I was offered, today, the immense privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving Service of a wonderful man...a man who more than any other, first led me to a full commitment to Jesus. In his memory, here is the sermon I preached...
Philippians 3: 7-14: For Stan Whitfield
I am immensely humbled by this invitation to preach a short sermon at Stan’s thanksgiving. (You’ll be pleased to know that Connie and Peter have emphasised the word ‘short’!) I can honestly say that more than anyone else, other than Jesus himself, Stan is responsible for the fact that I stand here today in a clerical collar...an ordained minister. He never actually told me what he thought of the fact that I’m a minister in the Church of England!...but I think I know what he would have said. He would have said that I was right to follow Jesus...wherever he would lead.
I first met Stan during his ministry in Totnes - 20 something years ago. I was a student at the nearby college of arts...which was an institution that Stan felt God was calling him to reach out to. It was a God-less place...let me tell you….and most of us students lived pretty God-less lives. During my first year, I was dimly aware of a bunch of students who had been inspired by Stan to pray regularly in our halls of residence. We knew they were at it...by the choruses of Majesty which would float down the corridors. They seemed a pretty odd bunch to me...but they were persistently friendly….and persistently persuasive of the need for me to come and met their minister.
So - having had a church background, but a lot of questions, I agreed to meet this chap they were on about. Stan, frankly, amazed me. He and Connie welcomed me into their home...a lost student, far from his parents...and treated me like a member of the family. Not just me - all of us lost souls of Dartington knew what it was to be loved and accepted by the Whitfield family.
But most importantly, Stan was willing to be grilled and grilled on questions of faith...answering each of my questions with quiet assurance and a penetrating logic. He led by example too...his life of prayerful self-sacrifice was a testament to the possibility of transformation through knowing Jesus...I had never met anyone quite like him. It was not long before Jesus, through Stan, convicted me of the knowledge that I am a sinner...and that only Jesus had the remedy. I was baptised, by Stan, a short while later...and, frankly, have never looked back.
Stan put my feet on the road of faith. Initially that meant his recommendation that I should take a year out to serve as a Christian in the ‘Time for God’ scheme. But more fundamentally, he set my feet on the road of life with God. St Paul followed that road - and, as we heard in our reading just now, he found it to be one that utterly transformed his life.
For Paul, the journey along the road to heaven began on the road to Damascus. Up until then, he had been an important man - a leader among the Jews - who gained great respect for his persecution of Christians. He had status, respect, learning and probably wealth.
But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to a totally new way of living...a way of hardship, of trials before courts, of travelling from country to country, of prison, and ultimately of an early death.
Now that doesn’t sound very appealing does it? “Give up your life of status, power, wealth and begin one of hardship, poverty and death!” But just listen to how Paul compared his new life in Christ to his old one. I’m reading from a new paraphrase of the Bible called “the Message” - which aims to get the sense of the text over to us in modern language:
“Because of Christ, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant - dog dung! I’ve dumped it all in the rubbish so that I could embrace Christ, and be embraced by Him.”
Yes - folks - the bible really does use language which is that robust. The word which is translated as rubbish in our normal bible, and as ‘dog-dung’ in the message...is actually closer, in the original Greek, to the word we all know that begins with ‘s/h’ and ends with ‘t’! Paul is wanting us to be in no doubt that compared to the joy of following Christ on the path to heaven...everything else is trash, rubbish - muck and manure!
You see, Paul, like Stan, understood that the goal of eternal life with Jesus was worth pressing on for. In the last line of the passage we just heard, he said “I press on towards the goal to win the price for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”
Being an Anglican, I take a lot of funerals! It comes with being part of the established church. I have to tell you, that I go through some pretty tortuous sentences in some of those funerals, as I try to say something that will offer hope to families of habitual gamblers and drunkards, or those who have never darkened the church’s doors. Everyone wants to hear that their loved one has gone to heaven...but sadly, all that I can often do is affirm that God is merciful, and that we must pray.
But for someone like Stan...it is wonderful to be able to celebrate, with real joy, that the end of his journey of faith can be in no other place than with God - awaiting, in glorious peace, the day of resurrection. I can hear Stan’s voice in those words of verse 10 that we heard just now: “I want to know Christ and power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”.
Do you know what Paul means? Do you understand why Stan lived his life as one focused on the goal of heaven? Many people go through their whole lives trying to find the kind of deep peace and contentment that Paul is talking about. We seek new experiences, new possessions, new hobbies and interests, new jobs, new relationships - all in an effort find happiness...deep happiness. But somehow, it never quite works does it?
We buy a new fabulous painting for our wall...but after a while it becomes familiar...and we want a new one. We buy a new car, with all the latest gadgets…(well I do anyway!)...but after a while we find that it gets old and starts to cost us time and money. We buy a new house thinking we’ve found the perfect nest, the place we’ve always wanted...and then we find that the boiler is broken, and the toilet leaks! Suddenly, what we thought would bring us deep inner peace, no longer thrills us...it just becomes another part of every day life.
And ultimately, all of us know, don’t we, that our earthly life will come to an end. Mind you, we instinctively do everything we can to pretend that death won’t affect us...we kid ourselves inwardly that we will live forever. Through the tender mercy of the funeral director and the crematorium, we have professionalised death, and ritualised it. But let me tell you a secret - a secret that Stan knew - we will all die. And nothing we’ve done, nothing we’ve accumulated, nothing we’ve strived for will actually matter anymore. It will be meaningless...unless, as Stan did, we’ve based our lives on the one thing that will outlive us all...our Creator God.
I wondered earlier what Stan might have said about me becoming an Anglican minister. But there’s no doubt in my mind what Stan would say to each and every one of you who have come to pay tribute to him today. Even after all that he so gloriously achieved, and even after all that we’ve rightly remembered him for today, Stan would say …”don’t focus on the container, and miss the Spirit that fills it” He’d say “Don’t remember me as a good man without remembering that it is Jesus who transformed me”. He’d say ”If you want to congratulate me for a life lived well, remember that it means nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And he’d say, “If you honour my legacy at all...don’t leave here today without putting your feet firmly on the road of God. Forget what is behind, and strain towards what is ahead. Press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenwards in Jesus Christ.”