“The Death of Death in the Resurrection of Christ” 1 Corinthians 15:54
A Funeral Homily delivered at the memorial for Diann Warner.
How should we think about death? Over the years I’ve spent time with so many families who have been faced with death. And I can tell you that most of the time, people fall into one of two approaches:
First, I’ve seen the Stoic approach which basically says, “Death is natural. It’s just a part of live.” The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus said:
“Never say, ‘I lost someone.’ Instead, say, “They were mine to enjoy for a while, the way a traveler enjoys a hotel.” Isn’t that comforting?
The opposite approach I’ve seen is despair. Death is seen as utterly final, and yet human beings can’t cope with that finality and so they enter a grief from which they never return. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, put it this way:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Stoicism – “keep a stiff upper lip.”
Despair – “rave and rage because they have disappeared forever.”
Which one is right? And the answer is “both,” and “neither.” Both of the views have partial insight into the reality of life and death but neither of the approaches completes the picture. Ernest Becker summarizes these polarities in his book “The Denial of Death.” He writes:
[We are] literally split in two: [Man] has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.
Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying that there’s an intuitive truth we can’t not know, and it’s that our lives and our relationships with one another are charged with the grandeur of meaning and purpose—and death is the great interruption. Therefore, to say with the Stoic, “Oh, death is just natural,” is to harden yourself to this truth. It’s to kill a part of your humanity. As one pastor said:
We know deep down that we are not like trees or grass. We were created to last. We don’t want to be ephemeral, to be inconsequential. We don’t want to just be a wave upon the sand. The deepest desires of our hearts are for love that lasts.
Now, what I want you to see is that the Christian view of death is neither Stoic, nor is it despairing. On the one hand we recognize, like Dylan Thomas, that death is the great insult to life and we ought to grieve. Yet, our grief is not beyond hope or redemption. Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:
54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
On the one hand, death is the great insult to life. Paul even describes it as a monster—it has a sting and a poison. When our life in this age ends our souls are separated from our perishable bodies.
But notice that even though death is the great insult to life—it is Paul himself who is standing over death hurling insults at it: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Paul stands over death taunting and jeering.
Notice—Paul isn’t looking at death like a stoic and saying, “Oh, it’s just natural.” No, he sees it as the great enemy. But, on the other hand, when he sees this monstrous enemy, he doesn’t cave into despair. And instead, he gloats over death. Why? The next verse says:
57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Very succinctly, the Christian view of life and death is this:
Because God is the author of our life, we owe him our complete trust, all of our affections, and total obedience. And because all of us have withheld our love and obedience from God we have all cut ourselves off, not just from God, but from life itself. Because we’ve defied God’s moral law, death hangs above our heads as a stinging monster.
But the good news of the gospel is that the Son of God became man. He put himself under the same circumstances as us. Paul says Jesus was, “born under the law.” He owed God complete trust, all his affections, and total obedience. And at all points where we failed, Jesus succeeded. He lived the life we owed to God.
And, yet, at the end of his life he was pierced by the sting of death. The poison of a sinner’s death went into Jesus. He received the death we deserved so that we, by faith, could receive the life he offers. And three days later, God the Father raised him from the grave as living proof of his vindication. Listen, Jesus didn’t die so that we would never die. He was died and raise so that even though we die, we will be raised like him.
At the end of the Lord of the Rings, after the Ring is destroyed and the black tower has been thrown down the little Hobbit, Sam, wakes up in a soft bed and finds Gandalf alive next to him and here’s what Tolkien writes:
Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?
When the Apostle Paul says that at the resurrection, “death” will be “swallowed up in victory.” He’s saying that what Jesus has done in his death and resurrection is so complete—it’s so encompassing that everything sad will come untrue.
Death will be swallowed by victory. The resurrection that awaits those who are in Christ will be so satisfactory that it will be better to have suffered and raised than never to have suffered at all. Every tear wiped away.
So where does that leave us right now?
1. Repent & Believe:
To repent and believe simply means to hear the message of good news and Christ and to turn away from your old life of ignoring him. Where are you today? Are you ignoring Jesus? Then the sting of death hangs over your head. And, if you die, the poison of death will sink into your soul. But if you will turn to Christ and believe in his death in your place—you will live—and more than live… you will be raised with him.
If you have questions about what it means to repent and believe, as soon as this service is over, come talk to me. Talk to Randy and Julie—they both would love to walk you through what it means to trust and follow Jesus.
2. Grieve, but with Hope:
As Lewis said, “a cleft has opened up in the pitiless walls of the world for us.” We are no longer forced into either the Stoic approach which denies the pain of death. Neither are we left raging like Dylan Thomas.
We can grieve because we’ve been separated from one that we loved so much. Yet, because of Christ our grief can’t consume us. We can weep, but not too much.
When Diann Warner’s soul left her body on March 11th, 2021 she stood in the presence of her maker. And she stood there with the greatest confidence—not a self-created confidence of good works. No, she stood there, clothed in the perfect goodness of Jesus Christ in whom she had believed.
And as we experience the emotion of grief—we ought as well to feel envious. She no longer fears death. She no longer fears judgement. She has experienced the death of death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—and I wish I was there with her.