The Church’s Graveyard

I know it is not particularly common in Southern California, but in other parts of our country and certainly throughout Europe, outside the walls of a church it is typical to find the church’s graveyard. Normally, this graveyard is not situated in a back corner far away from the normal happenings of the church. No, right out in the lawn that you would pass by every Sunday morning are headstones marking the graves of the saints of God who had died throughout the years. If you go to the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany you will even find the graves of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon right inside the church, buried beneath the very floors the people walk over as they come to hear the Word and receive the gifts of Christ. We may find this strange or even a little morbid, but I think it is a powerful testimony. There is something beautiful about burying your own right on the grounds of the place where they are fed and nourished by the constant promises of our God.

See, the focus and promises of our God are tied up in precisely what we experience when we visit a graveyard. When we are reminded of death and the limits of the human experience, we are reminded of our true hope in Christ. Saint Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth says, “I remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved.” Then he reiterates the Gospel truth saying, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Good News is not just how Christ died for your sins and that He was buried for your transgressing. No, the hope Paul is leading us to embrace is that Christ was raised from the dead. The Gospel is the promise of a resurrection. It is the promise that the grave does not get the last word and death and the pain of separation are not the end for the children of God.

This is the hope you live in throughout your days. It is the hope which comforts you when you mourn the great losses in your life, the hope that give you courage to press on. It has become somewhat common in our day to sell this short, to pull-up before we get to the hope of the resurrection. We speak of death as an escape from life, from the trials and tribulation of our experience. We love to talk about dying and being with our Lord, which is a good and wonderful comfort, but it is not the whole picture. There remains the promise of a resurrection; a real, bodily reunion. We are creatures after all, made by our Creator to live on a creation. So, just as there is the promise of a resurrection, there is the promise of a new Heaven and new Earth. It will be a new creation to live in for all eternity in the presence of our Lord.

The key to this hope, the assurance that this promise is for you is the resurrection of our Lord. It is the celebration of Easter Day. I have heard many well-meaning Christians say their faith is so sure, so confident that nothing in this world would be able to shake it, nothing would undo what they have been given. But, at least theoretically, there is something which would nullify all our assurance and confidence. Paul puts it this way when he says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If Christ has not been raised, if there is no resurrection from the dead, then your faith is futile, that is, your faith becomes pointless. It no longer offers anything real, anything substantive. It is reduced to yet another philosophy for better living in this age and nothing more.

If they found a tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem that held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, if the crucified one never actually defeated the grip of the grave, why then it all comes undone. The reason we trust our Lord’s words, the reason we believe He will keep His promises to us, is rooted in the fact that He rose from the dead. As the angel says to the women who come to the tomb, “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.” He did what He said He would do. So, we listen to His Word. We listen and trust in Him for His word is truth and He does what He says He will do. We listen to the firstborn of the dead. Now, not everything he says is something we like to hear, not everything is comfortable. The Word of God works as a precise, piercing sword which cuts to the center of things. It has a habit of exposing issues we would rather keep hidden in the darkness. The crucified and risen Lord whose word is truth calls you a sinner. He declares it is because of your thoughts, your words, and your deeds that His hands bear the marks of the piercing nails. It is because of your pride and arrogance that He knows what the inside of a tomb smells like.

Jesus suffered and died for sins which were not His own. He who knew no sin became sin for you, so you might be given life eternal. And the reason we know His sacrifice covers our sin, the reason we can be sure that eternal condemnation has been overturned by His love, is because the grave could not hold Him. The ancient curse is broken as victory is proclaimed by the resurrection. But, as Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.” The resurrection of your Lord is everything. It is the assurance of His promise and the foundation of your hope each and every day. Easter is not just a once-a-year celebration. Easter is the reality in which you live. It is the confidence of the victory you have been given in Christ.

Easter is real. Jesus rose from the dead. Paul gives us an accounting. People saw Jesus and interacted with Him. He says, “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me.” The promise made to you is that, just as He rose from the dead, so you will rise. Just as the grave could not hold our Lord, so it will not hold the saints of God. Death is not the end. There is a resurrection. There is a life to come. There is a reunion coming in a new Heaven and new Earth. There is an age to come.

Which is why I love the idea of church’s having their own graveyards. Imagine if every Sunday as we gathered around our Lord’s gifts, every time you came to church you walked past rows of headstones. And unlike our local cemetery, these are not all unknown names, long forgotten among those who walk the grounds. No, these are your brothers and sisters. These are familiar names for they are the names of people you love and knew. You wept with them in their moments of grief and sorrow. They had helped you and been there for you when you were filled with doubts and confusion. Of course, you also laughed with them as you shared in the rich joys of life. You walk past your husbands and wives, your parents, and friends. You walk right through to the church as together we await the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises.

For you see, the Church’s graveyards are a testimony to the hope of the resurrection. They are dead, but not gone, not removed from the body of Christ. And this truth remains whether we have a graveyard outside these walls or not. For wherever our brothers and sisters lie buried, wherever they have been kept, wherever they have been scattered, our fellowship will rise from the dead. There will be a reunion. There will be a more glorious day to come. Why? Because Christ has risen, He has risen indeed. So, your faith is not in vain but remains the sure comfort found in a God who keeps His promises.