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Funeral Address forThe Reverend Mr. Brian Robinson

 

       Funeral Address

                                                                                                      for

                                                                       The Reverend Mr. Brian Robinson

 

   – I –                                                                        

Earlier this week I arrived home from teaching at Tyndale Seminary, after supper, and Maureen informed me of the death of my friend and fellow-minister, Brian Robinson. I was stunned. Because of the way the intra-psychic grooves are worn in my “noodle” I found myself thinking immediately of the untimely death of George Whitefield, the powerful 18th Century evangelist and colleague of John Wesley. Wesley was born in 1703, Whitefield in 1714. Wesley would die by slipping away quietly, over several days, at the age of 88. Whitefield would die very suddenly of heart trouble at age 56.

Whitefield had crossed the Atlantic thirteen times. The odd number — thirteen — tells you that he died in the New World and was buried there. He went to his reward on September 30, 1770. Because Whitefield died in the New World (Newburyport, Massachusetts) Wesley didn’t learn of his friend’s death until November 10 — six weeks later. Wesley was asked to preach at a memorial service in England; at three of them, in fact.

Finding myself thinking of Wesley’s reaction to the news of Whitefield’s death, I turned up Wesley’s “funeral” sermon (as he called it) for his friend. I was startled, upon reading it again after not having read it for several years, at how much it gathered up exactly what I wanted to say in commemoration of Brian Robinson.

In order to prepare his “funeral” sermon Wesley retreated from his itinerant ministry and secluded himself for a week, writing in his journal, “It was an awful season” — in every sense of “awful.”

The day of the funeral Wesley appeared, sermon in hand, and told the congregation that a major purpose of his address was to “inquire how we may improve (18th Century English for “profit from”) this awful providence, George Whitefield’s sudden removal from us.”

As I re-read Wesley’s address I noted that his depiction of Whitefield fitted Brian Robinson over and over.

[1] Wesley’s first point: although in the pulpit Whitefield didn’t shrink from reminding hearers of the “whole counsel of God,” including the judgement of God, still, said Wesley, “George had nothing gloomy in his nature, being singularly cheerful, as well as charitable and tender-hearted.” Cheerful (I never met Brian when he wasn’t cheerful), charitable, tender-hearted.

[2] “George had a heart susceptible of the most generous and most tender friendship.” I met Brian in 1988, knew him for fifteen years, and counted him a tender, generous friend.

[3] Whitefield’s demeanour was “frank and open,” but not frank with the frankness that is simply rude, said Wesley; yet frank and open so as never to be cunning or false.

[4] Whitefield’s frankness and openness, continued Wesley, were the both the fruit and the proof of his courage. Brian and I stood shoulder to shoulder in the most turbulent days of our denomination, and I noted that Brian never lacked courage.

[5] Whitefield was flexible, insisted Wesley, pliable, accommodating — but “immovable in the things of God”, immovable in matters of “conscience.”

[6] The foundation of George’s “integrity, sincerity, courage and patience” wasn’t his education (although he was educated;) and it wasn’t his friendships (although he benefited from many); rather it was, said Wesley, “no other than faith in a bleeding Lord.”

Having said this much about Whitefield (as I have said in equal measure about Brian), Wesley asked his hearers, “But how shall we improve (profit from) this awful providence?” — and answered, “By keeping close to Whitefield’s doctrines, and by keeping close to Whitefield’s spirit.”

What were Whitefield’s doctrines?

  1. humankind’s total inability to save itself, its total lack of merit by which it would deserve to be saved.
  2. Jesus Christ as the sole meritorious cause of our blessing, “in particular of our pardon and acceptance with God.”
  3. Justification, by which we are given new standing before God and are restored to God’s favour.
  4. The New Birth, by which we are given a new nature from God and are restored to God’s image.

Don’t Whitefield’s doctrines square with Brian’s? They certainly do with the Brian I knew and loved.

Still, said Wesley, if we keep close to Whitefield’s doctrines only we merely increase our condemnation. Therefore we must keep close to Whitefield’s spirit as well. And Whitefield’s spirit, said Wesley, was catholic love. For decades Whitefield had embraced Christians who were zealous for their Lord and his gospel regardless of denominational affiliation. Whitefield was an Anglican, but he was always at home among Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Baptists, at home among any and all who loved their Lord “with love undying”, in the words of Paul. Wesley spoke of Whitefield’s “catholic love” as “that sincere and tender affection which is due to all those who, we have reason to believe, are children of God by faith; in other words, all those in every persuasion who ‘fear God and work righteousness’…of whatever opinion, mode of worship, or congregation.”

Only two weeks ago Brian contacted me concerning his visit to the USA on behalf of the Association of Church Renewal, the organization whose meetings he had attended for years and in which he cherished and was cherished by Christians from every branch of the church catholic.

