John 3:5, 16: Donna Defferding’s Funeral Sermon

Believe and BaptizedWe face death as we face life—with our eyes fixed on Jesus.  We cling to the promises of His Word, which, when facing death, seem even more incredible and powerful.  We find one of our Lord’s most beautiful promises in John chapter 14:

“In My Father’s house are many rooms; if that were not so, I would tell you.  For I am going away to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so you may be where I am also.” [John 14:2-3]

No matter how our lives may end, of this, we can be certain.  We will pass from death into life, from this life to the life beyond, with our Lord.  There, we will rejoin our loved ones and the others who went before us trusting in Christ as their Savior.

We mourn, and when we do, we turn to the fellowship of the Church and the comfort of God’s Word and Sacrament for healing along the path of grief.  For Jesus Christ is present in His Church through His sacred means of grace, the way He comes to us with His comfort and salvation, now and into all eternity.

One day, we too will stand with the vast multitude of heaven who live out these blessed words:

“God’s home is now among the people.  He will make his home with them, and they will be his people.  He will be with them and be their God, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will no longer exist, even grief, crying, and pain, for the old creation has passed away.” [Revelation 21:3-4]

Even so, we’re still stuck with the question of “why?”  The truth of Christian faith just entered our ears, what we believe, but we still ask, “Why?”  Our fallen nature acts that way.  Does God ordain all from His throne on high, even the evil?  Or is everything just a random turn of events and we’re dust, blown about by every breeze.  We ask because, in many ways, Donna’s death caught us by surprise.

We ask such questions, but the answer is closer to home than we would like: Sin.  Now, Donna didn’t die from some wrong she committed.  Sin is part of our state of being.  We inherited this because we are part of this fallen creation.  Sin’s reality proves its existence because Donna, in the end, waged a losing battle against death.  We live in a sinful, broken world, you and me, and none of us can escape it.

Donna’s life is also a testament to another important truth.  She revealed as much to me during my surprise visit to her in St. Louis.  Ron expected my visit, but I think it was still a surprise for Donna.

We talked and even joked a bit.  She asked me to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”  For Donna, Jesus’ love didn’t float around as some abstract fact, wispy, and something intangible.  His love was more than Jesus dying for her sins.  She also received God’s Love in the body and blood of Jesus as she received the Sacrament that day.  Such love comforted her, even after complication on top of complication beset her hospital recovery.

How did Donna know God loved her?  Scripture tells us in the most well-known verse in the Bible: John 3:16.  “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but receive eternal life.”

Having God’s love means you receive eternal life.  This Donna knew—but the story of John 3:16 starts much earlier—when sin first became part of our being.  We chose to go our way, to be a little god in the place of God.  I’m describing our fall into sin back in the garden.

God, however, would not be content to let this fallen state have the final word.  So, God set apart a nation, through whom would come the Savior of the world, the Savior for Donna—Jesus.  Jesus, as God, took on human flesh and entered our existence.  He lived without sin.

One night, a prominent teacher came to visit Jesus.  He understood Jesus and God had some connection, in some way, because of the miracles He did.  But instead of responding to what Nicodemus asked, Jesus delves into a different conversation: “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Now Nicodemus is perplexed.  For he thinks Jesus is talking about a second physical birth.  He’s not; Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth from above.  That birth from above will become the baptism that Jesus will command His Apostles to do.  Jesus will tell them: “Disciple the Gentiles by baptizing and teaching” (Matthew 28:19).

We teach toward baptism and baptize toward teaching.  We don’t do one without the other.  Donna received both, including the waters of holy baptism.  The rest of her life became learning what it means to be a baptized child of God, growing in knowledge and trust of Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t separate baptism from faith.  His words pointing Nicodemus to baptism and belief are part of the same conversation.  They go together.  Jesus designed it that way.  “Unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but receive eternal life.”

So, what does this mean for Donna?  What does this mean for you?  The funeral liturgy, in the Baptismal and Resurrection Comfort, tells us.  Jesus’ death and resurrection came to Donna in the waters of baptism.  So, her current reality, her soul being with God in heaven, is not her final reality.  She will also rise from the dead, when God unites her body—then perfect, sinless, and unable to suffer corruption—to her soul.

Donna did not grow up as a Lutheran.  She grew up as a Baptist, as did I, so she didn’t grow up believing God did anything through baptism.  She believed according to her faith tradition, as did I: baptism was something someone did to show he was a Christian.  Despite all the places where Scripture tells us that baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5, Romans 6:3-5, etc.), we both were taught, what Scripture calls, “the traditions men.”

God does not constrain Himself because of our missteps.  For Donna received a baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The God of the universe.  She received a baptism of the real Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and God is faithful to His word.  So, He brought her into His kingdom and baptized her into Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But Donna’s physical rise from death hasn’t yet happened.

So, Donna’s still living in faith, believing to be true what she does not yet experience.  She still lives in hope, awaiting what she doesn’t yet have.  She is no longer in pain or suffering.  For this, we rejoice!  Her eternal soul is delighting in God’s eternal presence.

Still, we ask “why” and grieve her death.  So, why did Donna die?  At the root of it all is sin’s corruption.   The eternal solution, however, is not to continue living in a fallen state, where you fall apart over time, bit by bit.  No, sin must die, which was why Jesus chose to die on the cross.  He took our sin into Himself and killed it on the cross in His death.  So, when we are baptized into His death and resurrection, believing in Him, an eternity awaits us beyond our knowing.

Donna is not there yet, not fully, for she’s still awaiting her salvation’s fulfillment in Christ Jesus.  We are here, also awaiting our salvation’s fulfillment in Christ Jesus, but mourning her loss from our lives.  But don’t live like this is the end.  For a family reunion awaits all who are baptized into the kingdom of God and believe in Christ.  You will be with her again.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but receive eternal life.”  God did all this, even though we didn’t want or ask for this gift.  God did all this, even though we, at times, reject, despise, and blame Him for our problems.  God loved us in this way: He gave up everything to save us and bring us home to be with Him in heaven.

Donna lived in God’ love.  She received it every week in Church, receiving Jesus in Word and Sacrament—His preached Word entering her ears, and His body and blood entering her body and blood.  In His grace, God saved Donna through Holy Spirit-given faith, not by anything she did, but by what Jesus did for her.  God saved Donna for eternity, giving her life and salvation.

Donna is now home in heaven where God is still saving her.  God continues to keep her in His care, as she awaits her body’s resurrection.  Pain no longer afflicts her, neither does worry, heartache, or even complications from surgery.  She now shines in God’s everlasting glory with all the saints, who earlier died in the faith.

Donna is now in heaven, arrayed in white, singing praises to the Lamb of God as she enjoys her Sabbath rest.  Donna is not dead but gone ahead, where we too will follow by faith.  She is alive in Christ and will be raised again, on the Last Day with a perfect body, and will then rejoice with Jesus in her risen flesh.

For now, we look forward with faith and hope to the time when God will reunite us with those who died in the one, true faith.  In Christ, this is all true.  Donna, we will see you again!  Amen.