Have you ever been inspired at a funeral? That sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? But if you’re hearing story after story of a life well-lived, it can be an inspiring experience. Even as we’re sad or burdened during a time of loss, the evidence of a faithful life is powerfully moving. We inevitably wonder what people will say about us when our time comes. Maybe we’re even motivated to makes some changes. Be a little kinder, more patient, forgive, or reconcile.
Two non-family funerals I’ve attended in recent years stand out because of how inspired I felt afterward. One was several years ago. A dear friend’s neighbor, Merri Beth, who was about our age passed away after a long battle with cancer. Her funeral was about a four-hour drive away, so I offered to go with her. I knew Merri Beth and her husband, but not well. We were members of the same church but attended different services, so I really only knew them through our mutual friend. Because Merri Beth had been sick a while, she had plenty of opportunity to think about her funeral. She made a video that included photos of all the people and activities she loved. It was heart-wrenching to see this otherwise young, vibrant and passionate lady speak to her friends and family. But, I was so inspired by how she lived: on mission every single day. She went on church mission trips as long as she was able. She stayed active in church and ministering to others. Her beautiful heart and Christ-like spirit vividly shone through in the video. Here’s one example I learned about on the drive home. My friend, Merri Beth’s neighbor, was single and worked full-time. By the time Merri Beth’s health forced her to stay home, she would still cook when she could. Since she was only cooking for two, she would often have her husband bring the extra servings across the street to my friend. That act of thoughtfulness and kindness meant so much to me. When we the last time I took made or took extra servings to a neighbor? What’s my excuse – it certainly wasn’t the pain and exhaustion of stage-four cancer.
More recently, I attend the funeral of a lady from my home church, Barbara. I grew up with her children. She, too, had been sick for a while so had the opportunity to plan her funeral. Barbara wrote letters to her husband of 63 years, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She also prepared a note for her in-laws and parents, all of whom had long been deceased, and a group of her best friends. Whether they were present at the time or not, she wanted the audience to know how much she loved and appreciated them. When I learned of Barbara’s death, I immediately thought about two things. First, she opened her home to host many youth activities over the years. (That, in and of itself, takes a special person!) Second, I began playing the piano at my church when I was in the 8th grade. I know for a fact there were many horrendous moments as I learned over the years. (Sometimes, there are still horrendous moments!) She was one of a handful of ladies who always had a sparkle in her eye and a kind word every time she saw me. After I left for college, moved away and eventually married, every time I would visit, she sought me out to speak. Barbara was an encouragement. What made her funeral so special to me were those letters she wrote to the people she loved the most. She didn’t want her funeral to be about her, she simply wanted everyone there to know how much they were loved, both by her and by her Lord Jesus.
When I first read Hebrews 12:2 in the New Living Translation, this powerful and beautiful word “champion” leapt off the page. Jesus is our champion. I originally learned this verse in the King James Version. Maybe you did too. It describes Jesus as “the author and finisher” of our faith. Those are also wonderful words and I’ve heard a sermon or two in my life on them. But, to read Jesus described as the “champion who initiates and perfects” our faith gave me pause.
I live in Clarksville, Tennessee, home to Olympic Gold Medalists Wilma Rudolph, for whom I have immense admiration, and Pat Head Summitt, who at the time of her retirement from as Lady Vols head coach, was the winningest coach in NCAA history. Studying their stories, what they overcame, and what they achieved, taught me a thing or two about this word, champion. (If you’re not familiar, you can read their bios here.)
As a noun, we’re all familiar with the word champion and its primary definition: “a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition; who shows marked superiority.” While we most often think about that in a sports context, like the Super Bowl Champions or the World Series Champions or the Kentucky Derby winner, there’s another definition that applies to an individual beyond overcoming odds or winning a competition. That secondary definition is “a person who fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else.” Our Jesus is both. He defeated every foe for our salvation. He also did this on our behalf because we are incapable of saving ourselves, of becoming “good enough” for a relationship with our Creator.
He's also champions us. You see, champion is also a verb – an action word. He maintains our cause, stand with and for us, upholds, supports, backs, defends, and advocates. The two precious ladies I told you about were wonderful encouragers during their lives and beyond, and I hope you have some of those people in your life. Jesus through the Holy Spirit is also our encourager, but he’s so much more. Fighting and defending and advocating, that’s risky. It’s uncomfortable and can be painful. It costs you something. It cost Jesus his life. But he willingly paid that price because he loved us that much. He loves us that much still. He did all that was required to have an eternal relationship with you.
1 John 2:1 says, “My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.” (NLT)
Psalms 59:10 says, “In his unfailing love, my God will stand with me.” (NLT)
The Passion Translation of Hebrews 2:2 reads: “We look away from the natural realm and we focus our attention and expectation onto Jesus who birthed faith within us and who leads us forward into faith’s perfection. His example is this: Because his heart was focused on the joy of knowing that you would be his, he endured the agony of the cross and conquered its humiliation, and now sits exalted at the right hand of the throne of God!”
Friend, you have a champion. You have someone who is actively fighting for you, defending you and standing with you. He is advocating and interceding for you before the Father – the Champion of Champions.