Of the Church’s many New Testament choices for funerals, six from from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. And of those, five are contained in four central chapters 5 through 8. Is this significant? The Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne SJ sees these chapters as a “broader argument for hope,” citing the apostle’s “boast” in suffering (cf. Rom 5:3). Further, that despite “sufferings in the present time,” (Rom 8:18) the believer latches on to the notion that God offers an ultimate and eternal freedom. That future glory that will dwarf any comparison to present trials.
That brings us to the conclusion of Paul’s “Gospel of Hope.” If the following reading seems familiar, we heard it at Sunday Mass just a few weeks ago:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us.
Who will condemn?
It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised,
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness,
or peril, or the sword?
No, in all these things
we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This passage presents three clear expressions that give us cause for hope. First, the reality of the Paschal Mystery. Jesus has tread this path of tribulation, and even a sense of abandonment in the face of death. Yet Christ triumphs. That was not just a historical exercise of God’s power. It has meaning because of Christ’s redemption. It will be a reality for all believers.
Second, Paul lists earthly obstacles. Jesus suffered “all these things.” These are not badges of condemnation or the ill will of the Father. The badges of suffering become banners of victory.
And lastly, Paul gives a litany of supernatural forces. If modern women and men are unfamiliar with the hierarchy of indifferent angels and other powers, perhaps we can substitute our sense of bad luck, bad karma, bad vibes, etc.. An early death, an unjust fate, an incomplete life, gross and tragic unfairness to those left behind: truly, they are irrelevant to the love of God, and the ultimate expression of God’s love.
If mourners are prepared for the encounter with hope, this passage or one of the others from Romans may be a good selection for the funeral. What do you think?