Funeral Sermon for Joan Armstrong

One of the most beautiful gifts we receive from God is also one of the most easily overlooked gifts we receive from God. That gift, that beautiful gift, is the gift of our bodies. But we don’t often think of our bodies as gifts from God, as part of God’s grace for us, and so we tend to overlook our bodies. On the one hand, it’s nearly impossible for us to imagine life without our bodies—and that’s a good thing, actually, because in God’s plan for creation, bodies and life go together. On the other hand, many of us spend a lot of our lives thinking of our bodies more as problems to be solved or fixed or escaped than as gifts to receive.

As children, our bodies just seem so natural and fitting to us that we don’t even give them a second thought. But as we age, our bodies undergo many changes, and we become more aware of them. We become sensitive to the developments of our bodies as they grow from childhood to adulthood, and as they balance awkwardly in the stages in between of our teenage years. Just as importantly, though, we begin to compare our bodies with those of other people, who seem to have more attractive bodies, more athletic bodies, “better” bodies. We try to “fix” what we see as wrong with our bodies through diets, exercise, and how we present our bodies with what we wear, or with what we do with features of our body like our hair. And all of that, for most of us, turns our bodies from gifts to receive into problems to be solved long before we start dealing with the consequences of aging and long-term illnesses and the occasional poor decisions we have made with and for our bodies.

If you wanted to, I think you could say that the letter of 2 Corinthians is about what it means to receive our bodies as gifts from God for the sake of Jesus Christ. Paul founded the church in Corinth; he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Corinthians, and many of them responded passionately. But there were always problems, and in 2 Corinthians Paul must defend not only his own position as an apostle of Jesus Christ: Paul must also stand up for the gospel, for Jesus Christ himself. It seems that the Corinthians had become ashamed of the weaknesses of Paul’s body. The Corinthians, you see, had somehow decided that suffering, and affliction, and pain in this body were all signs of weakness, and weakness, they thought, could have nothing to do with the strength and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So throughout this letter, Paul takes on this position again and again; instead of running away from his sufferings, he embraces them for the sake of Christ. Paul talks about the thorn in his flesh; the sufferings he bears; the race that must be endured. Paul even boasts in the afflictions he carries in his body, but he never loses sight of something greater: this body, this beautiful gift from God, will one day be clothed in immortality and glory, just as Christ’s body was clothed in immortality and glory at his resurrection. That, and not suffering itself, is our hope and our confidence.

To receive our bodies as gifts from God is to keep covenant with God’s purposes and promises for our lives. To receive our bodies as gifts from God is to place our trust in Jesus Christ. To receive our bodies as gifts from God is to give up on our own strength and to accept the power and strength God offers to us in our weaknesses.

When I first met Joan more than two years ago, she had already long known the sufferings a body can endure in this world. Joan had known the pain of medical problems and of the loss of beloved members of her family. She moved slowly and couldn’t really get around without a cane or a walker. Yet as I met with her week after week in our Wednesday morning Bible study, I discovered that Joan, like the Apostle Paul, had an enduring strength and confidence about her body, about her hope, and about her faith that no suffering, no pain, no affliction could overcome. And as for Paul, for Joan this confidence wasn’t a form of arrogance or pride; it was founded in nothing short of the promise of the resurrection in Jesus Christ. And for Joan, as for Paul, the promise of resurrection was real because she knew, deeply, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 5:5, Paul tells us that the Spirit is given to us as God’s guarantee, God’s pledge, God’s down-payment, or God’s engagement ring for the promise of resurrection, of clothing this mortal body with the building from God, not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.

Joan had seen the power of this down-payment, the power of the Holy Spirit, for herself, in the healing of her body and in the bodies of many others in her lifetime. She knew about the Holy Spirit because Joan spent much of her life in prayer. Prayer is the means of grace God has given us for dwelling with the Holy Spirit, for getting to know and recognize the Spirit’s work in our lives. And Joan loved to pray. In fact, we bonded, I think, because each of us saw in the other a person whose confidence in Christ comes from being immersed in prayer with the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes people talk about the Holy Spirit as yet another way of escaping or avoiding or overlooking the gift of our bodies that God has given us. But that’s not how Paul talks about the Spirit or our bodies in 2 Corinthians 5. “We wish not to be unclothed,” Paul says, “but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” Yes, at death, we may be unclothed from our bodies and at home with the Lord, as Paul says, and as Joan is now, but that momentary unclothing is only so that we can be re-clothed, eternally, with the glory of our resurrected bodies. The shape of our hope is always the shape of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Spirit is God’s pledge that our lives can follow where Christ has led.

Bob tells me that for most of the last year Joan regularly returned to this passage of Scripture, to 1 Corinthians 5:1-9. That doesn’t surprise me. At her baptism, in faith Joan was clothed with the glory and righteousness of Jesus Christ. By the Spirit she was nourished over a lifetime of faithfulness, sometimes in extraordinary ways. And now she is home with her Lord, and she will be clothed once again in the glory and righteousness of Christ, no longer by faith but by Life itself in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There’s no doubt in my mind that returning to this passage recently allowed Joan to receive her body as a gift from God, a gift with a purpose and a future beyond her frailties and sufferings.

As we mourn Joan’s passing together, let us cling to this hope in Jesus Christ, not just for Joan but also for ourselves. As we grieve her death, let us find assurance and solace in the words Paul offered to the Corinthians, in the words God in Christ offers to us this day: “For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” Praise be to God for the hope we have in Jesus Christ! Praise be to God for the gift of the Spirit, and of our bodies. Praise be to God for the faithful witness of Joan Armstrong. May we know in faith what she now knows fully, even as she is fully known. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Thanks be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

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