Tonight, one of my churches holds an ‘All Souls Service’, where we invite all the families for whom we have conducted funerals over the past year. (My other church will do the same in a fortnight.) One church I previously served also had such a service, but the Anglican rector always took that, and so I was never involved. This evening, then, is my first stab at such a service. We shall scroll the names of the deceased on the screen, while family members light a candle in memory of their loved one, and our worship group will quietly sing some music while that happens.
Meanwhile, here is what I plan to preach.
Most of the funerals I take are for people whom I have never had the privilege of knowing. I know that can create a hurdle to leap between a grieving family and me, the minister.
Tonight, I am conscious of a further hurdle. The great majority of you had your loved one’s funeral conducted by my predecessor, Nick Oborski. He has now moved to Epsom, and I came here to replace him two months ago.
What I want to share with you in these few thoughts this evening is quite personal. The Bible reading we heard a few moments ago is one that is special to me. It became special to me eight years ago when a dear friend to my wife and me died of breast cancer. Carolyn was only 41. I chose this Bible passage for her funeral, and it has meant a lot to me ever since.
The theme I want to take from it is ‘Grieving with Hope’. Let me introduce it this way.
At the risk of over-simplifying things, I notice two main trends when I visit a bereaved family to arrange a funeral. One is the distraught family, overcome with grief. The other is the family that says something like this: ‘Dad wouldn’t want us to be sad. We want the funeral to be a celebration of his life.’ One family majors on sorrow, the other on joy. One is focussed on grief, the other on hope.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. (Verse 13)
He doesn’t say, ‘do not grieve’: he says, ‘do not grieve like [those] who have no hope’. In other words, we can grieve with hope. Grief and hope. Sorrow and joy. Grief, but not hopeless. Sorrow, but not despairing.
Paul is real about the grief and sorrow that death brings. It isn’t for nothing that elsewhere he calls death ‘the last enemy’. Death is an enemy. We recognise that in our language. When someone dies after a protracted illness, we often say they ‘lost their battle’ with the disease. You battle an enemy.
And death is an enemy. It takes away from us people we love dearly. They can never be replaced. We can never be the same. Our lives take on a new shape over a period of time, but we all miss them.
In the face of an enemy’s action, our grief is not selfish. It is normal. We grieve, because we love. The one we love is no longer here for us to love. Our hearts ache with the pain, and we grieve. Anything less is unnatural.
You may know a popular reading at funerals is a piece called ‘Death is nothing at all’ by Henry Scott Holland. I have read it at funerals, but my problem is that death isn’t nothing, it’s a real and present enemy. Taken the way they are at funerals, you would think Holland was trivialising the grief experience. But they are lifted out of context from a sermon he preached when King Edward VII died. The sermon was called ‘King of Terrors’, and he knew well the terror that death brings.
So let us be real about grief. Let us own it. We don’t get anywhere without being honest about reality. And the reality of death leads us to grief.
However, says Paul, we grieve with hope. Let’s go back to that language of death being about ‘losing a battle’. Often we may also say – although not necessarily in connection with death – that someone has ‘lost the battle, but won the war’. Essentially, that’s what Christians say about death, and why we grieve with hope. We may ‘lose the battle’ in death, but in the long run we ‘win the war’.
How can we say that?
It’s because of the next thing Paul says:
We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (Verse 14)
‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again.’ That’s the key. Jesus didn’t merely die. He rose from the dead. That may seem a fantastic and ridiculous claim in an age when atheist scientists claim to reduce religious belief to a delusion, but I believe there is decent historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t have time to go into it now, and besides you didn’t RSVP to a lecture tonight. However, since I believe Jesus is risen, I believe he shows the way to hope. I believe his resurrection is the winning of the war that trumps the losing of the battle in death.
It’s by trusting our lives into Jesus’ hands and committing to follow him that we share this hope. He wants to share it with everyone. But it’s a gift that needs to be received.
Let me tell you a story. When I was young, my Dad tried to explain the Christian hope in the face of death to me. Dad worked in banking, and he asked me to imagine that NatWest had ordered him to take a new post with them in Australia. How would we feel?
Well, I would be upset not to see him, I said. Much as I loved Mum and my sister, I would not want to be parted from him.
Yes, he said, of course you would feel like that. But while we remained behind in England, he would not only be working but preparing a new home and new life for us. Then, one day when that was ready, we would move to Australia and be reunited.
For the follower of Jesus, death is like that temporary parting. While it lasts, it is full of anguish. But one day it will end, and there will be a joyful reunion. This is the grieving with hope that is Jesus’ gift to all who put their faith in him.
What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails and spreads her white sails to
the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty
and I stand and watch her till at last
she fades on the horizon,
and someone at my side says, “She is gone.”
Gone from my sight, that is all;
she is just as large in the masts,
hull and spars as she was when I saw her,
and just as able to bear her load
of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight
is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment when someone at my side says,
“She is gone”,
there are others who are watching her coming,
and other voices take up the glad shout,
“There she comes”,
and that is dying.