Before the funeral, there was a lot of talk about the fact that 4 billion people would be listening in and the responsibility therefore on the shoulders of the Archbishop of Canterbury to “hot it out of the court” and “smash it” by giving people the Gospel, full barrels.
I must admit that I’m a little uncomfortable with the kind of language which plus the responsibility in sporting terms. Additionally, I am a little concerned about the tendency people have to jump on the back of any occasion and any person’s circumstances and use it to our advantage. We would frown upon people using a bereavement and grief for personal profit yet, we need to be careful that we don’t imbibe the same cultural oxygen. No, I don’t think it was good for Christian publications to be rushing out new tracts and booklets, no, it wasn’t right to have hymn book publishers telling pastors which hymn numbers from their hymnals to use in their memorials. And, whilst I believe that the Gospel is of highest priority, I don’t think that when we leap to try and engineer a situation for our telling of it that we necessarily are serving the Gospel. The message is closely linked to how it is proclaimed and if our proclamation relies on us using others, I don’t think we’ve got the message quite right. Indeed, the risk is that our priority becomes about ticking our boxes, have we managed to do enough witnessing, have we got enough converts, have we proved ourselves sound enough
This is important because whilst every time we preach, we should be proclaiming and applying the Gospel, that doesn’t mean that every sermon must take the form of a Billy Graham style evangelistic appeal. There are immediate pastoral priorities at funerals. Our first concern at a Christian funeral is to ensure that God is glorified as we comfort those who mourn.
Then, another consideration as we come to a funeral is that as I said the other day, it isn’t all down to the sermon. This both means that even if you do preach your heart out with an on point exposition of John 3:16 that it is often unlikely that people will hear the message as you would like. In fact, that’s generally true of funerals, weddings and carol services. If by “Gospel opportunity” we mean “evangelistic opportunity”, we are likely to be disappointed on all of those occasions. However, it also means that the heavy lifting has been done by the deceased both in their life lived and in their choice of hymns and readings. That means that things have been set up for the preacher to draw things together and point to Christ.
This doesn’t mean that we can always rely on Bishops and Archbishops on public occasions. People were very quick to rejoice at the sermon given at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. On closer inspection, the sermon didn’t so much fall short of a full Gospel presentation as preach a different Gospel.
What then of Justin Welby’s sermon at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth? There have been two criticisms of his sermon from what I’ve observed. The first is that he described the Queen’s life as Christian service. The risk from that, it has been argued is that we too closely align her constitutional service as being Christian.
There is a temptation at funerals towards sentimentality. We can then end up conflating all the nice things of a person’s life, their charitable deeds, their general respectability with a Christian life. If we simply treat the Queen’s general devotion or her apparent humility with Christian service, then we will have conflated things.
Yet, to be clear, if our criticism arises out of the fact that her role involved power or that she enjoyed riches and that true service would have meant that she would have redistributed her wealth and become a radical in that way then we may equally be conflating things. Indeed, both views may say more about our political outlook than our Gospel outlook. What really matters is whether or not the Queen sought to be obedient to Christ and whether what she did was for his glory. And, yes, those things do matter not because good works are what saves us but because the Gospel is meant to bear fruit in our lives.
Therefore, carrying out our earthly duties well, whether as monarchs, politicians, porters, engineers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, shop assistants, full time parents or teachers count with every good endeavour as Christian service, if, and only if, we do them as to the Lord.
The second challenge is that the Archbishop didn’t explicitly at any point say something to the effect that Jesus died for our sins. Does that mean that he didn’t preach the Gospel? Well, I think it is true to say that he did not give us all the details of the Gospel, he did not in that sermon give us everything we need to know if we are to put our trust in Christ for salvation.
However, I want to suggest that this doesn’t mean that he failed to preach the Gospel. Again, it simply means that he did not give an evangelistic talk. Preaching the Gospel does not mean that we will give every detail in every circumstances. If you don’t believe me, have a look at Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 or Pauls’ in Athens in Acts 17. Both sermons don’t give us every aspect.
My advice is that whenever we preach, the Gospel should be proclaimed. This means that it should be there in seed or kernel form. We may not explicitly mention every detail but there should be the content there which means we can trace back the full detail including what is implicitly there. A sermon that insists that our hope is only in the risen Jesus and invites us to find that hope in him is dependent upon the presupposition that we need him as saviour. His resurrection presumes his death. Those two presuppositions beg the question “Why do I need a saviour and why did that saviour need to die?”
Now, if we only heard messages that mentioned the resurrection and never got to hear about sin and the cross, about forgiveness and justification, then we would be in trouble. However, a public, one of sermon in the context of a funeral does not need to and indeed cannot hope to cover everything. Instead, what it can do is start to get people thinking and asking questions. It can shape the ongoing conversation of those who were part of the funeral. This can create future opportunities to keep sharing the good news.
I hope that we were captivated again by the hope of the resurrection when we heard the Archbishop’s sermon and I hope that we are ready to take the conversation further with any for whom the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth have prompted searching questions. If we do, then I think we can safely say that he did preach the Gospel.
Over to you.