My last grandparent died on Monday.
Mildred Sigler was my mother’s mother and she was the only grandparent I was ever close to. When she died I thought it likely that I would be asked to play some role in the funeral mass—perhaps a reading or a eulogy. To my amazement, however, I was asked to give the funeral sermon—a part of the service in Catholic funeral masses that is very rarely entrusted to anyone but the officiating priest. Even more rarely is it entrusted to a non-Catholic and, I imagine, even more rarely to an evangelical pastor. Needless to say, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Here’s what I said at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in LeSueur, Minnesota this morning:
Good morning, everyone. It’s good to be with you. I don’t say that as an obligatory introductory remark. It really is good to see my family. We don’t see each other enough, and I regret that. From what I remember about Grandma, I imagine that she would be a bit annoyed at all of us for making her the center of attention—even at her own funeral. She didn’t seem the type that ever wanted to be the center of attention. But I know that she would love that we’re all together.
When a loved one passes away, of course, there’s always a strange and confusing mingling of emotions—especially when the person we loved had not been herself for so long. There’s obviously sadness. And relief. And regret. And broken joy in remembering her. And, of course, grief.
The apostle Paul wrote to a group of grieving people not long after Jesus had died. They had been under the impression that because Jesus had risen from the dead and conquered death, that that meant that death was no more and that those who trusted in Christ would no longer suffer; would no longer get sick; would no longer die. You see, they had misunderstood what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for this life. And so when some of the people they loved, who had trusted in Christ, started dying, they spiraled into grief not only for loved ones lost, but also for hope lost.
They began to ask themselves: Was Jesus really who he said he was? Was it real? Or was it all just a sham? Was this hope they had clung to a living hope, or had their hope in Christ just died along with their loved ones? Here’s how the apostle responded: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died” (1 Thess. 4:13-14).
So, in Paul’s mind, there are two possible ways to grieve. He says, “We want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.” So, apparently, there is a kind of grieving that is without hope. And then there is the opposite: There is a grieving that is full of hope. Now, in some ways these two ways of grieving are very similar. They’re both accompanied with tears and with brokenheartedness. Maybe with regret for things that were said or done, or, perhaps, for things went unsaid or undone. Both ways of grieving hurt. Whether my own grieving were with hope or without it, it would still hurt because, in my case, Grandma was the only grandparent I was ever really close to. I didn’t know my dad’s parents well, and by the time I was old enough to talk with Grandpa Sigler, well, he was sort of in his watching-a-lot-of-WWF wrestling stage, and was referring to me as Ike or Gus. So, we didn’t have a chance to get to know each other real well.
So, Grandma’s passing hurts. But there is also clearly a massive difference between those who grieve without hope and those who grieve full of hope. So, what is the difference? The difference is what Paul says it is in this text. The difference is, he says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again…”
My grief over Grandma is a grief that is full of hope.
It’s full of hope for the very reason the apostle says grief can be full of hope. The reason for my hopeful grief is not because Grandma was a faithful church-goer when she was able-bodied enough to do so. Paul doesn’t offer church-going as a reason for hopefulness. The reason for my hopeful grief is not because Grandma was a good and loving person. Paul doesn’t offer being good and loving as reasons for hopefulness. My reason for hopeful grief is not even because Grandma was baptized. Paul doesn’t offer being baptized as a reason for hopefulness.
My only reason for hopeful grief in Grandma’s death is the only reason Paul gives here: “For since,” he says, “we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again…” I believe Grandma sincerely believed that. She believed that Jesus was the God who took on human flesh, who lived a perfectly sinless life, who took the penalty of our sin on himself and died under the weight of it, so that those who entrust their lives to him fully would be reconciled to the Father.
I remember a conversation I had with my mom when I was home for Christmas 5-6 years ago. I meant to have the conversation just with her, but Grandma came and sat down and… you know… you don’t tell you Grandma to get lost. I wanted to make sure that my mom understood what Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, where he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works…”
And I remember asking Mom a whole bunch of questions, trying to see if she really understood that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, not a result of doing good things. And I was trying to be gentle and respectful, but I had a list of questions that were intended to find out whether or not she grasped this—this most important reality of my life. And question after question after question, Grandma kept interrupting… with all the right answers.
Grandma knew that hope in this life and the next is not found in baptism or mere church-going, or in a life well-lived. After all, who of us has lived well enough? She knew that hope was only found in what happened two thousand years ago on a small hill outside of Jerusalem, where one died in the place of many. And she believed in it. She trusted in it. She hoped in it.
If Jesus was a confused and self-deceived religious guru, who talked a big game and said some nice things, but couldn’t really deliver on his promises, then the grave is the end, and there is no hope and there is no hopeful grieving. There’s just finality. There’s a casket and a hole in the ground. But if Jesus really was who he said he was, and his sacrifice really meant what he said it meant—what Grandma believed it meant, then there is a hope that is real. There is something to be known with certainty. As Thomas Brooks wrote, “A Christian knows that death shall be the funeral of all his sins, his sorrows, his afflictions, his temptations, his vexations, his oppressions, his persecutions. He knows that death shall be the resurrection of all his hopes, his joys, his delights, his comforts, his contentments.”
So, Father, where there is belief, bring deepened hope and confidence. Where there is flickering belief mingled with doubt, bring assurance. Where there is unbelief, bring truth. Thank you for Grandma. You were very kind in giving her to us and you were very kind in taking her to yourself. We praise you for her. In Jesus’ name. Amen.