But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.

I Thessalonians 4:13-14

The Epistle lesson at the funeral service is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, chapter four, verses 13-17. The passage begins by saying We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  It is important to know that the passage does not say “do not grieve” but rather to “not grieve as others who have no hope.”

There are two instances in the Bible where Jesus grieved. One was for His friend Lazarus, who had died. Jesus went to the tomb and wept there. Even the Son of God was crying for a friend who had passed. If Jesus can cry, it is okay for us to cry. There are lots of people who think that tears are a sign of weakness, that one must be stoic at all times. Tears express the emotion of grief (and sometimes of joy). Just like our life would feel incomplete if we never laughed, so it would also feel incomplete if we never cried. It is important that tears come out when someone passes away. I mentioned earlier that when my dad passed away, I cried on the airplane all the way from Florida to California. I didn’t cry at his funeral. That was not because I’m stoic or unfeeling. I have cried for many people that I have buried. I just generally do not usually cry in public. God brings the tears at other times so that when I’m presiding over a funeral, I can lead the worship without being emotional. I cry often actually.

The second time that we read of Jesus crying was in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before He was arrested and crucified. Jesus cried these tears in anticipation of His own death. He was scared, not only at the prospect of dying, but of how He was going to die. He knew that pain and suffering stood between Him and death. Again, using Jesus as the example, it is okay to cry as we reflect on our own death. If one is facing major surgery in order to extend life (i.e. a multiple by-pass as an example), it is certainly okay to grieve, to cry, to express emotion. No need to be stoic in this instance either.

There is a difference, I believe, in healthy grieving and chaotic grieving. I’ve been to funerals where people were wailing in the pews, where people have tried to climb into the casket and where someone actually jumped down into the grave. I think that is the “ignorant” behavior the St. Paul is referring to in his Epistle to the Thessalonians. Because we believe in God, because we believe in the mercy of God, and because we believe in the Kingdom of God, we can have human sadness and cry and grieve, but we shouldn’t feel chaotic, like all hope is gone, because as Christians, it isn’t. Because St. Paul confirms, in the very next verse, for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. 

I have experienced many deaths that I would describe as “horrific”—accident, murder (yes, we had a double murder of a mother and her daughter-in-law in our community several years ago), and several deaths of children. There was a great emotional outpouring at many of these, loud questions as to why this happened. That is to be expected. However, with time and space, even in these, we can step back from grief and take some measure of comfort in these words of St. Paul, that those who have passed on will rise again to a better life, made possible through the death and Resurrection of Christ, and the mercies of God.

Saint Paul concludes this short passage with the comforting words we shall always be with the Lord. The choice to believe in God is just that, a choice. There are many ignorant voices in the world, voices who claim that Christians are the problem, and that Christ is a construct to give people something to lean on when life gets tough. Those thoughts are personal choices people make. I choose to believe in God, even though in many ways I’m still ignorant of many things. As an aside, I remember the first time my wife and I saw a sonogram of our son in her womb, this little entity growing inside of her, I was so fascinated and thought to myself “this confirms the presence of God to me.” How could life possibly be authored by us? Perhaps it is continued by us, but it was authored by Him. On the other end of life, I have seen (and shared many of them with you) so many beautiful things that have happened surrounding the passing of people that it confirms for me the reality of God, even though again I’m still ignorant of so much.

I have grieved the loss of many people—my parents, parishioners, friends—but I do it with a measure of spiritual hope mixed with my human sadness. And hope is something that eventually should trump sadness and despair, which is why we grieve, but we do so with hope.

I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exult His name together! I sought the Lord and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to Him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy is the man who takes refuge in Him! O fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no want! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, O sons, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips form speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursuit it. The eyes of the Lord are towards the righteous, and His ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked; and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of His servants; none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned. Psalm 34

It’s okay to grieve, but as Christians, we grieve with hope!