                                                                          – II –

I met Brian at an early meeting of the community of the Community of Concern in May, 1988, in the wake of the single largest crisis to come upon The United Church of Canada. He won my heart instantly, for Brian knew that conflict, both theological conflict and institutional conflict, couldn’t be avoided however distasteful conflict always is.

If conflict is inevitable for all Christians at some point then the most important matter facing the Christian is the matter of armour. With what are we to arm ourselves? The apostle Paul discusses the armour suitable for Christ’s people in Ephesians 6. The only offensive weapon he mentions is “the sword of the Spirit.” He lists several items of defensive armour, one of which is the “shield of faith.” This shield, he insists, is able to nullify “all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

In Paul’s day arrows were dipped in tar and then ignited. A soldier without a shield would be skewered and burnt immediately. The apostle knew that life hurls countless “flaming arrows:” we are exquisitely vulnerable creatures. “Flaming arrows”?   We need think only of sudden and intense affliction, protracted illness, crushing disappointment, betrayal, knee-shaking temptation. In all of this faith, and faith alone (i.e., our bond to Jesus Christ in his presence and power) is our defence, our security, our life.

All of us have had to contend with major stress or threat looming at us from one direction only to be speared and seared by something coming from another direction. We weren’t looking for the second assault, didn’t expect it, and weren’t equipped for it on account of our preoccupation with the frontal adversity. Confusion and disorientation — panic even — were soon upon us.

Yet, exclaims the apostle, faith is the shield that nullifies all flaming arrows. He has in mind the Parthian army’s defeat of a Roman army in 53 B.C.E. The Parthians, under General Surenas (a military genius), fired arrows in a high trajectory upon their Roman foes. The Roman soldiers held their shields above their heads while the projectiles rained down upon them — at which point the Parthians fired a second salvo straight ahead, chest high. While their opponents were still reacting to the second salvo, a third, in a high trajectory, fell down on them once again. Their shields couldn’t protect them against attack from two directions simultaneously. Moreover, because all these arrows had been dipped in pitch and then ignited, as soon as an arrow stuck in a shield it set the shield on fire. Attack from above, attack from in front, the soldiers’ protection aflame: they were helpless, and their situation was hopeless. Demoralization soon guaranteed one of the worst military defeats Rome would ever know. With this item of recent history in mind the apostle repeats yet again, “Faith in Jesus Christ is sufficient in the face of all life’s flaming arrows.”

When the apostle spoke of the shield of faith he was drawing even more from his treasure-store of military lore. As a Roman army advanced, each soldier’s shield, carried on the left arm, protected two-thirds of his own body and one-third of the body of the man on his left. Every soldier counted on the man on his right to protect the right-most one-third of his body that would otherwise be fatally exposed. How many people profited from the spiritual protection that Brian’s faith-shield afforded? And what a privilege it was for some of us to afford him the protection we were commissioned to provide.

There is one thing more we need to know about the shield of faith. When the mothers of Sparta sent their sons off to battle their last word was, “Come home with your shield, or come home on it; but don’t come home without it.” If their soldier-son came home without his shield then plainly he had surrendered. In disgrace now, it would be better for him not to come home at all. If, however, he came home with his shield, then he had triumphed gloriously. And if he came home on it, then he had fallen nobly in battle and was now borne home with honour. The same shield that equipped the soldier in life brought him home, with honour, in death. Faith is the shield on which Christ’s soldier is carried home.

 

– III –

When I learned of Brian’s death earlier this week I had been thinking of Easter Sunday and what I was going to say then. Several weeks ago I had decided that I was going to preach on the text from 1st Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished… and we are of all men most to be pitied.”

Paul’s logic is faultless. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then death has the last word; death is the last word, for everyone. Romantics may disguise death romantically and pretend any number of silly things about death, but such people are mere romantics: they invent groundless fantasy.

But Christ has been raised from the dead. The trust that you and I have placed in him isn’t misplaced, can’t be misplaced. We can entrust our departed loved one, Brian, to the care and keeping of God who now preserves him as surely as he has preserved his own son.

Christ has been raised from the dead. We are not deluded folk living in an illusion. We live in truth, and will never have to be pitied, let alone pitied above all others.

 

– IV –

Wesley again. At the service where he spoke of his departed friend, Wesley reminded hearers that his own heart had been drawn to Whitefield 35 years earlier as he came to love Whitefield with uncommon affection. Wesley’s terse comment on the love that Whitefield had awakened in him was, “Can anything but love beget love?”

Years earlier Whitefield himself had anticipated his own passing. His remark concerning his own death and that of others was equally pithy and profound: “For the Christian, instant death means instant glory.”

Anticipating both Wesley and Whitefield and all who love Jesus Christ with love undying the apostle Paul had cried, “Be sure to take the shield of faith.”

Faith is still the shield on which the saint is taken home, taken home with honour. And taken home how quickly? “Instant death, instant glory.” And what has brought you and me to this service today? Love. Love for Brian who also loved us. Above all, love for our Lord who first loved us. For — “Can anything but love beget love?”
Victor Shepherd        April 2003