After a recent funeral I conducted, a highly critical email was sent to the church website. Here it is in full (all names have been changed):
“Hi there, I recently attended the funeral of Beryl Smith at your beautiful church. I feel obliged to write, as the minister at the funeral chose to disgrace your church and disrespect Beryl and her family. Kylie Grant shared a wonderful eulogy about her mother who had done great service to the community in her lifetime. The minister chose to speak about how good deeds alone would not allow entry to heaven, that one must accept Jesus as good deeds are not enough, that no matter how many good deeds you have done in your life you will not gain entry into heaven. I have attended four other funerals in the past year, this one was wonderful until the minister chose to go on his rant. This is why people are moving away from church funerals and weddings. Totally unsuitable and to be honest horrific. I am rarely moved to raise a complaint but I have spoken to other attendees and the family, all of us with the same reaction. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like further information. Regards, Sharon.”
So, what exactly did I say in my “rant”? What was it that was so “horrific” and “absolutely dreadful”? Here is the full text of my funeral sermon:
“What a wonderful life of service and loving dedication to her family! I wish there were more people like Beryl. The world would be a better place if there were more Beryls! And her legacy in all of your lives is obvious from the beautiful things you have just said about her.
But we must be careful that we don’t place our hope for Beryl’s eternal security in the many good things she did in her life. We come here today to entrust Beryl into the hands of God, not trusting in her many good works to secure her favour with God, but trusting solely in Jesus – Beryl’s Saviour and ours.
I am reminded of an incident that happened to Reverend David Pawson, who was visiting a lady who was sick in hospital, and he asked her: “When you are eventually standing in the presence of God, and he asks you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what will you say?”
The lady replied, “I won’t say anything. I’ll just show him my hands. These hands have worked for others my whole life. I’ve raised 4 children, I’ve cared for my husband, I’ve cooked and cleaned and washed and ironed. I’ve worked for Red Cross, I’ve served at the local church, I’ve volunteered for meals on wheels, I’ve spent my life serving others. I won’t have to say anything, I’ll just show him my hands”
It’s a very common attitude, the idea that if I do enough good deeds, if I clock up enough hours of community service, if I live a good enough life, God must surely let me into heaven. But the teaching of Jesus, and of the whole Bible, completely contradicts that idea – the idea that we can somehow earn our way into God’s favour.
Galatians 2:16 says, “A person cannot be justified by good deeds, but only by faith in Jesus Christ.” And there’s a reason for that. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard”.
You see, even the best of us, fall short of God’s perfect standards and are in need of forgiveness. That’s why we need a Saviour! That’s what Jesus meant when he said, in our Bible reading, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
All of the good things that Beryl did in her life, as wonderful as they were, cannot save her – only Jesus can do that. The truth is that Beryl is in heaven right now, but it’s not because of anything she did – not because of any of her good deeds – as wonderful as her life was – No, it’s only because she trusted in Jesus as her Saviour and turned to him in faith and repentance. And it’s in THAT sure and certain hope that we can commit her into God’s loving hands today.
Thinking back to that woman who said, “I’ll just show him my hands”, I wonder what you would have said to her if you had been the minister. I’ll tell you what David Pawson said:
He said, “I’m very sorry, but God isn’t going to be interested in your hands. In fact, he won’t even be looking at your hands. He’ll be looking at another pair of hands, nail-pierced hands, and it’s only by trusting those hands, that you’ll be right with God.”
I think that’s the perfect answer, don’t you? And so, we can commit Beryl into God’s loving hands today with great confidence, knowing that she has a Saviour who has secured her eternal future. And it is my hope and prayer for each one of you that you might come to that same trust in Jesus, and receive from him the comfort and assurance that he longs to give. Amen.”
REFLECTIONS ON THIS INCIDENT
Firstly, this incident reveals the great ignorance that is out there in the community regarding the message of the Gospel. The writer of the hostile email quoted the essence of my message quite accurately, but she was convinced that my assertion that salvation is only through the grace of Jesus and not by our own good works was some form of strange heresy. She had apparently never heard this message before. This is very sad, especially considering her admission that she had been to four other church funerals recently. One must ask, what message is being preached in other church-based funerals?
