The Funeral Sermon (Peter Somervell)

I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked funerals. I’ve often thought about why; I think it goes back to my childhood experience. Death, along with sex and religion was one of the three subjects we never spoke about in my family. Even when my half-brother was tragically killed in a plane crash, there was no explanation, no grieving process – just deathly silence. And my father never mentioned his name again. Attending his funeral was the most horrible experience a 9 year-old could ever imagine.

Then I got saved. That changed everything. For the first time in my life, I was free from the fear of death. I had hope, I had eternal life – I had Jesus. Funerals became a whole lot easier for me. I now had a framework in which to fit them in. Funerals for unbelievers were incredibly sad, but funerals for believers became a time of rejoicing.

Now I am a Pastor and I see funerals as a wonderful opportunity for the gospel. No ‘sermon hook’ is needed for this occasion. Everyone is looking at it in the middle of the room.

Preparing for a funeral sermon however, is not an easy thing. I look back at some of the funerals I took in my early ministry and I’m aghast at what I got up and said. I was too clinical, too impersonal and too formal. And my message didn’t always relate to the life of the individual concerned. So I have worked hard to try to change things. I started paying close attention to other, more seasoned ministers – even if I didn’t agree with what they said. They had a warmth about them that I lacked. And they seemed to touch the souls of people, not just their heads. I also started reading any funeral sermons I could find online. This was immensely helpful and I’m thankful to those pastors who posted them.

I’m sure there are a number of young ministers out there who are still finding their way in this area. What does make for a good funeral message? Here are a few tips that might help you:

· It should be true to the person. Your audience will be looking at the casket and thinking about the life of that person. You’re not going to be able to pull the wool over their eyes. Do your homework. Find out everything you can about the person from as many different people (including non-Christians) as you can.

· It should be fitting for the audience. Start feeling the ‘pulse’ of the family and the kind of people they tell you will be coming. Are they Christian or non-Christian, religious or irreligious, antagonistic to the faith or open? This will affect both the tone and content of what you will say. At a recent funeral learned that there was going to be a number of people there who would call themselves Christian but are not living it. They have made some kind of commitment when they were young but have not followed through. My message was largely directed toward these very people.

· It must be honouring to God. At the end of it all, you get to stand before God and give and answer for everything you have said, not to your audience. So strive to please God, not man.

· It must be gospel-centered. If what you have to say isn’t about Jesus and what he came to do, you shouldn’t be getting up and saying anything. You are a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). A funeral is a wonderful and fitting opportunity for the gospel – that Jesus has overcome death, opened heaven’s doors and offers eternal life to all who will repent and believe in Him.

· It must be sharp and to the point. My usual experience is enough has been said by the time you get up. People will be looking at their watches. So get up, speak up and shut up. Hit home base as quickly as you can, without appearing to be rushing.

· It must offer hope. People must be able to walk out thinking, “There is a way to heaven for me; there is still hope.” If they aren’t able to say that, you haven’t shown them the way.

Enough said there. A couple of weeks back I took a funeral for a wonderful man of God who gave his life to serving Jesus and helping others come to know and walk with him. I posted that message on my personal blog. If you are interested, you can have a read here: http://petersomervell.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/a-feneral-sermon/

Too Heavenly Minded… (Chris Spark)

“They are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good!”

You may have heard that line floating around. It captures something we have all come across. The attitude of a person who is so caught up in ‘matters of religion’ that they never seem to pay any attention to what is going on at ground level. This person is so focussed on heaven – and in particular probably on the One who is enthroned in heaven – that they are disconnected from the real world, from the mud and the blood and the sweat and, perhaps especially, the tears here on earth. And disconnection from the reality of earth is never a good thing. Especially seeing as it usually means disconnection from people – from the real world of people, from the messy business of being involved in the real lives of real world people.

A couple of weeks ago I looked closely at the second chapter of the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica (in other words, 1 Thessalonians chapter 2). That chapter showed me something about this idea of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. In fact, it did something I particularly love – it blew apart the false dichotomy that is contained in that pithy little saying.

Paul is the middle of describing his relationship with the Christians in Thessalonica – reminiscing with them over the time he had spent with them not too long before. In chapter 2 he describes the way he feels about them. He uses a series of ‘not…but’ statements – the first being that his visit to Thessalonica was not a waste of time (“not without results”, verse 1), but rather they preached the gospel in spite of the rough time they were having (verse 2).

