Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life”
Though I may sometimes wander from the straight and narrow of Common Worship, when I lead the bearers into church or crematorium chapel at the start of a funeral service, I always begin with these words. For me, it matters hugely that as we enter that space, with that particular task ahead of us, the first word that I speak is Christ's name.
Whatever may happen in the next half hour, for me this has the effect of planting a standard...It balances the moment when, in the baptism service, I anoint the candidate with the sign of the cross and claim her for Christ. It is, I suppose, a moment when we all need to know that God is a God who keeps promises.
But recently I was part of a discussion which included a priest whom I know, love and trust deeply. Our topic was resurrection...those resurrection moments when the world seems transformed (the morning after the Berlin Wall fell was one example, the day Mandela was freed another)...and trying We tried among ourselves to decide whether these were really resurrections – doorways into a new kind of life – or epiphanies – moments of recognition of underlying hidden truth. The conversation ranged far and wide, along many and fascinating roads...and I threw in to the mix that certainty that I always feel when I speak those words at a funeral service, that here is something quite different, quite, quite new...
My friend said that she no longer uses those words, because of their insistence on belief...which makes them, potentially, too harsh a measure against which to judge the eternal destiny of a much loved relative.
“What does it say,” she wondered “to those who feel themselves to be without belief?”
“Those who believe in me, though they die shall live and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”
I guess that could indeed sound harsh, exclusive to mourners struggling with the painful reality of loss and I have sometimes curtailed the reading from John 14 which is so often chosen, because, I suspect, of it's cosiness, it's soothing reassurance that we are on a journey home...
“Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life...”.
I stop before the final sentence:
“No one comes to the Father except through me”
Is that dishonest?
Am I selling the gospel short?
Should I be handing in my license with immediate effect?
I really don't think so.
Do I, then, believe Christ's words?
Yes, absolutely....but I DO NOT believe that this means that those who never commit themselves to Christ are lost.
God loves us far too much for that.
Yes, Jesus opened the one and only gateway through death...He IS the Way...and it is only in him that we can see what it means to live a life fully in God's presence...only in him that we understand what humanity should look like...
But I'm confident that when people seem to reject Him, it's because we've failed to present the Truth in all its Beauty. They aren't rejecting God, but the limited imperfect version of God that we, whether in the Church or outside it, have offered to them.
Sometimes, wonderfully, God finds a way through the cracks...and people come to recognize God despite our inept presentations, our inadequate lives, our leaky theology.
I've written before of the impact that C.S. Lewis had on my world view in childhood – and those influences are as strong as ever.
I know, as far as I know anything, that there will be many who, like the Calormene soldier in The Last Battle, find themselves bemused and startled that their lifelong quest has brought them to a destination that they had never imagined.
I imagine countless souls gasping in wonder, and saying
“Now I understand. I never realized it was like this...”
But funerals are not the time for theology...for deep discussions and persuasive arguments.
They are a time to assert with all the faith and conviction that can be mustered that all is well, that nothing is lost, that love is truly stronger than death.
What matters more than anything is that as the priest leading the service I can believe for everyone there...that when I say
“Confident of Christ's victory and claiming his promises, we entrust X to your mercy...” I do indeed have perfect confidence in that victory, those promises.
So, for me, those sentences that begin the service are important...They are beacons of hope that shine through the maelstrom of emotions...stepping stones that we can rest on, fixed and firm amid the sinking sand of doubt and despair...
Like so much of the liturgy they are truly words of power, transforming people and situations so that the heartsick battered little group that gathers in a crematorium chapel becomes, as it needs to, a community of faith...clinging with desperate conviction to the promise of the cross and empty tomb.