasp all that was happening that first Easter morning.
So listen this Easter day, first of all, to what the Scriptures say: God did not create you to die but to live with Him, soul and body, forever. Death did not exist at all in the beginning; it entered God’s good creation through sin (Rom. 5:12). You know the Scripture which says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). It is only because of the curse that body and soul get ripped apart. In spite of the world’s nice philosophies and all our attempts to stay positive, death is still not natural or good. Losing loved ones still tears us up inside. The grave is still something we naturally fear. It is the thieving work of the devil to destroy the life that God has given us (John 10:10).
However, it is important to remember that the One who pronounced the curse of death is God Himself. He did this not only as the just punishment for sin, but also and especially as the way in which He would take away our sin through the death of His own Son (1 John 3:8). Since Jesus shared in our flesh and blood, His cross and resurrection crushed the devil who had enslaved us, (Heb. 2:14-15) and it destroyed his thieving work (1 John 3:8). What we celebrate today, then, is the fact that we are now free. Do not be afraid any longer. The curse is broken. Life is restored. Jesus lives, for you!
Here’s how much God cares about your bodily life: Not only did He become true man, your true blood brother, not only did He suffer and die in the body for you to break sin’s curse, but He is now bodily risen from the dead–literally, tangibly, physically. What did the Gospel say? When the women went to the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. His resurrection wasn’t merely a spiritual event. The very same body that was scourged and nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb was raised up and exited the tomb, restored and exalted and glorified. Jesus’ resurrection is real and historical and true.
This is so important and essential for you to believe. St. Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. For then death would still be reigning over you; it would still be your master. But since Christ has been raised from the dead, that means that the curse is undone; He has now become your Lord. He has redeemed you to be His own, blessed forever in His kingdom. Think about it: if the wages of sin is death, and death has been overcome by Christ, that means that your sins have been overcome by Him, too, right? Jesus’ resurrection means that the wages have been paid for you, and all there is for you now from God is forgiveness and mercy and new resurrection life in Christ. That’s the good news of Easter!
In Adam all die–that’s his legacy to you, and it’s your legacy to your children. But in the new Adam, in Jesus, all shall be made alive–that’s your free inheritance from Him in the family of God. But there is an order to this being made alive: Christ is the firstfruits, then at His second coming, those who belong to Him. In other words, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the beginning of the harvest and the sure guarantee of what is to come. On the Last Day, the full crop of resurrected believers will be brought in. Philippians 3 says that we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body. And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live [bodily!], even though He dies.”
Because this is true and sure and certain in Jesus, we don’t have to deny the reality of death. We are free to be honest about it because of Easter. Death is horrible and powerful, but Jesus is infinitely stronger and has overcome its horror.
And you know that this is true for you personally because you’ve been baptized. We spoke about it a moment ago: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3) His atoning death counts for you! And then this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). Death doesn’t get the last word over you who believe any more, Jesus does.
The truth is that, as baptized Christians, you’ve actually already kicked the bucket. Colossians 3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The worst of it is over, then. The judgment part of death has been taken care of by Jesus. All that’s left now is the final putting to death of your sinful flesh so that you may rise again bodily to eternal life. “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Martin Luther put it wonderfully when he said, “A Christian enjoys the advantage of already being out of the grave with his right leg. Moreover, he has a mighty helper who holds out his hand to him, namely, His Lord Christ; (Jesus) has left the grave entirely a long time ago, and now He takes the Christian by the hand and pulls him more than halfway out of the grave; only the left foot remains in it! For his sin is already remitted and expunged, God’s wrath and hell are extinguished, and he already lives fully in and with Christ with regard to his . . . soul, as he partakes of eternal life. Therefore death can no longer hold him or harm him. Only the remnant, the old skin, flesh and blood, must still decay before it, too, can be renewed and follow the soul [in the resurrection of the body].”
Through Jesus alone we can face death without fear and even embrace it as a positive thing. St. Paul wrote: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21,23). We sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). Our funerals, then, are not just celebrations of life. They are celebrations of life in Christ even as we mourn. And we don’t find peace in death. We find our peace only in Jesus, who is the victor over death.
So don’t be nice about death! Rather, make fun of it as the defeated enemy that it is. Say to the grave, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep while they wait for the resurrection to come. We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion. They go into you, O grave, only that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you. Ha!” (adapted from David Petersen)
Let us this Easter Day join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57). Or as the hymn puts it:
Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave
And at death no longer tremble;
He, the Lord, who came to save
Will at last His own assemble.
They will go their Lord to meet
Treading death beneath their feet. (LSB 741:7)
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit