This is my first extremejesus blog of 2018, although you will find that my bible blog continues also on emmock.com.
When I started this blog with its image of Dundee culture hero Desperate Dan, who like Jesus is always on the side of the underdog, I was immediately concerned with the analysis of the British Government that any public discourse promoting a narrative different from its own, should be seen as extreme. It struck me that almost any narrative based on Jesus would do just that, challenging the government’s lazy sense of entitlement to righeousness, and in particular the righteouness it was claiming in its dealings with Muslim nations.
This blog, therefore has always had political commitments, which are probably well-known to its regular readers, and will continue to be expressed in the face of the neo-imperial nonsense spouted by Boris Johnson and those in charge of our foreign policy. But the blog has not been exclusively political. It has often discussed matters of social and personal morality, as well as trying to construct a theology which does justice to Christian insights on moral as well as political issues.
Today I want to note something which I have observed very recently, in helping bereaved relatives plan funeral services for their loved ones: hardly anyone any longer believes the Christian teaching about eternal life. This is an observation not a criticism. When I say, they don’t believe, I’m not reporting that they said so, quite the reverse, in fact: many of them express a kind of half-humorous acknowledgement of popular faith in the afterlife, by which the deceased may be imagined as continuing his favourite pastimes “up there.” Any notion of eternal life as a gift of God, related to trust in Jesus Christ and membership of the visible or invisible church is conspicuous by its a absence. Maybe God does offer life after death, but if he does, that’s what he’s there for; it’s his job.
This is linked to the notion of the funeral service as a ‘celebration of life’ rather than an act of mourning for the dead. It is often confused or conflated with the notion of a memorial gathering for the deceased where loved ones and colleagues will deliver eulogies. I am wholly in favour of such gatherings, perhaps some weeks after a funeral. But a Christian funeral deals with the fact of death and the mystery of human entry into the life of God. Celebration is not absent, and does touch on the way the deceased has made her human journey, but it primarily expresses joy in God as the giver and renewer of life. It does not offer any automatic blessing of worldly life, but suggests that we a strangers and sojourners on the earth.
For many people, also, any statement that God might not simply offer this to all comers, but only via trust in Jesus Christ, would be regarded as outrageous and offensive, leading to an immediate appeal to the celestial department of equal opportunities. My own Church of Scotland is a national church that promises to provide the ordinances of religion to all residents of the land, and for this reason many who are not church members ask for a funeral conducted by a clergyman or woman. Perhaps throughout the centuries the church could assume that people knew what they were asking for. Now it seems more likely that ministers will adjust their words to conceal rather than declare the gospel of Jesus.
Let me be clear. I’m sure that God offers eternal life to all creatures, and does not limit the offer to those who have heard of, or put their conscious trust in, Jesus. Trust in Jesus is a provocation to accept God’s life, but many who lack the trust accept the life. My sad experience is that there are those who do not want the life and will always try to refuse it, because they hate it. Perhaps God will ultimately persuade them, but I know he will not force them to leave the darkness they have chosen.
There is then, in the Gospel, a kind of universalism that justifies ministers offering the hope of eternal life to those who have not managed to find faith in Jesus. But this has to be declared in a context which allows it to be received as more than a conventional gesture towards ‘the man upstairs.’ The Roman Catholic requiem mass is such a context, but I remain doubtful if the average 25 minute service at a crematorium, topped and tailed by the deceased’s favourtite pop music, is.
Churches should perhaps encourage the use of their own buildings and traditions of worship, for all funerals, so that its gospel for people who are grieving has a chance of being heard. Even then it will still be important for ministers to resist the immense cultural pressure to trivialise death, and therefore, life also.