Every now and then I find myself entrusted with a rather difficult funeral. Sometimes it's hard because the death was unexpected or premature, sometimes because the bereaved family have particular needs – or are specially lost, specially angry when confronted by their grief.
But the funerals that are the most challenging are those where neither family nor friends are present, the funerals where someone has been ill for so long that they have almost been forgotten by their neighbours, the funerals where I find myself alone in the chapel, but for the bearers who will always stand beside me as we commit another soul to God's care.
Someone once asked me whether it was worth actually HAVING a funeral if there were no mourners present...and I know that the first time I took such a funeral I came home both drained and perplexed.
Why was I standing there?
Then I remembered John Donne, whose words have been important to me in many different contexts through the years...His words spoke directly into these situations,
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In other words, - we belong together, and the loss of one human life changes the world for everyone, whether we recognise it or not.
The pain that the people of Haiti feel is our pain...their loss, ours.
As Paul writes to the divided congregation in Corinth to tell them what it means for the church to be the one body of Christ he is delivering the same message loud and clear
The people of God need one another. We are formed into God's people just as the human body is formed, with all its separate parts cooperating together in common function and purpose. Paul emphasizes the unity we have in Christ and the oneness we share in God's community...but it is a unity in diversity.
“If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
There is no such thing as an identikit Christian...Nor an omnicompetent one!
We are the body of Christ, each of us with a different spiritual gift to contribute to the life of the whole. Sometimes that gift may be hidden, or suppressed...Sometimes it seems that only certain gifts are really needed or valued - but the truth is very different.We are mutually dependent, unable to function and flourish as Christ's Church unless every member is engaged and active in service.
For generations we lost sight of this truth in the church....We promoted some gifts while stifling others, and made it clear that we expected that God would only use CERTAIN people to lead the Church. More recently, thankfully, we've been properly attentive to the truth that WE are the body of Christ...Neither you nor I alone, but all of us together. No individual can do or be everything. God gives us complimentary gifts, which we are responsible for using so that the Church can truly BE the Church.
It's no good having closed minds, settled agendas. I have a friend who is highly organised, incredibly efficient, a born administrator. For many years she worked as the parish secretary, delighting in producing rotas and typing up service sheets, in running the office and writing up the registers. Then one day somebody challenged her to consider another gift that she has - that of listening to God's voice in conversation with others, - the sort of gift that is specially valuable in spiritual direction.
For months she clung to her job as parish administrator, saying that she was sure that this was the only way in which she could serve God....Finally her husband retired and their life took on a new pattern. She agreed to at least explore a course in spiritual direction, - and at the last count was flourishing as she allowed this new gift the air and exercise it needed. I know she'll be a gift to the church as she changes and grows - for change and growth are always part of our lives in Christ.
So we must remain open to God’s ability to shape us in surprising ways throughout our lives, for the good of God’s Kingdom. Each and every one of us has a gift to give, and we mustn’t let fear, modesty, or doubt stand in the way.
We may not value our own gifts particularly – I hear so often from people who say
“But it's easy for you...but what can I do?” and always, always there is an answer.
The Church, the body of Christ needs all of us...
Preachers and leaders, prayers and workers, cleaners, flower ladies, musicians, caterers, administrators, mowers, welcomers, befrienders, talkers and listeners - if any of them withheld their gifts, the body would be disabled – unable to function to full potential.
And it is important that we look for, affirm, and encourage the gifts we see in others. Today marks the end of the octave of prayer for Christian unity...It's all too easy to experience ecumenism as a kind of exercise in polite defensiveness. We are happy to meet our friends in other denominations, as long as we can hold on to a sense of superiority, an assurance that our gifts exceed theirs...We say
“You worship God in YOUR way...I'll worship in HIS” - and almost believe ourselves.
But if we persist in these attitudes, we are harming the gospel.
After all, we are all part of Christ’s body and it is together that we can best live out the words of Isaiah that Jesus read to that congregation in Nazareth
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...”
That manifesto, with all its beauty and all its challenges, should be our manifesto for “in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body” and together we can use our gifts to make a difference