Sermon: A Funeral Homily for James Pyles

The following is a sermon written for my homiletics course. It is a funeral homily for my friend and roommate of three years, James Pyles, who died on June 24, 2004, while serving on a missions trip to Palestine. I wrote this sermon for those who knew him best, but I was also conscious of some temporal distance between his tragic death and the giving of this sermon. I offer it here in his loving memory.

Scripture
“For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Prayer
Gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remind us again today in the midst of grief, that you have graciously granted us the honor of participating in your story of salvation for the world. As we reflect on the life of your faithful servant, James, grant to us assurance that the good work which you began in his life will be made perfect on the day of Christ Jesus. In the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


I remember the moment very well when I first met James. I had just finished unpacking my clothes from one of my three suitcases in the dorm room to which James and I had been assigned by the housing office of Wheaton College. I had spoken on the phone with James for only a minute prior to meeting him in person. Any images I had formed of him in my head could not have prepared me for the man himself. I was a shy academic; he was a gregarious person who had a Socratic tendency to pose difficult questions at you until you either gave up or gave in. Not surprisingly, I was the English major, he the philosophy major. I was the pious law-abider; he was the logical law-breaker.

You can imagine my surprise when, during our third and final year at Wheaton together, he suddenly felt a calling from God. Now, I am not usually the kind of person who defaults to language of calling and vocation, but in this situation, there was simply no other option. As some of you may know, James began a weekly small group that met for the purpose of fasting for Sunday dinner and giving the money one would normally spend on oneself to a church or mission organization overseas. Each week they would gather together and reflect upon the call of Jesus to live simply. (This is even more surprising when one considers James’ insatiable appetite and boundless metabolism. He was well-known for eating three full plates of food at a typical meal.) The call of God upon James Pyles extended beyond “simple living.” Over the course of his final year at Wheaton, he felt a calling—to the utter shock of his friends—to travel to Palestine and minister to those living in the Gaza strip. Those of us who knew him were left speechless. Here was a young man who arrived at college seemingly bound by no authority. And after three years, he was ready to give up everything he had for the sake of the gospel, even life itself.

It is in light of such a strong and indubitable sense of divine calling that his death seems all the more inscrutable. How could God call this young man to forsake everything in order to follow Jesus Christ, and yet allow the unspeakable to happen, thus leaving the work that was clearly so important to James unfinished? This is the kind of question with which we are left to ponder in our grief.

So we gather here now to reflect upon the life of our dear James, and to set his calling in the comforting, illuminating, and liberating light of God’s Word. And in this inscrutable situation, there is perhaps no more appropriate word than the one we find in Phil. 1:6, where the apostle Paul—another man called indubitably by God to proclaim the gospel—states: “For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

For I am confident—this is no naive confidence born out of suburban comfort and Roman luxury. No, this is a confidence purified as through fire; a confidence born out of intense suffering; a confidence whose foundation rests solely in the mercy and grace of God. As Paul states in Phil. 3:8, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things …” In this situation, confidence is not flippant, joy is not superficial, and peace is not some inner calm. James had precisely this kind of confidence. There was nothing hollow or artificial about his sense of mission. He had the confidence of Simon and Andrew who, when they heard the words, “Follow me,” immediately left their nets.

But the confidence of Paul is not confidence in the Philippians, just as James was not confident in himself. Both instead were confident in God and God alone. The “good work” is not a human work but rather a divine work; in other words, it is a work which only God can begin—viz., the work of the gospel. The words of Paul in Phil. 1 remind us of very similar words from Eph. 2:10: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Indeed, the James who gave up meals and traveled to Palestine was clearly a person that God had made and re-made. He was created in Christ Jesus for “good works” to which God called him. And God not only prepared James for this work; God accomplished this work through him. Over and over again in Philippians, Paul makes it clear that this “good work” is God’s good work. In Phil. 1:28, Paul says, “this is God’s doing,” and later in Phil. 2:13, he says, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

And this is precisely how James would want us to remember him: doing the work of God only by the grace of God. There was nothing “in” James which made him uniquely gifted to carry out this task; those of us who lived with him knew this all too well. He heard the call and responded appropriately. He was, to put it simply, a faithful servant. And as the servant of God, he knew that the mission of the gospel did not begin with him and could not end with him; rather, the mission of simple living, of following the call of Christ, of faithful obedience in response to the call begins and ends with Jesus Christ. The mission of God does not begin with us, but instead began when Jesus Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). In a very real sense, therefore, the mission of God has already been accomplished before we ever arrive on the scene. We cannot add anything to the cross; we must, like Paul, simply proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. We are freed by Jesus to become faithful servants. We need not reconcile the world, for Christ has already reconciled the world to God (2 Cor. 5:19).

