Last week a fellow pastor died by his own hand. John Gerlach was a good friend and mentor as I was beginning as a pastor. As I was struggling with my first congregation in Southwest Missouri, John was always there to listen, advise, lay down the Law when needed, but most importantly, to proclaim the sweet Gospel of sins forgiven for the sake of our Lord, Jesus Christ. John will be sorely missed, but his death brings up questions as to what happens to those who take their own life.
I was just having a conversation with a member yesterday about the death of a loved one by suicide. I told the member that I have always been careful when passing judgment on a Christian who took their own life. You never know what was going on with that individual at the time of their death.
Dr. Saleska, one of my professors at CTS, told the story of an elder who was very faithful in his confession of faith and life. One Sunday, the elder worshiped with his family, received forgiveness as it was proclaimed in the absolution, heard forgiveness proclaimed as the Gospel was read, and received again forgiveness as he received the very body and blood of his Lord. This elder went out to his barn after dinner as was his habit. When he did not return for supper, the family found that he had killed himself.
Dr. Saleska pointed out that mental illness is a tricky thing. We don’t fully understand the way our mind works. A chemical gets out of balance, and an otherwise sane person does what seems to be insane. The thing that is important is whether or not faith was present, something that is difficult if at all possible to ascertain.
In the case of John Gerlach, I have no doubt about that. Why John took his own life is a question I can't answer. but I do look forward to the day when I will see him in paradise. The following is the sermon that was preached by the Rev. Steven Flo at John's sermon. I believe it does a great job of explaining what I'm poorly trying to explain.
Funeral Sermon for the family and congregation of Pastor John William Gerlach Luke 18:9-14
Immanuel Lutheran Church, West Plains, Mo December 8th, 2008
13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified …”
Alva, Bethany and Brody, Laura, Michael, family and friends…
Grace to you and peace from God our Father through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord.
Please bear with me as I speak about another John for just a moment:
Just after his release in May 1973, John McCain detailed his experience as a P.O.W. in a lengthy account in U.S. News & World Report. He described the day Hanoi Hilton guards beat him "from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound."
"For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards . . . Finally, I reached the lowest point of my 5 1/2 years in North Vietnam. … I came to the end of my rope."
McCain was taken to an interrogation room and ordered to sign a document confessing to war crimes. "I signed it," he recalled. "It was in their language, and spoke about black crimes, and other generalities." "I had learned what we all learned over there," McCain said. "Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine."
Beloved in Christ, isn’t it interesting how most everyone in our country mercifully understands how even our best, most noble soldiers can “break” under duress during times of war, and yet we, the Church Militant, not only need to be reminded of the fact that we can fall during times of spiritual torture and temptation, we even need to be reminded that…we are in a war in the first place! And I suppose that is because we are dealing with a spiritual reality and not a physical one.
The Apostle Paul said: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.” (2 Cor. 10:3)
The Apostle Peter said: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul,” (1Peter 2: 11)
And again, Paul said to the Church at Ephesus: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”. (Ephesians 6: 11ff)
So why, in the end, didn’t our brother, Pastor John Gerlach, stand?
Was he lost? Was he a traitor? Confused? Did he lose the Holy
Spirit so we can’t be sure where he is right now?
Dr. Martin Luther said in regard to Christians who sometimes self
destruct: “I do not share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned.
My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. . . . They are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence He must teach us in this way.” [Vol. 54:29].
So do you see! God uses these “examples” to show us how weak we really are!! But that’s frightening, you might think. If our leaders can fall, then who’s to say I won’t fall? And that’s the point isn’t it! St. Augustine, the greatest theologian in the early church, understood this as he looked at a drunk in a gutter one day and said, “Except by the grace of God, there go I.”
And that’s the story for all of us! Except by the grace of God, we’d
all be drunks. Except by the grace of God, we’d all be thieves.
Except by the grace of God, we’d all be prostitutes, wife beaters, child abusers, fornicators, adulterers, idolaters, murderers of ourselves and others. We are all “by nature sinful and unclean” and all these sins – and many, many more – are in our very own hearts and minds fighting daily against the new man that God has put within! We were all born dysfunctional, in a fog, living in a foreign land where Satan rules, and he will do anything he can to keep us from being rescued.
But praise be to God, the devil is fighting a futile battle because the RESCUER has already come! He’s the world’s greatest Soldier; a mighty Warrior; the greatest General of all generals; the King of Kings! And His battle strategy is something from “out of this world” because, instead of coming first in all power and glory and might as you’d expect, He came lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. Incognito so to speak! In a disguise!!
