Thatcher’s funeral and the ultimate democracy

After this, this and this one wondered whether Giles Fraser was ever going to stumble upon something with which I can agree. Just when we may have given up hope, Fraser offers this astute theological observation in today’s Guardian:

I have buried some extraordinary wrong ‘uns in my time: crooks, murderers, wife-beaters and swindlers. But these funerals were never lies, because unlike a secular send-off, where the past virtues of the deceased necessarily take centre stage, the Christian funeral can leave all that stuff to God. It is not, first and foremost, the celebration of a life or the retelling of achievement. It is an unsentimental acknowledgment that death is the ultimate democracy. It comes to us all – the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. And with death in a Christian context also comes a recognition that we are all subject to the mercy of God for our failings. “However families or states want to dress up and create an occasion, the heart of a funeral is very simple,” was how Canon Mark Oakley put it in his sermon last Sunday at St Paul’s.

He illustrated the point with reference to the funerals of Habsburg royalty. As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “who is it?”. The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.

Today is the one day that I will not be demonstrating or turning my back. For Thatcher and I share that final description: both of us failed, both in need of forgiveness. Its the ultimate human solidarity. And while I recognise that many find the language of sin and judgment increasingly uncongenial, it is nonetheless for precisely this reason that it is such a theological mistake to use her funeral as an occasion for grand political theatre, inviting comparisons with Winston Churchill. As the Habsburg funerals recognised, none of that makes any difference in the ultimate scheme of things.

Without God, final judgment becomes the domain of the crowd and the newspapers. I once asked the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, what he really wanted to say to Robert Mugabe before his trip to Zimbabwe, back in 2010. The archbishop looked up from his drink, and dropped his voice: “There is no immunity from prosecution when you are dead,” he said. And no, this column is not deliberately putting Margaret Thatcher in the company of thieves and dictators to make a political point. I’m putting us all in that company to make a theological one.

Fraser’s point is a biblical one. Death is the ultimate leveller from which none of us escape. As the writer to the Hebrews states, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (9:27, ESV)”. Indeed, Peter makes clear that we will all have to stand before a holy God and give account of our lives (see 1 Pet. 4:17f).

Nevertheless, Paul comments:

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:23-26, ESV)

Fraser is quite correct that we must rely on God’s mercy when we stand before Him in the judgment. However, if our reliance on God’s mercy is a mere hope we will simply be let off the hook, then we have entirely failed to grasp the nature of God’s justice. On the other hand, if we are relying on the redemptive work of Jesus we have good grounds to receive God’s mercy. For, in Jesus, God punished the sin of those who receive Christ by faith and there is nothing more to be paid. This meets God’s justice whilst simultaneously allowing God to show mercy to the sinner. Thus God is both just – by actually punishing sin in Christ – as well as the justifier, by his grace, of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Therefore the Christian has nothing to fear in death. As the writer to the Hebrews goes on, having spoken of the inevitability of death and judgment, he comments “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Heb. 9:28, ESV)”.