For years I tried to get Julia Hennig to play the piano here at Good Shepherd. For years she refused because she said that her skills had declined. I don’t remember how I finally managed to convince her to do so, but I will never forget the outcome. The piano simply came to life as her hands went flying over the keys. I have no doubt that others who were here that day remember it as well.
Julia played music that day in church. Church and music were the two foci that defined her life. As you read her remarkable biography, you see that time and time again they were intertwined with one another. She earned Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees in piano at the University of Michigan, and then attended Valparaio University where she received her certification as a Lutheran deaconess. She served as a deaconess while playing organ and directing the choir. She taught piano at Concordia Teachers College, River Forest and in doing so trained many students who went on to serve in church work in the Lutheran church.
It therefore seemed appropriate to select as part of our text for her funeral homily these words in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
The word of Christ did dwell richly in Julia. She was baptized into Christ through water and the Word. She was catechized in the teaching of the Small Catechism. And she continued in a lifelong engagement with God’s Word. As a pastor, you could not ask for a more enjoyable person to have in Bible class. She was smart and knowledgeable, and she was genuinely interested in learning new things about Scripture.
And what Julia did in word and deed, was done in the name of the Lord Jesus. Julia did a lot of impressive things during her career. But in the stories that she told I remember her being particularly animated when she talked about the work she had done with Sunday school ministry in the Cabrini Green Housing Project in Chicago. She cherished the memories of her work there and the experiences that she had as she shared the love of Jesus Christ with those children in word and deed.
Julia was smart, cultured and accomplished. She was a fascinating person who had spent a lifetime of service in Christ’s Church. And that is why it was so difficult to watch the last five years or so. As physically, and especially mentally, she began to fail it was like watching her disappear. And now that process has reached its end in death.
Julia’s illness and death reveals that in spite of all the nice things we can say about her – and there are very many – she was a sinner. The apostle Paul says very clearly in Romans that, “The wages of sin is death.” Julia was faithful, but she did not fear, love and trust in God above all things. She was caring, but she did not always love her neighbor as herself.
Julia would not have claimed otherwise. This is the very thing she confessed again and again at the beginning of the Divine Service during the course of her life. Yet while she confessed her sin, she also had faith that in Christi and so she knew that she was forgiven.
The apostle begins our text by saying: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” In the language of “put on” we hear an allusion to baptism that Paul had mentioned in chapter two. There he described the Colossians as “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Through baptism Julia shared in the death of Jesus Christ. She received the forgiveness from the action that Paul goes on to say that God was using to forgive all our trespasses, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Jesus died to win this forgiveness. But during this season of Easter we rejoice in the fact that God’s powerful working was not done on Good Friday. Instead, on Easter he raised Jesus from the dead. And because Julia was baptized into the death of Jesus, Paul can even describe her now as already being raised up with Christ. We know that she is already with Jesus now, because Paul tells us that death is to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.
Because of her baptism Julia is a forgiven saint who is now with the Lord. Yet the presence her body in this casket is an unavoidable reminder that our Lord’s saving work with her has not yet reached is completion. Paul says in our epistle lesson today from 1 Corinthians 15, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
After this service we will go the cemetery and commit Julia’s body to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. We will do so in the confidence that our Lord Jesus has risen from the dead. And because he has, we know that he will raise up Julia too. Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection – the first part that guarantees all of the rest of us will follow.
And so we pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” because the apostle Paul has told us that we await from heaven “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” He will do that for Julia. He will do that for you.
While we wait, we do what Paul instructs in our text when he says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We sing praises to God and have thankfulness in our hearts because Julia died as a baptized child of God. She is with the Lord. She no longer suffers from all that sin has done, and she has peace. Confident in this fact, we look with eager expectation to the return of our Lord Jesus on the Last Day when he will raise Julia from the dead and give her life in his new creation.