Ellen Patterson funeral
When I arrived at Good Shepherd in the summer of 2006, I did what many pastors do when they begin serving a new parish. I started the process of visiting all of the members of the congregation in order to get to know them. I don’t remember when I visited Ellen, but I certainly remember my first impression, because initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her.
Ellen was very direct – at times almost brusque. She had no hesitation telling you what was on her mind. If she thought something, she was going to say it. I was, at first, somewhat caught off guard by this. However, as I got to know Ellen a little better I realized that she was very loving and caring person. She had herself experienced very serious health problems. After being married to her husband John for over forty years, she had already lived as a widow for nearly sixteen years when I first met her. I learned that having experienced these things she was empathetic towards others. The genuine concern she showed when my wife had to have a brain tumor removed was touching, and right up to all but the very end she always asked about how Amy was doing.
I learned that Ellen deeply loved her family. When I began visiting Ellen as a homebound member I regularly heard about the members of her family. And of course, I heard the same stories several times. It was easy to tell that they were the joy of her life. That appreciation of family extended to others as well. She got to know my family and part of each visit was showing her the latest pictures of my children and telling her what they were doing as she enjoyed watching them grow up.
And it soon became apparent that Ellen loved the Lord. Almost every time I visited she expressed how much she missed being able to go to church. As the years went by and her mind began to fail her more, I discovered that hearing and speaking the words of the liturgy, and receiving the Sacrament of the Altar had a remarkable calming effect on her. She knew it too, and always mentioned how much it meant to her.
In our text from the end of Romans chapter eight, the apostle begins by saying, “What then shall we say to these things?” “These things” include a number of statements describing the difficulty of life. Paul has said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He has said, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Or as Paul just wrote: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Paul has been talking about suffering and weakness. And in our text he goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
Sitting here today, it would be easy to think that Ellen has been separated from the love of Christ. After all, she has died. And even before she died, she was being lost to herself and to others as her mind deteriorated and her condition advanced.
In this same letter, the apostle Paul tells us exactly why this has happened. He says that “the wages of sin is death.” Ellen has died because she was a sinner. We can say lots of nice things about her, but none of that changes the fact that before God she was a sinner in thought, word and deed. Like the rest of us, she was a fallen person living in a fallen world. The illness that stole her mind from her and ultimately caused her death was a result of this condition. It is the same condition that afflicts all of us, and it will produce the same result for every person here: death.
That is how things look - that sin and death have separated Ellen from the love of Christ, just as they have separated her from us. But appearance is not the reality. And so the apostle vigorously replies: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why can Paul be so sure? He has just laid out the reasons a little earlier in our text. He began by saying, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Sin cannot separate Ellen from God, because God gave his own Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross for her sin. As Paul told the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Ellen was baptized into Jesus’ saving death and in the water of baptism her sins were washed away.
And so Paul can ask: “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.” Baptized into Christ and living by faith in him, Ellen was ready for the Last Day. As Paul said earlier in this letter, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
In Christ, we already know the verdict of the Last Day for Ellen. She is innocent, not guilty because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for her. Paul told the Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Finally, in our text Paul asks, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Not even death can separate Ellen from God and the love of Christ, because the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead. In fact, death now means being with risen and ascended Lord. As Paul contemplated the possibility of his own death, he told the Philipians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Ellen is now with Christ, and for this we give thanks. She no longer faces the struggle against sin. She no longer suffers from the condition that afflicted the end of her life. She is with the Lord, and that is far better.
However, in her baptism Ellen received the promise that God is not yet done. Instead, something even better awaits her. Paul wrote about baptism in chapter six, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In baptism, Ellen received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who created and sustained faith in Ellen during her life, is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. And so Paul says earlier in this chapter, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” In fact just before our text he went on to add, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Because Jesus has risen bodily from the dead, Ellen will too. Through his Spirit our Lord will raise her from the dead with a body transformed to be like his – a body that can never die again. As Paul told the Philippians, “we await 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.”
So on this day, we give thanks to God for the blessing that Ellen was in the lives of her family, friends and congregation. We rejoice in the knowledge that nothing has been able to separate Ellen from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Instead, justified by faith on account of Christ, she is a saint who is with the Lord. And we look with eager expectation for our Lord to return in glory, for on that day he will raise Ellen’s body from the dead so that she can live in the new creation with Christ forever.