I have just returned from a funeral of a good man who had filled his long life with many worthwhile activities. The church was crowded with old men in black suits, most of whom were wearing black ties. There were a few women present – the lady next to whom I sat told me that she believed in God, but didn’t know where Jesus fitted in. She thought that all religions had the same ‘head office’, with Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism being ‘branches’ of the ‘head office’. For her what counted in life was a moral system to live by.
After a life-time of taking funerals, for me it was an interesting experience attending a funeral in which I had no part. It is always instructive to see how other ministers handle a service, although on this occasion I had the impression that the service had in fact been largely drawn up by the family.
I enjoyed the music-making: along with the three hymns and two choral pieces, we had some wonderful organ music both before and after the service. Music does indeed uplift the soul. Having said that, I found the choice of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ a little strange – was this a sign, I wonder, that the deceased’s church-going was limited to childhood’s days?
The two Scripture readings were a little unusual. The first was taken from the Sermon on the Mount and included the Beatitudes together with Jesus’ teaching on our calling to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5.1-16) – in the context of a funeral some of these words of Jesus gained new significance. The second reading was taken from 1 Cor 12.4-7, 27-13.1) and focussed on the gifts of the Spirit, and in particular the gift of teaching – in the context of a funeral of an educationalist it was perhaps apposite, even although Paul’s focus was on teaching in church rather than in a school or college.
The dominating feature of the service were six thoughtful tributes from former colleagues and friends. I had not realised how distinguished the deceased had been. Without exception the tributes were interesting – but not one revealed whether the the man we were honouring had been a person of faith.
In fact, apart from the opening and closing prayers there was no reference to Jesus, and the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying. In this regard the short homily was – from my perspective – a missed opportunity. Instead, the minister took the church as his theme. Churches, he said, need to be places which encourage learning, which express love to the needy, and which create a legacy in the lives of future generations. All that is very true, but this is not the Gospel. As it so happened, my Scripture readings at the beginning of the day had included the passage where Mark tells of how “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” and that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1.14-15). However, Jesus did not get a mention in the homily! Instead at the end of the service the bereaved family were assured that since his death the church had been praying for the deceased, and that they would continue to pray for him in the hope that he might be received at the last by God and his angels.
I wonder what all those black-suited men made of the service? I wonder what the lady sitting next to me made of the service? Indeed, I wonder what the family of the deceased made of the service? Would they have been surprised to discover that without the resurrection of Jesus there would be no church – indeed, that there would be no Christianity?