Not in Vain in the Lord – A Funeral Sermon
A Sermon preached at the Burial service of the Reverend John Herbert Algar, vicar of St Martin and St. Paul, Tipton, at St Paul’s church, on 19th February 2001
My text is the concluding verse of the lesson just read in the Prayer Book Burial service, 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”
I would like to begin by expressing my sympathy to the congregation here at St. Paul’s in the loss of their pastor. I would also like to express my gratitude to the rural dean (a friend of recent days) for inviting me to preach at this thanksgiving service for my old friend John Algar. A thanksgiving service is what the Prayer Book Burial service really is – a service of thanksgiving for the one who has died, and of prayer for ourselves; and it is always a joy when one can give thanks with full sincerity for the one who has died, and with confidence that he has entered into the joy of his Lord.
I first knew John about 45 years ago when I was in my first curacy at Harold Wood in Essex, a place named after the last of the Saxon kings, who had had a hunting-lodge in the vicinity. John was an ordinand in the parish, where the vicar was Don Churchman; and John was already displaying that gift for helpful exposition of Scripture which was to be a keynote of his ministry. I remember saying to him once: “When I retire, I should like to move to your parish and let you minister to me” (one says these things but, of course, it was not to be). John was trained for the ministry at the old Tyndale Hall in Bristol, a college which the late Bishop Cockin of Bristol, when he heard someone speaking contemptuously of it, defended by saying that it not only taught its students to love their Bible but to love their Prayer Book as well – more than can be said for some other colleges, he added. So we need not be surprised that John was not just a Bible-man, but also a Prayer Book-man, as the service we are using today bears witness. Of course, he was trained before liturgical revision began, but he continued to hold that the old is better. And there was a third mark of his ministry too, which was his diligence in pastoral care.
John went for his first curacy to Stapenhill, under the late Fred Jarvis, and then for his second to the very different parish of Willesborough with Hinxhill in Kent, where he was minister-in-charge of Christchurch; after which he returned to his roots and accepted the incumbency of St. Martin’s, Tipton, which, later linked with St. Paul’s, he held until the end of his life. He was one of those who, like the recently retired Bishop of Chichester, had been appointed to his post before the Clergy Retirement Measure came into force, and therefore had a life-long tenure; and, despite the blandishments of archdeacons, John resolved to exercise this to the full. John’s mother lived with him for many years, prior to her death, but he had few other relatives, and he never married. He was a quiet, gentle, humble man of God. Many will remember him with gratitude and affection.
When the body becomes a burden, through mortal sickness, it is a relief to the spirit to lay it aside; and for a Christian, who longs to be with Jesus, to lay it aside is a joy. “To depart and be with Christ is far better,” says Paul to the Philippian Christians, and “absent from the body, present with the Lord” to the Corinthian Christians, in his Second Epistle, chapter 5. But he also tells them in that place that to be absent from the body is not the best state of all for Christians. The best state, and the final state, is to receive our resurrection bodies, so that we can be truly like our Saviour, Jesus Christ Himself, risen from the dead. And that was the theme of our reading at this service, from I Corinthians chapter 15: the resurrection of the body. We do not just look forward to being a group of happy spirits surrounding our Saviour in His resurrection body, though that will probably be our lot for a time. Jesus will forever be surrounded by happy spirits, but they will be angels, not men; for a man is not just a spirit, but a spirit with a body. And the Son of God, as the Epistle to the Hebrews points out, did not take upon Himself the nature of an angel but the nature of a man. It was not enough for Jesus, therefore, that His spirit should survive death, as Bishop Jenkins of Durham thought: He had to defeat death in His body, and to be raised again. Just as He had defeated sin on the cross, and paid, though sinless Himself, the debt that sinners owed, so at His resurrection He defeated death, the wages of sin, and rose again to a new and endless life. And what is true of our Saviour will be true of us whom He saved. “But,” as our lesson said, “every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming” (verse 23).
When His coming occurs, we too shall enjoy the life of a body exempt from pain and sickness and death, a body free from many of the limitations of earthly existence, a body out of the reach of temptation and sin, a body made glorious by irradiating the glory of heaven, which the Lord will bring with Him when He returns. Then, as St. John says in his First Epistle, “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).
When will this happen? At the consummation of all things. And when will that be? We are not told, but we are warned to be ready. Many will not be ready – many are not expecting it to happen – but it will happen, and St. Paul in our reading tells us how. “Behold, I shew you a mystery (a “mystery” means a secret); We shall not all sleep (that is, die), but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (verses 5-52). At a time when many Christians have died, he says, but some are still alive – a time like now – the trumpet will sound. It sounded when the Lord descended on Mount Sinai to reveal the Ten Commandments. “The voice of the trumpet exceeding loud” accompanied His coming, we read in Exodus chapter 19, and “all the people that was in the camp trembled.” It will sound again when the same Lord descends once more from heaven, wrapped not in darkness, as on that earlier occasion, but in His glorified humanity, and accompanied by all the hosts of heaven. And the great purpose of His coming will be to destroy death. “The dead will be raised incorruptible,” and those who have not died will be “changed” – they will receive their resurrection bodies without passing through death.
“So when this corruptible ‘shall have put on incorruption,” Paul continues (verses 54-58), “and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written (in Isaiah, that is), Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? The sting (the deadly sting) of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law (God’s broken Law). But (since Christ dealt with all that by His sacrifice on the cross) thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (John, whom we are burying today, will be sharing in that victory, I am sure, and we too can share in it if we never despair, but hold our faith steadfast to the end.) Therefore, my beloved brethren,” Paul concludes, “be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” Indeed it is not in vain, for Christ, in whom we trust, will triumph at the last.
Published in the Gospel Magazine, May-June 2001 edited by Edward Malcolm, 15 Bridge Stret, Knighton, Powys, LD7 1BT
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