A sermon for a memorial service
It is good to be here and to remember.
We are not very good in our society at grieving. Yes, people are supportive at the time of death and funeral - and in the days that follow. But after a month or so - well, they've got to get on with their life, haven't they. And we're expected to pick up the pieces and to carry on: life gets back to normal.
But of course life does not get back to normal. How can it - when we've lost someone who is either genetically part of us, or with whom we have shared in the utmost acts of intimacy, or who has been part of our life for one, five or fifty years.
And I guess that two of the words that might sum up how we feel are the words confusion and despair.
Confusion: how is it that the person who I loved, who was part of my identity, who was once so physically strong and active and significant, who lived and worked and fought and laughed - is now a memory and a photograph. And in 100 or 200 years, they may still be a set of digits on a CD - or whatever it is that is used to record in those days - but the memory will have gone.
It is no wonder that we grasp at whatever is offered to us: reincarnation - the idea that the spirit lives on and that I can contact them - the idea of a better place. Anything that seems to give us an answer.
And the second word is despair: it is not just the physical pain and the irrational fears - but it all seems so meaningless, empty and hopeless.
There is a poem that many people have read at funerals. It is the poem by Scott Holland. It is a good poem: it speaks about how we should continue to speak of the person, to treat them as if they were in the next room, to laugh at the things that they would have laughed at and to weep at the things that they would have wept at. But it begins with a line that is just not true. It begins with the line: "Death is nothing at all". That is just not true. Death is devastating. It rips people apart. It is the full stop that makes a mockery of dreams and achievements and loves and life. It really is the final enemy.
The first reading that we had today is from a letter that Paul, one of the first followers of Jesus, wrote to the Christians in a town called Thessalonica. And in it, he addresses head on those two words - confusion and despair.
He says to them: We don't want you to be ignorant or confused about those who 'fall asleep' (that is an interesting phrase). And we don't want you to grieve like the rest of people, who have no hope.
He is not saying that they are not to grieve. Of course we grieve - but we do not need to be people who grieve with no hope.
And he goes on to say why. You see, at the very heart of the Christian faith is a fact. V14: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again". About 2000 years ago, this time of year, a man was led out to die. He was going to be crucified. They put nails through his hands and ankles. And they hoisted him up on a plank of wood - to hang until he was dead. Then, to make sure that he was dead, they thrust a spear into his side.
But unlike everyone else - something quite extraordinary happened. This man did not stay dead. Three days later he rose from the dead. Unlike others who might go into death, and then come back, only to die later on, Jesus went deep into death, smashed through death, and came out the other side. And he was seen, not just by one or two people, but by many on many different occasions. And their lives were changed - and he gave them hope.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of our understanding and of our hope.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then death in its naked reality, has the final word.
If Jesus rose from the dead, we're in business.
And Paul goes on to encourage the Christians of Thessalonica
- He tells them that this Jesus, who died and who rose again, will come back one day. He talks about the Lord coming down from heaven with trumpet calls and archangel's voices - I don't think that the geography and details are so important. What is important is that it will be a coming that no-one can miss, and that will bring space and time as we know it to an end. And Jesus will come to bring justice, to make right what is wrong. There is a tremendous vision at the end of the last book of the bible: John writes, "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away".
- Paul tells us that those who are 'asleep' in the Lord, will return with him. Whoever has died in the Lord is now with him. Whoever has received that free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that he offers to every single person will come back, and if we are alive on that day we will meet them, and if we ourselves have died, we will return with them. But maybe we don't know if those whom we have lost did receive that gift. All I can say to you is leave that with God. He alone knows our drives and inner desires. And he made the person that he gave to you, and he loves that person more than anyone could possibly imagine. So we trust him to judge justly and mercifully.
- We are told: "And so we will be with the Lord for ever". Elsewhere it is written, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him".
How does Paul know all this? Why should we believe him? Why shouldn't we believe those who tell us about reincarnation, or spiritualists who tell us we can speak to the dead now?
It is very simple: Paul is only reporting what Jesus said - and when a man has risen from the dead, you listen very carefully to what he has said.
I am not sure that a Christian faith means that we are less confused or that we grieve any less than anyone else. When Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus, even though he knew he was going to bring him back to life, Jesus wept. Jesus wept because he knew what death does. He wept with and for Martha and Mary, Lazarus' sisters. He weeps with and for you and me.
A Christian faith does not mean that we will be less confused or grieve less, but it does mean that we do not need to grieve without hope. There is a hope - not in some beautiful ideas dreamed up by a Hollywood director - but in the historical fact that a man who lived 2000 years ago, died, and rose from the dead. Death is not the end. Christ is risen.