By John Zimmerman
In my first five years as a pastor, I officiated at 50 funerals in a congregation that averages less than 100 in Divine Service on Sunday. That is, in this congregation in Scranton, Pa., I buried about a quarter of the membership in just a few years out of seminary. To the unbelieving world, this might be seen as a defeat — not for Christians. While the majority of those who died were already homebound, church members still remembered when these fellow believers filled the Divine Service. They missed singing the hymns and visiting weekly with their church family.
This was not what I thought I would be doing straight out of seminary, and there is no way to be fully prepared for it. The residential seminary program that prepares a man to serve as a pastor in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod normally takes four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. For the four years in seminary, the pastor-in-training prays in chapel, hits the books, learns how to teach the Bible and how to reach out to the unchurched. While the student also serves a vicarage (one-year residency program) during which he assists with hospice visitations and funerals, it still cannot fully prepare any pastor to do 50 funerals in five years.
Despite the challenge, it helped me learn about the congregation. Sometimes it takes new pastors a while to meet and connect with members outside of the Divine Service, Bible classes, potlucks and coffee hours. Folks are busy, and chatting for a few moments with members each week is not the best way to get to know people. The 50 funerals I performed provided me an opportunity to learn more about congregational families quickly, since I was visiting homes, hospitals and hospice centers.
Behold a host
On Nov. 1, we celebrate All Saints’ Day (your congregation might transfer it to the first Sunday of the month). On this day we read Revelation 7:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)
What a crowd that must have been for St. John to see. He could not number it. This is part of the joy that we celebrate every All Saints’ Day. The innumerable number of saints gathered around the throne and before the Lamb includes all those ransomed believers that I have buried in northeastern Pennsylvania. This crowd in heaven includes all your believing friends and family who have died in the faith, who washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb in Baptism. While we cannot sing Christmas carols together, gather with them at the Easter sunrise service, taste their famous potluck casserole, or visit in their homes or at a care center in this life anymore, we have not lost our Christian friends who have died in the faith. They have transferred from the Church Militant on earth to the Church Triumphant in heaven. They rest securely with Jesus.
The hymn “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White” captures the joy of this picture of heaven. In the second verse, we sing:
On earth they wept through bitter years;
Now God has wiped away their tears,
Transformed their strife To heav’nly life,
And freed them from their fears.
They now enjoy the Sabbath rest,
The heav’nly banquet of the blest. (LSB 676:2)
When the organ fires up and the organist begins to play the sweet Norwegian tune, “Den Store Hvide Flok” (translation: The Great White Flock), I often think of the funerals that I have presided over for the past half decade since ordination and joyfully ponder the sure and certain knowledge that those baptized believers rest with Jesus.
Further, my fellow believers and readers, many of whom I will never meet here on earth, you who believe in Jesus will be in that innumerable throng before the throne, washed in the blood of the perfect Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ.
On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus said to His disciples:
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going. … I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:1–4, 6)
Jesus also told Martha at the death of Lazarus, her brother and Jesus’ friend: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). This is a chief question of the Christian faith. Do you believe this statement from Jesus? Do you believe that He is the only way to heaven? The man who has trained to be a pastor and who will be preaching at dozens of funerals better believe this divine fact. As a faithful member of God’s family, the church, you believe this too. It is our fervent prayer that the Holy Spirit continues to enlighten and enliven our faith in Christ.
Having so many funerals in this small Lutheran community has blessed the congregation with the opportunity to gather around the promises of Jesus at the death of their church family members. While consoling families during hospice vigils, funeral activities and in the months following can be taxing emotionally, the Gospel truth keeps members and pastors going. God feeds His flock with His sure and certain Word. This feeding of the faith is vital; it is the only way through the sorrow. One’s faith is strengthened in hearing the Gospel proclaimed weekly and feasting on the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament. Keep being fed by Jesus. Personally, I’m indebted to brother pastors and fellow believers who have prayed for and encouraged me during these years. I also met my beloved bride while serving here, and her ongoing loving, prayerful support has helped me immeasurably.
“Pastor, I want you to do my funeral.” For me, that is quite the compliment. I told the dear member who kindly shared those words with me that while I hoped it would not be soon, it would be my privilege to proclaim Christ’s victory over the grave for all who would hear it that day.
Christians must remember this fact: This earth is not our home. The funerals over the past five years have kept this reality at the forefront for many in the parish. Having the casket of a loved one resting before the chancel is the ultimate object lesson. Those who have attended the funerals of the faithfully departed have been equipped with the Gospel truth and hope about the resurrection of the dead. Each funeral service in Lutheran Service Book begins with the recitation from Romans 6:5, “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.” Commit this key Bible verse to heart. It comforts those who mourn and will build your own faith in Christ. You are united with Jesus through Baptism into His death and resurrection.
Let your hearts be glad and at peace, fellow believers in Jesus. He has gone to prepare a place for you in heaven. He has promised to come again to take you home to live with Him in heaven forever. He will do it. His resurrection previews your future resurrection. This glorious Gospel truth enlivens and gladdens hearts amidst sorrow. This is the joyous, divine truth that I, and all pastors, have the joy and privilege to share, especially in funeral sermons and on All Saints’ Day.
Death cannot defeat Christians. Those who remain faithful until death will receive their crown of life given to them and paid for by Jesus who has triumphed over the grave. They will stand in that innumerable throng before the Lamb forever. This is the glorious Gospel fact that all Christians share in this dying world: Death has been defeated by Jesus, and those who believe in Him will live forever. This evergreen message never gets too old to share from the pulpit, in hospice care or at the dinner table — or at a funeral, whether at the 50th funeral or the 500th.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of The Lutheran Witness.