In the meantime, then, we stand between the words of Christ at Golgotha, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and the words of Christ in the New Jerusalem, “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). We stand on the threshold between the cross and the new creation. Our gaze looks in two directions at once: backwards in remembrance and forwards in anticipation, backwards to death and forwards to resurrection. Here and now, we experience suffering and death, but we look forward in hope to when everything will become new. Here and now, our lives are imperfect and broken, but we have confidence that the God who began this good work will perfect it, so that there and then on the day of Christ Jesus, we will be transformed and made whole. Standing between cross and new creation, between obedience and exaltation, between death and new life, we press on toward the goal.

We do not press on toward just any goal, but rather we seek to be conformed to the person of Christ. He is our goal. He is our reconciliation, our righteousness, our sanctification, redemption, and life. And so Paul writes: “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him … I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8b-9a, 10-11). In this present age, as we stand between cross and new creation, we seek to gain Christ and be found in him. But to gain Christ is to gain both his death and his new life. We live our lives, so to speak, within Holy Saturday, looking back to Good Friday and forward to Easter Sunday. We stand between the Crucified Jesus and the Risen Lord. Just as new creation is the transformation of the old creation and not a new world altogether, resurrection does not come apart from death. We are conformed by God’s grace into the person of Christ, and even though he is risen indeed, he still bears the marks of his passion. So we, too, must share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. And, indeed, this is precisely what James did. He counted all things rubbish “for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord” (Phil. 3:8). He followed the call of God upon his life and became like Christ in his death. And thus we may rest in the promise of God, that James truly knows Christ and the power of his resurrection. Thus, I can say, more so than of any other person I know, James truly gained Christ and was found in him.

So we can be confident—we can be confident that the one who began a good work in James will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. We can be confident that the God who called James did not abandon him or the mission to which he was called. We can be confident that the work of proclaiming the good news of the gospel in the Middle East will not end with the tragic loss of James, but that God will carry it on to completion. We can be confident that it is the Lord who preceded this work, the Lord who preserved this work, and the Lord who, finally, will perfect this work. We can be confident, therefore, that James did not “labor in vain” (Phil. 2:16). Moreover, we can be confident in the statement of Paul in Phil. 3:21, that God will transform our bodies of humiliation, suffering, and death—including the body of James—and conform them “to the body of [Christ’s] glory.” We can be confident that “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable,” what is “sown in weakness … is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42-43). We can be confident that the “God of peace” will be with us, even in the midst of Saturday, when the gloom of Friday seems so irrepressible and the light of Sunday seems impossibly far away (Phil. 4:9b). We can be confident that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). We can be confident that God has given us the victory over sin and death, so that sin no longer has power and death no longer has sting (1 Cor. 15:56-57). We can be confident that, one day, death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). We can be confident that, on the day of Christ Jesus, God will indeed make all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Thus, in closing, if the mission of God began when Christ “emptied himself” and became obedient to death on a cross, the mission will end when God will highly exalt him, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Let us therefore “rejoice in the Lord always,” for “the Lord is near … And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4-5, 7). Amen.

Comments

This was very timely, David. I just found out that Two friends of mine are heading to Afghanistan this summer, and the "What if?" question crept in. Thanks for speaking good news to me.
WTM said…
Requiescat in pace
Luke said…
This was wonderful, David. Thank you.

-Luke Paradise
Franklin said…
Thank you David. As James' family and friends contemplate the 3rd anniversary of his leaving us your sermon gives both strength and encouragement. We remember you well and may the Lord bless you and your wife as you move forward in life.
With Sincerity and affection,
Franklin Pyles