Eight years ago this week, my phone rang Saturday afternoon. It was one of my closest pastor friends. He began, “Greg, my son shot himself to death, today.” He then gave me the privilege of ministering to his family in those difficult days.
Many people are confused about suicide. Many wonder if a person is automatically damned if he takes his own life. I hope the funeral sermon I preached answers vital questions.
All names have been changed.
Dear members of the congregation, friends of Mark, and especially to his family: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
You might think you are here for Mark, or for the Schultzes. You might think this is about Mark. Everyone knows that’s what a funeral is for, to speak well of our loved one and remember him. I will certainly do that, but that’s not really what this is about. When I talk about Mark, please hear everything I say under this heading: what the Lord Jesus did for Mark.
As your presence here is a marvelous show of love and support for the Schultzes, you are in this church to lean, with all your weight, upon the gifts and promises of God the Father, purchased and won for you through His Son Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all of your sins, so that you possess life which defeats the grave, so that you are saved from death, devil, and damnation.
This sermon has three sections. First, a little bit about the man Mark was—about the young man, from what I learned on Monday when visiting with the Schultzes, who was a bright, funny, creative, precocious, talented, caring, loving, and empathetic young man. Second, an important section about sin, about the topic that you don’t want me to talk about today but one on which people always have so many questions: taking one’s life, and about your own battles with the enticing world, the tempting devil, and the weak flesh in which each one of us lives. Finally, the best part: the eternal life to come in the resurrection from the dead.
As I take up the first section, I must bathe it in the fact that Mark wasn’t simply the multi-gifted guy you knew him to be, but he was, first and best, a child of God. Mark was conceived and born a sinner. As he received every physical attribute from his parents, he received their spiritual attributes, the sin of every generation which stems from Adam’s original sin.
Because Alan and Beth loved Mark, they quickly took Mark to the font of forgiveness; the baptism of Jesus Christ in which Mark became the righteous possessor of his Lord’s promises: faith in Jesus Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of all his sins. God’s Word declares that the baptized one is joined with Christ in His death and raised with Christ in His resurrection, and that the baptized one puts on Christ as a robe of righteousness.
In every way, Mark was a typical, young, American male. I read all of his interests on his Facebook wall, and the many posts of his friends. I’ve heard the family stories.
The Lord equipped Mark with a fine body and a wonderful mind. Dad and Mom want you to know that Mark succeeded in sports because he was persistent. But, they were most pleased with the caring nature of their firstborn son. See, Mark simply could not bear to see anyone get hurt, nor to hurt anyone. You know, Alan and Beth, that sounds to me like living the Golden Rule.
Mark’s siblings want you to know how gifted their big brother was, the things he did to make them laugh—many of which are definitely only for family consumption—how compassionate he could be with them, and that he was such an awesome musician.
To all of you, who knew and loved Mark, he was special because he was a neat and nice guy. But, of eternally greater importance, to God the Father Mark was as holy as Jesus Christ, for God the Father always saw Mark through his Savior. Mark was holy in God the Father’s eyes, righteous and beloved, because Jesus is righteous and beloved of the Father, and Mark belonged to Jesus—Mark belongs to Jesus.
Here is Mark’s confirmation verse, Revelation 7:14: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (all Bible passages NIV). When Mark’s soul arrived in heaven, he joined this crowd which is gathered around the throne of God the Father and the Lamb Jesus Christ. Mark did, indeed, arrive in heaven from the great tribulation of this world and of his personal struggles, and now Mark is declared with all the other saints in heaven to be one whose robe was washed white—pure, holy, freed from the penalty of sin—in the blood of the Lamb.
That’s what the Lord Jesus did for Mark when Mark was baptized and throughout Mark’s life. That’s what Jesus does for you, the baptized who still live in this great tribulation. Lean on that today. Trust in that tomorrow. Rejoice in Christ forever.
Moving to section two, we need to address some sticky questions. How can a loving Jesus let such terrible things happen? Doesn’t God promise to never give us more than we can bear? And, I will dare to ask the one that’s so hard to talk about: can a person go to heaven who took his own life?
How can a loving Jesus let such terrible things happen? A few years ago, when I was in a similar, tragic situation in Port Hope, it came to me to answer this question thus: do you want God to step into your life every time you are about to sin? Can you imagine if, every time you might misuse God’s name or tell a lie, He would zap you just enough to stop your mouth; or every time you were about to covet or lust or hate, He would turn your thoughts into fields of daisies and butterflies; or every time you are about to open the fridge for that evening snack that you don’t need, He would slam the fridge door on your fingers?
Do you want a God who controls your life? Is that what love does—build fences around us so that we can never do wrong, so that we can never get hurt?