Why would He do such a crazy thing like that? He did it out of love for us! He knew that if He came into our POW compound called “this world”, and put on our uniforms called “flesh”, then He could be our substitute and take the beating and the torture and death that we deserved. This death should have been ours because we went “awol” from God way back in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago. But, again, our Lord, out of great love for us, took our sins and the “awol status” in which we were born, he placed it on Himself , suffered the condemnation and death that was ours, and then put on us the freedom, righteousness, and liberty that He paid for by His very own blood. And now, God the Father, the Judge of the universe, looks at us covered in the blood of His Son in Baptism, and He declares to us that He is satisfied, appeased, no longer angry! For the sake of His Son, He declares us Forgiven, Free, loved, Victorious, Winners of the War!!!
This proclamation isn’t just for you and me, it is declared to the whole world! How sad for those that refuse to believe it. How glad for those that do! It moves us to want to tell everyone! The Apostle Paul couldn’t constrain himself. He said: 20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Cor. 5)
And so we are! We are the righteousness of God in Christ! God is satisfied with you! He now speaks to us, as He did His Son so long ago: “These are my beloved sons, my daughters, my people with whom I am will pleased!!” By the power of the Holy Spirit coming to you through His Word today…Believe it! Receive it! Be liberated by the Good News that you are free! Jesus comes to us and delivers His freedom in the most humble of means:
*In His Word preached by the most sinful, lowly, flawed people call pastors;
*In common water connected to His Word in Holy Baptism;
*In, with, and under bread and wine in Holy Communion today, giving us His real body and blood on the cross 2000 years ago.
These are the “camouflaged” means, the means the world does not recognize, by which our victorious savior comes! Neglect these means, you neglect Christ. Hear, read, and feed upon these means and He will graciously keep you in the fold, in the family, in the army of the Lord even if you break, stumble, or fall a millions times.
You know, Senator John McCain became a better representative or ambassador for the United States after having suffered in that hellish P.O.W camp in Hanoi. Remember how he said that experience “humbled him” and made him love the United States of America and her liberty and freedom even more.
Well then, now you know why your Pastor Gerlach was such a wonderful ambassador for you here at Immanuel! He suffered and was continually humbled by the torturous blows of the devil, reminding him what a terrible sinner he was. He often felt all bound up, like ropes all around! That pain made him love the Lord and His blood bought forgiveness and freedom even more! You were privileged to hear him preach it Sunday after Sunday for many years. He didn’t speak like the self righteous Pharisee who said… “I thank You God that I am not like other men extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” No, Pastor Gerlach believed just exactly as a true Christian should believe, just exactly as his obituary so eloquently reads (and thank you Gerlach family for writing these words):
His nightly prayer was "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." Aware of his own brokenness, Rev. Gerlach confessed the forgiveness of sins won for all on the cross, given through the Gospel and the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Still, we mark his passing not as those without hope but confident in the hope that he preached… and which is now fulfilled for him in the presence of the Savior who bought him.
Christ bought Pastor John Gerlach, and He has bought us as well!
Will we be lost if we mess up at the end of our lives and don’t have time to quickly say we are sorry? No, our salvation is not based on our actions, our perfect faith, our perfect sorrow, our perfect repentance. It is based solely on Jesus Christ and His perfect grace coming to us through Word and Sacrament. So should we sin that grace may abound…is that what you are saying Pastor Flo? By no means!
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6)
But what if we don’t live that “new life” just right – to the end – and we are worried about it? What if we stumble? What if we do sin? What if, in a rash moment, we do something terrible and we don’t have a chance to make it right and say we are sorry to God and those whom we’ve hurt? Can we be assured that God will catch us, rescue us, and that His grace is big enough to save us in the end?
By all means!! The Apostle Paul, by divine inspiration, said: 38For I am convinced that
neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8) Do you hear that? Nothing will separate us, not even a rash act in a moment of weakness.
Again, the article I read to you at the beginning of this sermon ended by saying: “That McCain broke under torture doesn't make him any less of an American hero.” And, by the grace of God, this holds true “spiritually” for Christians as well. Should we break under demonic assault, it does not make us any less of a Christian…a true, Soldier of the Cross!
So, go in peace you weary soldiers. Be lifted up! We are forgiven for all of our sins! We live and breathe and have our being in an ocean of grace…and so, be assured, we will see our brother, John William Gerlach, on that Great and Glorious Day to Come!
In Jesus name…Amen.
Pastor Steven Flo……Grace Lutheran Church……DeSoto, MO
Soli Deo Gloria