Secondly, and very significantly, the outrage expressed in the woman’s email reveals just how offensive the gospel is to those who don’t know Jesus. The gospel is very offensive because it humbles and dethrones us. It humbles us because it completely demolishes any sense of our own worthiness. It declares our perceived self-righteousness to be delusional; a vain denial of the hopeless condition of our souls whose pervasive disease required the most extreme of cures – the horrific sacrifice of God’s own Son. The gospel dethrones us because it declares that we are not the masters of our own destiny that we like to imagine, but depicts us all as helpless beggars at the mercy of a holy and almighty God.
This is a difficult pill to swallow in a society that increasingly enshrines ‘self’ as king and promotes self-actualisation and self-fulfilment as the highest goals of life. In a world which ideates the nobility of the human spirit and which declares “it’s all about you”, the suggestion that it is not “all about you” is deeply offensive.
Martin Luther stated, “The gospel cannot be truly preached without offense”.
Charles Spurgeon similarly declared, “Do not try to make the gospel tasteful to carnal minds. Do not hide the offense of the cross, lest you make it of no effect.”
A PLEA TO CLERGY
As both a minister of the gospel generally and an ordained Anglican minister specifically, I am duty bound to preach the gospel. Indeed, the authorised funeral service prescribed in the Anglican prayer book is completely saturated with the gospel. It is totally focused on Jesus! All the prayers and almost all the scripture readings of the liturgy are focused upon Christ our Saviour, who alone can forgive our sin and open the door to eternal life. In the aftermath of another recent funeral at the same church where I am currently serving (conducted beautifully by the locum minister) some people who attended complained that the service was “all about Jesus”. They are right! The Anglican funeral service is, indeed, all about Jesus!
For this reason, in my initial interview with grieving families, I always explain that the service will be a Christian service which points to Jesus as the only one who can save us and usher us into the presence of God. I explain that if they are looking for a non-religious funeral service, there are civil celebrants who will provide such a service for them, but by choosing to have the service hosted in a Christian church by a Christian minister, they should expect that it will be a Christian service, with a strong focus on Jesus our Saviour.
This was clearly explained to the writer of the previously quoted hostile email, and yet she was still shocked and offended by my proclamation of the gospel. The fact that she was so shocked tells me something. It tells me that in her previous attendances at church-based funerals she either wasn’t listening properly or the gospel was not clearly proclaimed. Sadly, I suspect it was the latter case.
I wonder how many ministers, in their funeral sermons, choose to soften the gospel to diminish its offense. How many deliberately avoid reference to the exclusive claims of Christ regarding the way of salvation? How many choose, instead, to focus solely on the concepts of God’s generic love for mankind and his offer of comfort to all who grieve? These concepts, while true in themselves, only form a small part of the Anglican funeral liturgy. The overwhelming preponderance of the Anglican funeral liturgy is the exaltation of Christ as Saviour and the promise of eternal life to all who respond to him in faith and repentance. And clergy, if they are to be faithful to the authorised liturgy (of their own tradition) and faithful to their more general biblical charge to preach the gospel, ought to ensure that this quintessential truth forms the central part of their funeral sermon.
More than any other event in life, the occasion of a person’s death confronts us with our own mortality and demands that we consider, however briefly, issues of eternal significance. Death is the one unavoidable event that most commonly precipitates consideration of what lies beyond this life. The Christian minister who pulls back from addressing these matters by failing to focus on the clear teaching of Christ and who, instead, chooses to offer an inoffensive civil-type ceremony aimed at merely placating and soothing people in their grief, essentially defaults on their God-given charge to proclaim the gospel.
Have you ever wondered, “How would Jesus conduct a funeral service?”. You don’t have to wonder. The gospels record Jesus’ attendance at a funeral service which he effectively gate-crashed and then completely ruined. In John chapter 11, Jesus turns up to the funeral service of Lazarus, who has been dead for four days. He then focusses the attention of the mourners away from the dead person and onto himself, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). Then he proves his right to say this, by raising Lazarus from the dead!
Jesus made the funeral service all about him! He used it as an opportunity to point people to himself as the Saviour of mankind and our only hope of eternal life.
We, as ministers of the gospel, must do no less.
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 14 books, and his latest, “Reconnecting with God”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.