It starts getting to my point in the second ‘not…but’ statement – their appeal did not come from wrong motives (verse 3), but rather they spoke as men trying to please God. In other words (and to cut a long and interesting story rather short), their major concern was not that they win over people (at all costs), but rather they were concerned about what God thought of them. They were interested in God’s opinion of them above all, as the one who had given them this message to preach. They were, in other words, above all heavenly minded.

So you would think they wouldn’t be much earthly good. And given they weren’t out primarily to please people, that they would keep people and all their messiness at an appropriate distance.

Which is where the dichotomy explosion kicks in. Because the third and biggest ‘not…but’ statement in this chapter goes, I am pretty sure, from verse 5 all the way to verse 8, and then the theme of it is expanded on to the end of verse 11. The contrast here is that they came not with deception or self-seeking (verse 5-7a), but rather with genuine, self-giving, life-sharing love. The depth of the language Paul uses here of the love he and his friends had for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. Paul describes himself as being like both a father and a mother in his affections for them, and talks of them in terms of his ‘earnest desire’ for them (verse 8, rather colourlessly translated as ‘care’ in most English translations). And, vitally in terms of exploding this dichotomy, he says this in verse 8:

“…we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of Godbut our lives as well,because you had become so dear to us.”

See Paul’s absolute focus on pleasing God, his thorough ‘heavenly mindedness’, resulted in a passion for people, and deep affectionate care. That passion and care meant he shared his life, his very self with them. He got involved in their lives, he shared in their hurts, he cared for them in every way he could. He was so heavenly minded that he was of immense earthly good.

To be honest that isn’t surprising. He was following and proclaiming a saviour who was the son of heaven himself, the very mind of heaven, who yet came and made his home on earth – precisely in the mud and the blood, the sweat and definitely the tears. Jesus was the heavenly mind doing the ultimate earthly good. Paul was simply learning and showing what it meant to follow Jesus.

So my question to myself, and to us all, is this: do we desire to please God enough that it spills over into passionate affection for people? Are we caught up with the mind of our saviour enough that sharing our lives with others is the natural overflow of our love? Or: are we heavenly minded enough to be of true earthly good?

The church dilemma (Scott Mackay)

Do I go to church to encounter God in worship, or to hear the Bible taught?

This is a dilemma which I think many Christians feel as they consider which church to belong to. Which do I choose? A church which is all about encountering God in a unique and supernatural way, or a church which is about learning from the Bible with other Christians.

The ‘encountering God’ church could be quite a formal style of church, and the service full of formal ritual and images and liturgy. Or it could be quite contemporary, where God is encountered with the help of dynamic music and emotive appeals from the front. However, in both churches, God is experienced more through a mystical encounter than through the Bible.

On the other hand, the ‘Bible’ church sometimes feels like an educational experience for many people. There is no sense of meeting with God, no sense that God is especially present.  Rather, church is about Christians meeting together to encourage each other. The ‘Bible’ church is eager to emphasise that God is known through his Word, but sometimes forgets that God is known, present, and relates to us through his Word.

Some ‘Bible’ churches think the solution is just to inject a bit more emotion into church. If we can put on some more lively music, and have a bit more energy and emotion and passion, then maybe church will be less of a classroom experience for people. Other churches just have a bit of both, one half of the service is ‘worship’ and the other half is ‘teaching’.

(Of course, these are all gross generalisations, and any resemblance to actual churches is purely coincidental, etc).

You may guess that I don’t think the ‘inject more emotion’ option is the right approach (although I don’t think it would hurt!), nor the ‘half-half’ option. Rather, I wonder if ‘Bible’ churches could do with rediscovering the Reformed and evangelical conviction that church is indeed an encounter with the living God through his Word. Church isn’t just a bunch of people who have a common interest, but is the very temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16). It is a unique place of encounter with God himself, not through mystical experience, but through the Word of God read, proclaimed, and responded to in praise, confession, trust, thanksgiving. In these different activities of hearing and responding to the Word, we are engaged with God himself, and with the living Lord Jesus who reigns from heaven through the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on his church.

I wonder if this sense of encountering God in church, through his Word, is actually what many people are looking for.