A Funeral Sermon for a Friend
Carmelo Paul Rios was born on September 10, 1933 and went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Chuck, as most of us knew him, was a member of Texas Oaks Baptist Church during my service and membership there. On May 17th, I was informed that Chuck had requested I "preach" at his memorial service.
It goes without saying that this was a special honor (especially considering that neither of us had attended church together in two years). What follows is the content of that sermon.
I am honored to be here with you today. And I am honored that Chuck requested I speak. Chuck and I made an odd theological pair. As many of you know, Chuck Rios was theologically opinionated. The first thing anyone came to know about Chuck was his name. The second was that he was a student of the word. History might recall Chuck and I as theological rebels, but he and I didn’t always see eye to eye on the meaning of a Scriptural text or a particular subject of theology — namely the nation of Israel. He sat patiently through my sermons and classes. Only upon their completion would he gracefully inform me of his disagreements — which he did on more than one occasion.
After visiting Chuck last Wednesday, my father relayed to me that Chuck said I was “a special young man.” In a form of self-mockery, my response was “he always was a little crazy.” During our shared time at Texas Oaks Baptist Church, Chuck gave me books, a bible, commentaries, magazine subscriptions, and cut out newspaper containing theology jokes. As I said, we made an odd theological pair. But it is as the Psalmist wrote, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1). Despite our disagreements, Chuck and I shared harmony in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is that which makes this a most precious honor.
Chuck would often approach me while I was pouring my coffee before a service. And with no introduction or warning he would ask “What do you think about this subject?” or “Have you read this?” This behavior was not unique to Chuck — the practice is common when you develop a relationship of confidence. I enjoyed answering his question – even when the answer was to ask me again in a week. Upon hearing of Chuck’s request for me to preach, I sat unsure of where to start. There are plenty of nice, kind, and theologically deep things that can be said. Eventually, I decided to imagine that my friend Chuck had asked me one last question — “Joshua, what do you think about death?” I would like to answer that question now.
Psalm 90 is a beautiful and comprehensive passage of Scripture on death and God’s role in the midst of it. Towards its end, the Psalmist says,
“Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us, for as many years as we have seen adversity.” – Psalm 90:15
Earlier the Psalmist also says,
“Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” – Psalm 90:3
In both of these verses, the Psalmist teaches us something about death. Despite its constant presence, death – and thus appreciation for life – is not something we comprehend naturally. We must petition God to “teach us” and “make us.” For reasons that will become evident later, we must specifically let the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ “teach us.”
For each of us to answer the question “What do you think about death?” we need to receive instruction from the Scriptures. To receive this instruction, we must turn to 1 Corinthians 15. Here the Apostle Paul called Christ’s death and resurrection “most important,”
For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-6
Normally, the conclusion of Paul’s epistles is practical in nature. That this recap of the gospel comes deep in the “practical section” is intriguing. From this gospel recap, Paul provides a lengthy exposition on the resurrection of the dead. From this exposition, we can learn two things about death that set Christianity apart from all other religions. First, we need a little context to this passage.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is burdened to address a concern that often addresses us. The question is simple – is the resurrection true? Paul's exposition occurs in the “practical section” because some in the church had already begun to question if there was a resurrection from the dead,
How can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? — 1 Corinthians 15:12
No doubt, the increasing number of deaths — including those who had seen the risen Lord — led to questions and doubts within the church of Corinth. Like the church at Thessalonica, confusion manifested over the nature of the resurrection and the timing of Christ’s return. Doubts about the resurrection did not begin with the Enlightenment, liberalism, or the modern era of social media. It existed in pre-Christian Judaism and the very beginning of the church — recall even “doubting” Thomas.
Why did this doubt exist? I would suggest it is because of the amazing claims tied to Christ’s death and resurrection — claims that impact how we should think about death. Note that Paul is not talking about “life after death” which is common to many religions and mythologies. No, he is talking about the “most important,” historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is unique about the death and resurrection of Christ that caused doubt then and continues to cause doubt to this day? That Christ’s death and resurrection conquered death, which became necessary after man’s fall. Like the church at Corinth, Paul would today have us understand 1) the necessity of death and 2) the vital claims of the resurrection.
