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Pain, Hope and the Church comment (0)

June 5, 2014

By Bob Terry

Pain, Hope and the Church

Do you know the pain of returning to a place filled with bad memories? Do you know how some of those emotions come flooding back, even when one has steeled against them; how you can almost smell the aroma associated with the event? 

All who have lived very long have places like that, places we choose to avoid. Next year the General Congress of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) will be in Durban, South Africa, but that is the place where my late wife, Eleanor, suffered the injuries that claimed her life in 1998. We had just completed a BWA project and were on our way to the airport to return home. 

When the announcement was made that Durban would be the site of the 2015 Congress, I knew instantly that I would not go even though I have missed only one Congress since 1980. I simply choose not to revisit a place filled with such painful memories. 

Understanding the connection of place and memories makes it easy to appreciate decisions by many to use funeral home chapels rather than church auditoriums for funerals. It also helps us empathize with some who find it difficult to return to the church from which their loved one was buried. The first time one walks back into the church after the funeral of a loved one, flashes of the casket sitting at the front of the auditorium, the fragrance of flowers and faces of family and friends rushing across one’s memory can be overcoming. I know. I have been there. 

Grounded in faith

But there is another reason, a reason grounded in the Christian faith, that argues for using the church building for the funeral and for continuing to worship there following the funeral. 

Perhaps the reason can best be illustrated by the cemeteries that surround many of the country churches that dot Alabama’s landscape. It wasn’t some law that caused early churches to have cemeteries. It was the message of hope they proclaimed. 

Central to the Christian faith is the hope of the resurrection. The apostle Paul declares in Romans 1:4 that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” It was this same Jesus who said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

Again the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

Since the fourth century AD, the Christian Church has declared its belief in the resurrection of the dead through the Apostle’s Creed, which declares in part, “ ... I believe in ... the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.”  

The Baptist Faith and Message attempts to summarize Christian teaching on resurrection when it says in Section X — Last Things — that “Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised and Christ will judge all men in righteousness.” The section goes on to say, “The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.” 

Baptists and other Christians believe the grave is not the end for the body. Even though “dust returns to dust” a day is coming when God in His power will raise the dead in “glorified bodies” and invite the righteous into His everlasting presence. 

It was the hope of resurrection that caused cemeteries to spring up around early churches. The church was used for funerals because it was there the hope of resurrection was preached and taught. It was in the church that one came to personal faith in the Lord Jesus and embraced the hope of resurrection as one’s own hope for eternity. The last words said over believers were words of hope — words about the coming resurrection. 

Hope of the resurrection

Some Christian faiths dedicate burial grounds only for believers of that tradition. Most Protestant churches in America followed a different pattern. Believers were buried in the church cemetery as a way of expressing their commitment to the hope of the resurrection found in personal faith in Jesus Christ as proclaimed by that local church. 

Too often we forget the way the Christian faith shaped our practices. Early Baptists recognized that every time they walked by the cemetery on their way to worship they were walking by the graves of saints who shared their hope for the resurrection. The cemetery was a stark illustration that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” as Hebrews 12:1 declares. 

Today most just rush by the cemetery without ever thinking about why people were buried next to their church instead of some other place. 

Think about it. The church is where our loved one first heard the good news of Jesus Christ. It was in the church he or she learned about the hope of the resurrection. It was in the church one accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was in the church the God of life and hope was praised. It was in the church that the reality of God living in us as believers was nurtured and the promise of resurrection grew more precious. 

Why then should one want the final tribute to live on this earth and the final demonstration of one’s hope in the resurrection to be anywhere else but in the church?

And why would one not want to continue worshipping in that church — the place that gives hope in the face of death because of its testimony to the coming resurrection? The church was a place of comfort and hope before the death of our loved one, and it will continue to be a place of comfort and hope afterward if we let it. 

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