As all parents do, Alan and Beth let Mark grow and let him go into the world. Jesus did the same for Mark. As Alan and Beth always had their hearts watching over Mark, and were always there to take his calls, answer his questions, and provide for his needs, so much more did the Lord Jesus always take Mark’s calls, answer his prayers, and provide for his needs. Alan and Beth let Mark make mistakes—that’s what love does, it gives freedom to do right and freedom to fail. From heaven, Jesus gave Mark freedom to live his life, to pass the tests of life or to fail them, but He always loved Mark, and in the ways that matter for Mark’s eternal life, He always kept Mark safe. Never did Jesus leave Mark; never did He forsake Mark.
The Lord doesn’t control our lives and, to ease into the second question, He does not give us more than we can handle—well, hold on; let’s look at what the Word of God says in full: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Here’s what happens: every person has his own set of struggles, trials, and temptations—tests of weakness, illness, and maladies of every type. For you, the Christian, when there is no other answer—when you can’t fix a problem, or cure an illness, or avoid a temptation, or pass a test—there is always God’s answer to your trouble: Jesus Christ and His strength, His compassion, His forgiveness, and the wisdom of His Holy Spirit.
So, here’s what happens: we don’t always pay attention to the last part of this passage: “But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” We follow our own thinking. We listen to the ways of the world. And that wily devil, who has been learning our weaknesses, having been observing us all of our lives, knows exactly where to strike with his evil intentions. And we don’t stand up under it. We fall.
We ask: how can a Christian take his own life? Fair enough. As long as we are asking, let’s also ask:
- How can a Christian cheat on his wife?
- How can a Christian, who knows that God forgives his every sin for Christ’s sake, still hold onto grudges and not forgive others?
- How can a Christian steal?
- How can a Christian gossip?
- How can a Christian sass his dad or mom?
- How can a Christian delight in getting drunk?
- How can a Christian misuse Jesus’ holy name?
The fact of our sinful nature is that we Christians commit every sin under the sun. To recognize this is not to excuse this. And please hear this clearly: nothing I say, today, gives anyone permission to do harm to himself. Listen to Beth Schultz on this: first, if Mark were healthy, this would never have happened and, second, Mark never meant to hurt anyone.
What I am working to achieve in this sermon is understanding: understanding of our frail minds and bodies; understanding of our brother, Mark; and, best of all, understanding God’s grace, Jesus Christ’s love, and the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence . . . especially when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Thus, we land on the question: how can a person go to heaven who took his own life? Actually, we can shorten it, for the question is the same for all: how can a person go to heaven? For this, I need only proclaim the promises and gifts of Jesus Christ:
- 1 Timothy 1:15: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
- John 3:17: “For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
- And, two verses later: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”
- Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
- Romans 8:39: “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- Finally, in John 6:40 hear the Lord Jesus: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
This takes us to the third and best section of the sermon—Jesus’ promise: “I will raise him up at the last day.” This is what Job was talking about: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I, and not another!”
Mark knows that His Redeemer lives, and in the end Mark will stand upon the earth, and after his skin has been destroyed, yet in his resurrected flesh he will see Jesus.
First Corinthians fifteen tells us four ways our bodies go into the earth because of death, and four ways in which death will be conquered in the resurrection given to us by Jesus Christ.
First, the body that is sown into the earth is perishable—that is, we live in bodies that can and do die, and we can’t stop it. But, the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be imperishable—never to be touched by death again.
Second, the body that is sown into the earth is laid to rest in dishonor—that is, it is a shame that our bodies should be captured in a casket. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in glory—the resurrected body will never again be held captive.
Third, the body that is sown into the earth is sown in weakness—these present bodies succumb to disease, to old age, to accidents, to every manner of harm which silence them. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in power—no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain will ever visit our resurrected bodies.
Finally, the body that is sown into the earth is a natural body—we are shackled to the laws of this corrupted world, in this sinful nature. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised a spiritual body—and of this I can barely speak, because you and I cannot begin to imagine what it will be like to transcend the only world we know.
All of this, dear friends, Jesus Christ prepared for Mark and for you. So, for now, Mark’s soul delights in heaven, at the foot of the Lord Jesus’ throne, praising Jesus for his salvation. So, for now, you delight in the house of Jesus, at His altar-throne, from which He is proclaimed in the Gospel, in which you are baptized into His gifts, and from where you are fed upon His living body and blood.
I close with this verse from Romans, which is really hard to digest: “We rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And, hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Dear Alan and Beth, and all who loved Mark: God’s Holy Spirit is at work today so that in your suffering your faith will be strengthened that you might persevere, building your Christian character by which you live in hope for the rest of your days in this great tribulation—the sure and certain hope which is Jesus Christ, the Victor over death.
Your Victor. Mark’s Victor. Jesus Christ. Amen.