Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.
The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.
There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.
Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.
In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.
As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.
Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.
Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.
In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.
This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.
The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.
All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.
It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.
The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.
Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.
It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.
Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.
There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.
Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.
Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.