Text: Luke 7:11-17 [3rd Sunday afte Pentecost]
What will you do when you are personally faced with death? Death could stare you in the face with a diagnosis of incurable cancer. Death could stare you in the face with a diagnosis of extremely risky surgery. Death could stare you in the face, as you see your mother, father, spouse, or child in a hospital–in intensive care with breathing tube, intravenous feeding, and other life support–then the doctor comes in and says, “I’m sorry, there is nothing more we can do for him–and there is no hope of recovery. I’m very sorry.”
The people of the town of Nain in Galilee were filled with sorrow that day when Jesus happened to meet their funeral procession. There was not a dry eye in the crowd. No one was more sorrowful than the deceased’s mother, who was a widow. Not only was she living with the sadness of the loss of her husband, without remarriage, but here she lost her only son. She had thought he would provide and care for her until her old age. Now she had no one–she was a “widow” in every sense of the term. Only poverty, sadness, and fear of the unknown were in front of her into the distant future.
Jesus’ first words to the widow was “Don’t weep!” That certainly does not sound very sympathetic. Everyone expected her to cry; anyone with a bit of empathy cried with her. But Jesus saw things differently, because he saw things that neither they, nor you, nor I can see. The people of Nain and the widow saw death, with lots to fear and sorrow over. Jesus saw the soul of the young man, which was not extinguished, although the body was absolutely dead. So Jesus called to the soul of that young man and said, “I say to you, arise,” and the soul returned to its body. Jesus then gave the living young man to his joyful mother, and the crowds were amazed. This was one of three resurrections that Jesus accomplished, not including his own, which was a fourth.
What will you do when you are personally faced with death? If you are a believer in Jesus and His words, you really don’t need to fear or have sorrow. If you are the one who has received the diagnosis of death, then you know that when you die, your soul will be with Jesus and with all the departed believers who wear “white robes” in heaven (Revelation 7:9). If you are the one who is going to die, then you know that your soul will return to your own body on the Last Day and then you “will always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:17). If your loved one dies, and he or she is a believer, then he or she has gone to a far better place; as Saint Paul desired “to depart and be with Christ which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). It is true that we believers feel sorrow over our loss of loved ones this side of the grave, but there is no reason to fear. There is no good reason to fear death at all!
There are wrong reasons to fear death. Those wrong reasons to fear death come from false doctrines found in various Christian churches. These doctrines explain, among other things, what happens to you after death, and how you can be sure that you will be saved. These false doctrines of salvation are the primary reason that I could not, in good conscience, become a pastor or priest in those churches.
This does not mean that every member of these churches believe these doctrines, but they are the official doctrines in those churches. You need to know about these false doctrines, because your friends or loved ones may be members of these churches or influenced by them. You can offer them real comfort and hope when their doctrine fails them.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches, their doctrine teaches that the souls of the dead, both the believers and the damned, go to an intermediate state called Hades. They teach that believers in Hades are sorrowful and suffer pain, because they are separate from God and their bodies. Thus people facing death in these churches are sad, because they think that believers are going to a worse place than here on earth, before the Last Day.
In the Roman Catholic churches, their doctrine teaches that the souls of the dead believers enter purgatory. According to Thomas Aquinas, the least pain of the poor souls in purgatory is worse than the greatest pain on earth. These churches teach that souls in purgatory suffer for a long, long time, but will eventually be purged of their sins and enter heaven. They teach that you may shorten or lessen your loved one’s suffering in purgatory by obtaining a novena or by obtaining an indulgence on their behalf. If I was Catholic, I would certainly be afraid to die, no matter how “good” or “pious” I was.
In the Calvinist churches, which includes the Presbyterians and Reformed, their doctrine teaches that the souls of dead believers enter heaven. But according to John Calvin and his followers, you will never really know if you truly believe, because only those elected by God before the foundation of the world have true faith. Calvin taught that many think they have faith, and say they have faith, but they really don’t–they are self-deluded. So you could die and wake up in hell; or you could die and wake up in heaven–you will never know until you get there! Which is kind of too late, in my opinion!
In the Arminian churches, which includes most Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, their doctrine most commonly teaches that the souls of dead believers enter heaven. But according to these churches, mere faith is not enough to receive the “blessed assurance” of salvation before you die. They say you also need to have some sort of experience of conversion and/or evidence of a renewed life in good works, sanctification, and/or a life of virtue.
The problem with this doctrine is that you never know when you have done enough good or feel pious enough. It is the same problem that Martin Luther faced in the monastery before his discovery of the Gospel. As these Evangelical Christians face death, they often fear that they have not done enough good, or that their conversion was counterfeit. There is no “blessed assurance” in the face of death for such Christians, especially when they feel the pangs of conscience and their own sinfulness.
One of the best parts of being a Lutheran is being able to face death without uncertainty, fear, or sorrow, because you have the sure and certain confidence of live everlasting. Because of the Lutheran church’s insistence on sola Scriptura, we long ago rejected the old pagan ideas of Hades and purgatory that crept into the medieval church. Because of the Lutheran church’s insistence on sola fide, we long ago rejected the common idea that you have to make a contribution of some sort to your own salvation. All you need to do to be saved is to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Because of the Lutheran church’s insistence on sola gratia, we long ago rejected the idea that God is a wrathful judge who enjoys sending the vast majority of humanity to hell. We teach that “God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). The only reason that some people are not saved is their own stubborn rejection of the Gospel. Those who want to be saved through the merits of Jesus Christ obedience, suffering, and death will most certainly be saved. They have no reason to fear death, because being with Jesus is far better than this “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
May you always remember why you can face death without fear or sorrow, so that you may help those who do fear or sorrow; and so that you may be joyfully ready to be with Jesus when he calls you home. In Jesus’ name. Amen.