February 24, 1996
- Memorial Service -
Ephesians 1:1-10 "By Grace Alone Made Alive in Christ"
Dearly beloved in the Lord, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
As we gather today, we are well aware of the fact that Chris had a long battle with AIDS. But regardless of how it comes, when death does come to one whom we have known and loved, we grieve the loss. At the same time, however, there is a sense of relief, particularly for Chris, since we know he had experienced a great deal of pain and misery in these last months. It is hard to watch someone hurt at every touch and movement and struggle in pain and convulsions so many times as Chris did. But now, by the mercy of God, that horrible virus is dead and can do no more harm to Chris, forever!
"Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." (Psalm 23)
There is also a sense of great joy today. I will say more about that in a few moments. For now, let me assure you who remain that my prayers are with you, Sam and Lynnette and so many of you, in both your grief and your joy today.
LET US PRAY: Loving Lord Jesus, be with all who are gathered here today. In your mercy, comfort. In your strength, support and uphold. By your Holy Spirit, lead us and teach us that we might know your never-ending love for us in life and in death. Above all, grant us your peace. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
God has a word for you today, dear friends. It is a word of promise. I want to share it with you now. The gracious word is from the Gospel of John, chapter 14, vs. 6, and it reads as follows: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except by me."
The name God means different things to different people. in fact, if I were to ask for your individual definition of God, I would likely get quite an assortment of responses. Now there is undoubtedly a number of reasons that it would be so. Your personal understanding of God is based on a number of different factors:
what you have heard and learned from parents and teachers;
your own experience of God, however broad or limited;
For example, there are some folk, and some of you here today might be counted among this group, who believe that God created the world, but then went off into some far corner of the universe to let the world run by itself. God is, therefore, a long way away and quite unconcerned for us, or the events of the world, as we trudge along life's road.
There may be others among you who think of God as a kindly old doting grandfather, just waiting in the wings to be asked so that he can share some of his celestial goodies with you. From that perspective, God is nothing more or less than a heavenly Santa Claus to whom we say, "Don't call me. I'll call you."
A few of you might even believe in a God who is an angry God, always waiting and ready to pounce on you when you are naughty, in order to hand out punishment, and not always fair in the process.
I could go on. There are many definitions of God similar to those I have mentioned. But the primary point I want to make at this time is this: for many of us, God is a god of our own making. God is our creation, a creation based on bits and pieces of information and on a limited understanding -- what we think God ought to be like or what we want him to be like. Think about that for a moment. Then I ask you to go a step further with me.
Let's imagine that you really want to get to know a particular person. You gather all the information you can, from family and friends. You look up as many facts as you can about the individual. You reflect on your own experience with him or her.
But regardless of how well you do your homework, you will only know that individual when he decides to let you know him. Furthermore, you will only know him according to that which he is willing to reveal to you.
I will only know you as you let yourself be known to me. You will only know me as I allow myself to be known to you.
If that is so, and it is, we are faced with a rather interesting problem. You might think you know me while in fact you do not know me at all. Indeed, you could have a totally wrong understanding of who I am due to the fact that you have based your conclusion on partial, or even bad, information.
Have you ever had someone make the following comment to you? "Now that I have gotten to know you, you are entirely different than I thought." My wife said that to me a good many years ago now -- it was long enough ago that I don't remember if that was before -- or after she married me. In any case, she has endured me for some 30 years.
"Now that I have gotten to know you, you are entirely different than I thought." The same thing can be true with regard to our understanding of God. If we really want to know what God is like, we must go to him and to those places where he has revealed himself to us. Never settle for second-hand information.
Where has God revealed himself? In creation. In his Word. And most personally, in his Son, Jesus Christ. If you base your understanding of God on anything else, you like likely have a god of your own making and not even know the true God.
The God revealed to us in the Bible is a God of love, a God who loves both creation and creature alike. God loves us so much that he was willing to come into this world, to take our sin upon him, suffer and die, and rise again, in order that we might know what he is really like.
From that perspective, the Good News of the Bible, dear friend, is essentially a love story. It is God's love for you and for me. God loves you in Jesus. He wants to be in you and with you so that your days might be good. His love is not earned by us. His love is given freely even though we reject him and do things the opposite of the way he had intended for the good of each of us and the good of the world he created. And even though we live in a world which in every way continues to reject the creator and do things in the ways we think best with our limited understanding, yet he still reaches out in love, so that might know him and through faith possess his free gift of eternal life with God.
Is that the God you know?
Why do I make such a point of this? I make it only for one reason. We are gathered here today in memory of a man who in his short life had an incredible struggle to understand God and his ways. When he attended school here at St. Paul's and in other Christian settings of church and school, he learned about the God who created all things, who sorrows over the separation of his creation from his beautiful plan for that creation, and of God's efforts in Jesus Christ to reach out to his creation with his love and to open a path to new life and health (salvation).
But Chris had some very painful experiences as well. Those experiences weren't all of his choice and he wondered out loud where God was when the evil happened. He struggled with God, and the understanding of God as a God of love and forgiveness as it had been taught to him as a child in church and school.
