How Jesus changes the ambience
Taking the funeral of a good friend, to say the least, is a challenge but yesterday Paul’s family and friends were supportive of me as I sought to minister to them. Standing room only: no pressure! For such services the Gospel of Jesus is truly what it says on the can – Good News. Death does not have the last word and we can dare to hope because of the resurrection victory of Jesus. A funeral service is where the light of Christ may shine most vividly. Otherwise, the gloom could so easily overwhelm us. I’m not sure how many funeral services I have conducted over some 43 years of ordained ministry. A quick calculation gives an approximate figure of 1500. In the early days I would conduct at least one per week, usually at the local crematorium. Then as a vicar with the added support of a curate, this dropped to say two or three a month for me personally. However, like buses they tended to come together. But then about five years ago the number coming through dropped markedly. At the time I wondered why. The answer came just one month ago, just before our summer holiday. I opened an email from our local funeral director detailing a funeral for me to conduct later that week – they often rely on retired clergy to fill the gaps. However, there had been a misunderstanding and so I promptly phoned to say I would not be able to take the service – we were flying to Spain later that afternoon. However, as the funeral director explained if I could not take the service, then it would go to a humanist celebrant. In which case, I promptly said ‘Yes’, even though it meant driving straight to the airport from the Crematorium. We have a gospel to proclaim. This prompted me to ask the attendant at the crematorium how many services were now conducted by non-Christian celebrants. To my surprise he told me about 60% - although now I think about it, he may have been including Christian lay readers as opposed to Christian clergy. In other words, the landscape has changed. There are operational reasons for this shift away from Christian clergy. It helps the funeral director to have a celebrant already lined up without having to phone the vicarage or manse to be told that the vicar is out at a meeting. These new professional celebrants are probably cheaper too. However, I assume that the basic reason is that our society is becoming increasingly secular. Of course, there are those who consciously ask for a humanist ceremony but I guess there are many who would want a Christian service but think, wrongly, that they are not entitled to one, never having attended church. I've never been to a humanist ceremony. No doubt they offer both a dignified farewell and a celebration of a life – but no more. Having said that one funeral director I spoke to mentioned that humanist ceremonies (you don’t call them services) sometimes include much-loved hymns and prayers masquerading as poems. But whatever, all you can say at the end of the ceremony is “Well folks, that’s it!” Except it isn’t. As ever the resurrection victory of Jesus changes everything. Our Christian hope is derived from a hopeless situation and so now no situation is hopeless, however bleak it may appear. To quote Graham Kendrick “I have placed all my hope in a crucified man.” Losing his wife, Joy, affected C S Lewis deeply, possibly more than he had anticipated. This experience of loss led him to write A Grief Observed. He writes: “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” He hit rock bottom: “I need Christ, not something that resembles him.” Through his struggles he found Christ true to his word. Or to quote the late Billy Graham: “You’re born. You suffer. You die. Fortunately, there’s a loophole.” As Christians we have become wary, maybe because of promises of cheap grace, of declaring God’s gift of life eternal through the cross of Jesus. But we believe in the resurrection of the body while rejecting the Greek teaching of the immortal soul. That’s good news not just for the individual but for the world. This means, on this day of global climate strike, that this earth is important. Rather than simply sweeping his creation into a cosmic refuse bin, the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that God intends to heal his world. It is non-disposable. Otherwise, why would the risen Christ cook breakfast for his startled disciples? When Jesus attended funerals, to put it simply, he changed the ambience. So why not invite him?