Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Beyond death - wishful thinking or hard facts ?

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19

I recently attended a secular funeral – that is, a funeral without any kind of “religious” content. No hymns or religious songs; no readings from the Bible or any other sacred text; no prayers. Purely reminiscences about the person who had died, threaded together with pieces of music or poems she had liked, or which were thought fitting for the delightful person she was.

There was much to admire and appreciate. The man who led the ceremony (the word “service” was not used) did so with a nice blend of dignity, warmth and informality. (He told me afterwards that he presided over this kind of gathering on request; perhaps he was a member of the local humanist society or something similar.)

As someone who has attended many Christian funerals – and indeed led even more – I was impressed. There was an honesty and simplicity which contrasted with the kind of religiosity which, I fear, can sometimes characterise religious funerals. Better honest unbelief than nominal, pasted-on faith!

But, of course, the one thing glaringly missing was the conviction that death has been defeated. And it reminded me afresh that the belief that Jesus Christ died and rose again is infinitely precious and infinitely important.

It was noticeable that even in such a secular gathering, religion – you might even use the word “theology” – kept sneaking in at the edges. The word “god” cropped up just before the end – you can’t get much more “theological” than that! And several things that were said assumed that our friend was still alive in some other dimension; indeed, that she was now “re-united” with a particular loved one. If that isn’t “theology” I don’t know what is.

But, of course, the basis for such a belief is flimsy, to say the least. What evidence is there for it? Is it anything more than a forlorn refusal to admit the terrible finality of death for those who have no red-blooded faith in the living God? A form of wishful thinking, in fact?

It all made me aware of the many times over the years when I have stood at the front of Christian funeral services and read the riveting, spine-tingling, stupendous words of the angels to the women who came to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Matthew 24:5).

Or the no-holds-barred claim of Paul to his friends in Corinth: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Make no mistake: if those words are true, then they are utterly life-changing, the most important words we will ever hear; and if they are false, then they are as cruel a hoax as has ever been inflicted on the human race.

Ah, but are they true? That is a fair question to ask; and, of course, no-one can prove it beyond the possibility of doubt.

But the story of the crucified and risen Christ is given to us in all four of the New Testament Gospels, and its significance is explored in depth in the various New Testament letters and other documents. The people who wrote these things down were not naive, gullible simpletons. They were down-to-earth men of the world who knew perfectly well that – well, dead people just don’t rise. Yet their whole world was turned upside down by the events of that day.

And millions since have had the same experience; millions of people like me, and perhaps also like you. The fact is that the resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith; there simply is no Christianity without it.

What can I say?

First, a word to those who might call themselves honest unbelievers…

Could I encourage you to return to the Bible accounts and to ponder and explore them again with an open mind? Something remarkable happened that Easter morning, that’s for sure!

Second, a word to those of us who call ourselves Christians…

Do we value sufficiently this great jewel of our faith? – not just a tale to buck us up in the hardships of life, but hard truth based on solid evidence. A truth to be revelled in day by day; and a truth to be shared boldly with our friends and neighbours.

Yes, there was much to admire in that secular ceremony as we said good-bye to a much-loved friend. It was good to be there.

But there is so much more too – oh, so much more!

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for your sacrificial death, your triumphant resurrection and your promised return in glory. Help me to rejoice daily in these truths, and to be ready to pass them on to others who are still without solid hope in the face of death. Amen.

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