We all experience that struggle, for life is an unpredictable affair. Much of it is good -- just enough so, that we get some glimpses of just how good it could be. But much of it is painful, unpleasant, and unpredictable as well. Our highest hopes, our most cherished dreams, our fondest ambitions, our best laid plans may be shattered and scattered by the changing tides of tomorrow. Tomorrow's tides may end a friendship, break up a love affair, or sweep the person dearest to us through the doors of death. Who knows? Tomorrow may be your last day on earth. Or mine.
Thomas Kurtz wrote in poetic form with penetrating insight.
So many things that touch the heart so transient seem to be;
They seem of life to be a part, then suddenly they flee.
The things on which the heart is set, in which we put our faith,
Oft seem to be dependable, yet they prove to be a wraith.
It would be easy for us to become pessimistic and cynical because of life's unpredictables. It seems easy to accept that view today. We are confronted by ashes and death and we know that we too will be here someday. Should we accept death as the way things were meant to be?
I cannot. Based on what I know of God in Jesus Christ we were not meant to die. We were not meant to suffer pain or illness, rejection, hatred, abuse, hurt or loneliness. These and all the other sins and hurts of life were not part of God's original intention of creation. God created the heavens and the earth., and he saw that it was good. Never did he intend death to be humanity's end. Jesus, too, saw death as the direct opposite to God's will. It is we rebellious sinners who have made death what it is -- the final denial of God's plan for the world he created. We have made it the end of life.
But that's the rub. God is God, and his intentions will not be subverted. His plan of union with him is still his desire. He fully intends to disavow death's apparent naturalness, no matter what the form.
"God's mercy is so splendid, and his love for us so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience, he brought us to life with Christ." (Eph 2)
What is natural is life.
What is natural is love.
What is natural is health and salvation.
What is natural is an open-ended future.
That is the Gospel of Good News -- the gracious but firm "NO" by God to the apparent naturalness of sin and death. Chris's school and church experiences pointed him to this open-ended future -- not confined by the pain, injustice, hurt, and sin we now experience. God intervened and continues to intervene to end the suffering brought on by sin. We call that ending death and we think of it as an ending, the dashing of our hopes and our dreams of something better. We see death as bad, evil, something to be avoided as long as possible. God calls it death also -- an ending to the distortion introduced into his creation. What we call only an ending, God calls a beginning, a new beginning, so that we do not have to continue forever with the consequences of life in separation from God. He gives us a gift of new birth to new life. And that is why the Bible calls the day of death better than the day of birth. We are born into pain and agony, we die into eternal, joyful life with God.
And now Chris has received that gift. It is the same gift that God has given us -- the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. "It is by God's grace that you have been saved. He did this to demonstrate for all time to come, the extraordinary greatness of his grace in the love he showed us in Chris Jesus." (Ephesians 2:5b-6).
God has give us the gift of sainthood through Christ. By his death and resurrection, he has given us the hope that, in the coming years, he will continue to show his immeasurable grace through an open-ended future that looks beyond the apparent naturalness of the grave.
Chris didn't understand it all. He did not possess all knowledge. He did not know the Bible and its teachings with all of the fullness he might have wished. Some of you even expressed concern to me about that during these past months.
But Chris, and you, and I, are not saved by our perfect knowledge and understanding any more than we are saved because of the goodness of our lives. Chris was saved, and you and I are saved, only by the grace and mercy of God which passes our human understanding as we trust him to bring it all out for good.
For Chris, that has come to mean that he is now with the God and Father of us all. He is part of the full intention of God's plan for humanity -- eternal life. He has inherited in full the gift which we, here, have only partially received.
For us here today, that means living this day and every day as a part of a glorious plan for a beautiful future. It is a future, shaped by God, toward which we can live confidently. It is a future which faith and hope opens to us as life. It is a future with purpose -- to preach and to be the body of Christ here, now, already, in this sinful world.
We have work to do.
As Christians we are buoyed by God's gift of grace.
We are buoyed by the open-ended future that God's gift of Jesus Christ gives to us.
We are buoyed by the life of faith and hope that sees us through death.
We are buoyed by the ability to serve our fellow human beings in a life of freedom and joy.
"For it is by God's grace that you have been saved by faith. It is not a result of our own efforts, but God's gift so that no one can boast about it. God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds which he has already prepared for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)
It would be easy for us to become pessimistic and cynical because of life's unpredictables and injustices, if it were not for the fact that life holds some great certainties, too, in the hope and promise of life and health forever as a gift of God's love for those who simply trust in him to change what we have done to His world.
When Chris died, he died claiming a promise. The amazing promise that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Rejoice in his confession of faith. God loves us, God loves Chris and has relieved him of suffering, taken him home to himself and left us with the sure hope of eternal life with God.
And may that peace which passes all of our human understanding keep our hearts and minds in the love of Chris Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
by Pastor Douglas V. Johnstone
St. Paul's Lutheran Church
Garden Grove, California