As some of you know, in early January a local boy called Ollie lost his life. He was in Year 6 at Studley St Mary’s C of E Academy, and had fought bravely against Ewing’s sarcoma (a rare bone cancer) for about 18 months. I had the privilege to get to know his family – and their extremely happy dog Popcorn – several times over the days before his funeral. I cannot even try to imagine what they are going through, but we managed to plan a funeral service that I think said a lot about who he was, and what he meant to his family.
(The service was made even more difficult for me personally, because that morning Betty Taggart died, a long and faithful member of Studley Parish Church.)
The Bible passage Ollie’s family chose for his funeral was an extract from 1 Corinthians 13, perhaps more famous for being read at weddings, but I have found it has a lot to say at funerals as well. So, sitting here with tears in my eyes remembering Ollie and Betty, I thought I would share with you what I said at Ollie’s funeral.
1 Corinthians 13: Seeing Love
The words I just read from 1 Corinthians 13 may be familiar to many of you. They are often read out at weddings, probably because Paul – who wrote them – is talking mostly about love.
But the love Paul was talking about goes far beyond even the love of a married couple, and even beyond the love a parent has for her child. The love Paul was talking about is true love, real love, deep love from before the dawn of time.
When Paul was writing about love, he was doing what Ollie’s family did at the weekend when they were writing their amazing tributes to him. They weren’t sitting at home making stories up. No: they were remembering a real person, called Ollie, who lived, breathed and loved, played with toilet roll, ate roast chicken and did crazy stunts with his wheelchair. They wrote about not a fairy-tale, but a real person.
And that’s exactly what Paul was doing when he wrote about love in his letter that we call 1 Corinthians. He wasn’t writing an essay for a philosophy degree. He wasn’t making up stories, inventing things as he went along. No: Paul was writing about not a fairy-tale, but a real person, called Jesus.
So when Paul says, ‘love is’, he may as well have said, ‘Jesus is’, because that’s who he’s talking about. So let me do just that:
‘Jesus is patient and kind; he is not jealous or conceited or proud; Jesus is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; Jesus does not keep a record of wrongs; Jesus is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Jesus never gives up; and his faith, hope, and patience never fail.’
1 Corinthians 13.5-7 (GNB, modified)
You see, Jesus came to love us, and to show us what true love looks like, to show us what true love means. Jesus came to love us by dying for us, in our place – and then by rising again to new life, which he now offers to all who believe.
I want to read that last part to you again: ‘Jesus never gives up; and his faith, hope, and patience never fail.’ Jesus will never give up on you, he will never stop being patient with you. He is always with you.
There are some other words in the Bible that are often read at funerals: ‘even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me’ (Psalm 23.4). That’s Jesus: he is the one who is with us, every step of the way.
When tragedy occurs people often ask God, ‘Why? Why did this happen? Why should a boy die long before his time?’ I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe one day we will, but that day is not today.
But I do know the answer to the question, ‘Where? Where are you God? Where are you when these awful things happen?’
And the answer is: right here. Jesus is love, and he is here now, full of love for each one of us, full of compassion and patience. The Christian faith is not about making stuff up, or abstract nonsense; the Christian faith is about the God who is with us, here and everywhere, today and always. The Christian faith is about the God who loves more than we can even imagine.
It is my prayer for everyone here, that you would know the comfort and love of Jesus today, tomorrow, and always.