One day when I was serving as the pastor of a local church, the local funeral director called me to ask if I would officiate at the service for a person who had died. This was fairly common. When people die who are not members of local churches, but who nominally understand themselves as Christians, they often ask the funeral director to recommend a pastor who can care for the funeral service.
I agreed, and on the appointed time I arrived at the funeral home to meet the family and discuss the service. As soon as we had introduced themselves, they said to me, “We want to make one thing clear. We do not want a religious service.”
Given that they had asked for a pastor, I was perplexed. I pointed out that I wanted to honor their requests, but I was a Christian pastor and that I wanted to be able to draw from the Christian faith to frame the service. I suggested that I walk through what I usually did in the service to see if what I had planned would be acceptable to them. They agreed.
I walked through a fairly routine order of worship from the Methodist book of worship (for UMC folks out there, I have to admit that I was still using the old Methodist Book of Worship rather than the post-merger UMC one. I like it better!). As I pointed out the Scripture verses I wanted to use, including the famous John 14 passage in which Jesus declares himself to be the way, the truth, and the life, and in which he says that he is the only way to the Father. They said everything sounded fine to them.
In the end, I didn’t make any changes to the order of worship. And, at the service, I preached on the resurrection of Jesus as our hope when we face death. The family was pleased with all of it.
As I was riding back with the funeral director after the service, I shared with him about the family’s opening warning to me about not wanting a religious service. Yet, I pointed out that the service was just as “religious” as any that I had ever led. Did he have any insight on it?
He explained that the deceased’s wife had died a few years ago, and that a different pastor had come to do the service. During that service, the pastor had unexpectedly held an altar call for people to come to Jesus and know salvation. He used the deceased woman as an example of someone who no longer had the ability to choose, her fate was sealed, but others could flee from hell and wrath.
The family wanted to make certain that didn’t happen again. That was what they meant by not wanting a “religious” service.
Evangelists have long been known for impressing the fear of death and divine judgment into service for convincing people to accept Jesus Christ. And, in truth, I think there can be a time and place for being this forthright. Jesus talks about hell more than any other person in the Bible, and the book of Hebrews makes it clear that we only live once and then face judgment.
However, we need to be careful about this. It is rare in the New Testament that we hear Jesus or others pressing the issue of death. They are far more concerned with growing into the maturity of holiness and living into the coming Kingdom of God. This is because Jesus primarily preached abundant life. Abundant life doesn’t start after we die, it just starts and keeps going whether we live in this mortal body or not.
More than that, Paul later explained that this abundant life would reclaim our mortal bodies in the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 he makes it clear that our old, broken, mortal bodies would be raised again in glory, never to perish again. So, abundant life not only continues when our mortal bodies fall away, but it revives and glorifies those very bodies. This is why we do not preach an “afterlife” in the Christian faith, but that death itself has been overcome. Even the remnant of death we experience now in our bodies ceasing to operate will be reversed and done away with permanently.
So, evangelists do have a lot to say about death. It just should not usually take the form of cajoling and threatening people with the dangers of hellfire. Rather, it should take be offering the profound hope that we have in the One who conquered death. The question is not, “If you were to die tonight, where would you go?” but “Are you ready to really start living in the hope that, even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, things will ultimately only get better?”