The Necessity of Death
First, the necessity of death. Shortly after creation, man rebelled against His creator and incurred God’s wrath. Death is a horrible consequence rendered upon all men due to sin. God pronounced man’s judgment in the garden,
“For you are dust, and you will return to dust.” – Genesis 3:19
The principal is simple. Because of sin, man must die. Reflecting on this in Psalm 90, the Psalmist wrote,
You return mankind to the dust, saying, “Return, descendants of Adam.” – Psalm 90:3
Without reference to Christ, this is a stark reminder that death is necessary. Just as God removed man from the garden, death would further separate man from God. Stories of creatures turning on their creator/father are actually quite common across many mythologies. What is unique about Christianity is that after the fall, God made death necessary for Himself. So, God became man – the Eternal Son of God took on “dust” and lived a life unto death that death itself would die. The author of Hebrews put it this way,
14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the Devil— 15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. - Hebrews 2:14-15
Now through union with Christ, the death of our “flesh and blood” is nothing more than a door – a necessary door. Instead of death separating us further from God, Christ through his made it such that our death would bring us closer to God. This is the point that the church at Corinth missed — death remains necessary for our entering into immortality. We can live free from the “fear of death” because through it we exchange our mortality for immortality. Our advocate Jesus Christ knows precisely what it means for death to be necessary. This is why we can learn about death from His death and resurrection.
As is often the case with the apostle Paul, it takes him awhile to get to this point. We have to skip over some deep theology in 1 Corinthians 15, but eventually, Paul arrives in verse 50. The Holman Christian Standard Bible helpfully articulates Paul's demand for further attention,
50 Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. 51 Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. 53 For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality. – 1 Corinthians 15:50-53
The “flesh and blood” we have in this life is not worthy of the “kingdom of God” — death remains necessary. Paul wanted the church to know that yes death will continue for a time— all this frail flesh must change. The death of saints, even brother Chuck, is no cause for concern. The resurrection promises us renewed bodies and renewed life.
The Vital Claims
This is the second thing we must remember about death — the vital claims about the resurrection. In Christ, death brings us closer to God, but the resurrection is not some form of “life after death.” Many religions and mythologies have devised resting places or purposes for the soul after death. If Christianity was just like them, it might be sensible to agree with Karl Marx, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Even today, many non-Christians will affirm some generic “life after death” in the face of sadness and heartbreak. The existence of these stories and views might be residual shadows of the Christian reality, but like all shadows, they lack substance.
Paul’s foundation is concrete. His hope is the bodily resurrection. He even says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” and “If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19). The death and, specifically, the resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaims more than any other religion. It proclaims something greater than “life after death” — this is why people doubt it. Christianity proclaims the vital power of the resurrection — the death of death and death-unto-life.
It is in this train of thought that Paul reaches into the Old Testament and pulls out the popular words,
54 When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory. 55 Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? 56 Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! – 1 Corinthians 15:54-57
These words off the lips of Paul are not merely interpretation and application of Scripture. They are not deep theology. They are what they plainly appear to be — a taunt against sin and death. The resurrection says that death is no longer death — it is powerless. Death’s only remaining function is to prepare us for the resurrection of our bodies in immortality and life everlasting. It has become a tool. One old hymn even calls death “the wrench that sets us free” (It Is Not Death to Die, H.A. Malan). Christ took on the “flesh and blood” that could not inherit the kingdom and now uses the skeleton of death to cloth us in incorruptibility and immortality.
I will close by returning to Psalm 90,
You return mankind to the dust, saying, “Return, descendants of Adam.” – Psalm 90:3
For the non-believer — for the one who does not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — the phrase “You return mankind to the dust” continues as a judgment for sin. Sin necessitates death. Barring the return of Jesus Christ, everyone is this room will eventually die.
But we are not here today because death is a formidable foe. We are not here because sin remains victorious. Our Lord conquered both through His self-imposed, “necessary” death. Instead, we are here because the Risen Lord — who died for us and promised us participation in His resurrection — has beckoned our brother to His throne saying, “Return, descendant of Adam.” Chuck has returned to the unadulterated presence of God Almighty.
So, what do I think about death? It is a necessity that God willingly brought upon Himself that we may be with Him. In light of the resurrection, death is the Good Shepherd calling His children home in preparation for immortality and life everlasting. While we all await the day of that blessed resurrection, Chuck has begun to experience “the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). He can say with the saints who have gone before, “we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He already sees the glimmers of what Paul described when he wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
A modern rendition of the hymn It Is Not Death to Die captures my closing sentiment perfectly,
It is not death to die
To leave this weary road
And join the saints who dwell on high
Who’ve found their home with God
It is not death to close
The eyes long dimmed by tears
And wake in joy before Your throne
Delivered from our fears
Our Heavenly Father,
With the Psalmist, we ask that you would “Teach us to number our days” and “Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us” (Psalm 90:3, 12). Let us not grow weary of looking to Your Son for instruction – knowing that in Him You have revealed life and conquered death. Through Your unfailing grace, may we know more intimately that “He Himself was tested and has suffered, [and] He is able to help those who are tested” (Hebrews 2:18). Lord, strengthen us through your Son who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). Lord, send your Holy Spirit to empower us to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Father, help us not “not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13) as we await our blessed resurrection.
In Your resurrected Son’s name, Amen.