Preached at St Francis Church on the Sunday following the funeral of Rob Townsend, husband of the Vicar of St Francis.
It's good to be with you this morning - in the middle of what is, undoubtedly, a difficult time for all - and especially, of course, for dear Diane. Rob's death came so suddenly that it has taken us all by surprise. I want to start by thanking you all for the messages and gestures of love and support that I know you have all been sending to Di. She has told me that she has had more offers of help and support that she knows what to do with...and that she feels immensely loved, and held in your prayers. So thank you for that.
I know that many of you have also lost husbands and wives, and you will know something of what Di is coping with right now. The loss of such a close family member is always devastating - whether one has a Christian faith, or not. But for those of us who have faith, that devastating loss is - albeit slightly - gentled by the knowledge, and the hope, of the Christian story.
As is so often the case, our set Gospel reading for this morning speaks directly into our situation. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, and then promises that those who have been drawn to him, by Our Father, will be raised up at the last day. There are three ideas here, woven together:
- there's the analogy of Jesus as the bread of life.
- Then there's the idea of God drawing us into relationship with Jesus.
- And then there's the promise of resurrection.
In those three ideas is found the heart of the Christian story - the story that Rob put his faith and trust in. So in the next few minutes, I'd like to unpack those ideas for us to ponder together.
Bread is one of those metaphors that runs right through the Bible. Bread was one of the most basic foods for the people of the Bible - as it remains for those of us who are not watching our figures too closely today! By referring to himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus was saying that he, and therefore God, is the basic requirement for all spiritual life. That's an idea that remains controversial even in our day. For some people, spirituality is about connection with Mother Earth, or a devotion to nature. For some its about ley-lines, gem-stones and lucky charms.
But to focus on these things is, I think, to confuse the Creator with the created. Jesus called us to go deeper - to focus on the source of all life...the Creator God. There may be power in created objects...because such objects come from God, and are infused with God as all things are. But if we focus on the objects, and not on their Creator, we are missing out on something really fundamental. It would be like focusing on the bread-tin, instead of the bread. The oven, instead of the loaf.
As we come together around the Lord's Table, as we shall in a few minutes - we are encouraged to focus our spiritual eyes on the Bread of Life - the most basic requirement for spiritual life. We are called to eat that bread, and drink that wine as a sign that we say 'Yes' to God's call - to the drawing of us towards himself that Jesus referred to.
And that's the second of those three points. Jesus said "No-one can come to me unless the Father draws them" (Jn 6:44). Many people have, I think, misunderstood that sentence. Many have used it to justify a spirit of spiritual superiority over others, saying "I am a Christian because God has called me...therefore every other religion is wrong". Or, perhaps worse still, "every other Christian who disagrees with my point of view is wrong. I'm saved, because God has pre-determined that I am one of the chosen."
(Web note: This section of the sermon is hinting at the notion of 'pre-destination' - the theological idea that God has pre-determined those whom he will save, and those whom he will condemn. There isn't space for a full discussion of this topic here...but I'd be happy to debate with anyone who wishes to explore it in the comment section of this Blog).
I don't think that Jesus meant his words to be taken in that way. I think that he was pointing out that God never stops drawing all his children towards him...he continually offers his life to all of his creation. In the very next verse, Jesus goes on to explain that the prophets had said "They will all be taught by God" - meaning, surely, that God offers his life to all. Some people respond to that call. Some people chose to feed on the Bread of Life. And some don't. Those that do, like Rob, have the greatest and most significant hope set before them...the hope of resurrection...and the third of my points for this morning.
Some years ago, a lawyer called Josh McDowell set out to examine the evidence of the Resurrection...intending to disprove it in the way that a lawyer would if arguing their case in court. The trouble was, that the more he examined the evidence, the more convinced he became, that the Resurrection was a real event. The book that he wrote as a result - called "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" has been a best-seller in Christian circles ever since.
Now I'm not going to try to summarise a whole book in two minutes. But some of the questions he asked went like this:
If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, who stole the body? If it was the authorities of the time, why didn't they simply produce the body when the Disciples started telling everyone that Jesus had risen from the dead? If the Disciples stole the body, why would they be willing to be tortured and executed for a lie? Wouldn't it have been rather easier to go back to their fishing nets and businesses?
Josh McDowell, and many like him, have concluded that we have good legal-style evidence for believing, with the Disciples, that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Others have argued that even if he didn't...if perhaps his body was thrown onto the Jerusalem rubbish heap (as happened to most crucifixion victims) his Disciples were so enlivened by their encounter with him, so persuaded of his Spiritual life and force, that they were certain that death could not separate them from their Lord. So certain were they, that they were prepared to be executed and tortured, rather than give up their belief.
We, then, have strong grounds for believing the Easter story. We have strong grounds for believing that Jesus, the Bread of Life, never gives up on us, and that his Father and ours never stops calling us. We have strong grounds for believing that the hope of resurrection is a real hope. We have strong grounds for believing that Rob's life - and that of others we have loved - is not over...in fact that it has only barely begun.
And so, though we are in grief, we press on towards the goal (to use St Paul's phrase). In this church, over this weekend, we have had the sadness of Rob's funeral, but also the joy of marrying Amy Stevenson, as was, to her new husband Carl Lees. This afternoon we will be baptising Maisie Haytor into God's family. And during this last week we have rejoiced in the arrival of Toby Fisher - a new son for Karen and Sean, and a new Grandson for June.
The funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer had the immortal phrase "in the midst of life we are in death". But perhaps, as people who believe in the resurrection, as people who feed on the bread of life, we should better say that as Christians, we can rejoice. We can rejoice because even in the midst of death, even in the midst of such a shocking event as Rob's death, Rob and we are in life.