I Corinthians 15, verse 57 – But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

If memory serves I first met Henry and Elaine about 40 years ago – I think at Charles Beaumont’s house at lunch, I think with James Reap and perhaps Connie and Bill Herringdine.  In any case, it was a casual introduction to my future eye doctor and parishioner.

Some years later, though still many years ago now, in this place a priest gave a sermon from this pulpit about which Henry Utley said to him afterwards, ‘Father, I could hear you better today.’  To that the priest said, ‘Good.’  To which Henry replied, ‘Don’t worry, I can move further back.’  You will all recognize that as classic Henry.  Around the same time Henry posted in the parish hall laminated cards with an extract from the late medieval municipal code of Chester.  This story will make more sense to you if you know that Canon Cotterell, who was curate at the time, was raised in Wales.  The cards read, ‘It is unlawful to shoot Welshmen within the city walls after sunset.’  When Henry was well, life with him involved sparring.  He often was perfectly serious and sincere, but he usually also enjoyed a good tussle. 

Behind the tussles was a substantial speculative and critical intelligence.  Henry was not constitutionally inclined to suffer fools gladly.  He in himself was well-read, intellectually curious, and informed about a truly surprising variety of subjects from rugs and silver, to the problem of universals and the general history of Western philosophy, to psychological disorders and Duke basketball.  (Let me hasten to add that as a Duke degree holder, I am allowed to bracket psychological disorders and Duke basketball.)  Henry to the world was appreciated by his patients.  He was, and knew himself to be, blessed in his marriage.  He loved and was proud of his children and grandchildren.  He was supportive of his Church and parish and clergy. 

I think Henry’s faith was complex.  On one level, he was quite consistent, I think, in valuing this place as what Rose Macauley called ‘a shrine of the decencies’:  a place of beauty and order in an often ugly and disordered world.  He saw his church as a positive cultural influence.  His deeper and more specifically religious views were, I felt over the years, more complex.  But I know that when he received Extreme Unction in May, he said the confession and the Lord’s Prayer, he said ‘Amen’ to all the prayers, and he crossed himself at the absolution and the final blessing.  While I do not think his faith was simple or unruffled, I do think it was real and sincere and was attached to his love for Elaine and for people whom he knew and valued here.  Henry was inclined not to believe in universals:  so perhaps it is fitting and consistent that his faith was closely tied to particulars – flowing from his particular history, connected to particular people, particular associations, and the particular religious practice that he shared with Elaine. 

As Christians it is our duty to think about death and its meaning.  As Henry knew, Socrates was deemed the wisest of men because he always went about thinking on death.  So should we.

Christianity is not, or at least should not be, a sentimental religion.  It is a practical religion which teaches us how to deal with things as they truly are.  To ignore death or to try to prettify it is sentimental and unrealistic.  Death comes for us all, and whether in our brief perspective it seems to come early or late for some is really not very important:   my days are ‘as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee….For man walketh in a vain shadow’ (Ps. xxxix) so soon do our days pass away.  To ignore the Psalmist’s wisdom is foolishness. 

Saint Paul, in the light of this reality, tells us not ‘to be ignorant’, not to ignore the fact of death.  But Paul also tells the Thessalonians to ‘sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.’ (I Thes. iv.13)   He does not say not to sorrow at all.  Rather he says not to sorrow as those who have no hope.  We ‘sorrow not’ overmuch, because Christians are not only realistic, but also receive from God the supernatural gift of hope, the most neglected of the three theological virtues.  We have hope:  ‘For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.’  And so we may say in the words of my text, and even in the face of death, ‘…thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’  We have hope of victory because we believe in the Resurrection of the dead, and the Life of the world to come.  And we have this belief, which gives us hope, because we believe in the all-prevailing Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.

For Christians our end is present in our beginning.  In baptism we die to sin and the old Adam, that we might be born again and live unto life eternal.  Today we also should remember that in our end is another beginning.  Death is the narrow door through which we must stoop to enter the larger life to which this world is only the gate.  Henry has not died to life, but rather has died to the half-life, the suffering life of this world where we, poor banished children of Eve, pass a few years.  For us the death of those we love is sad.  For those who die in hope, particularly when they leave sickness and decline, how can death be sad?  Henry’s illness is over, his afflictions laid down, his repentances accepted, his sins forgiven, his good works rewarded, and his hopes fulfilled, by our Mediator and Advocate. 

As a realistic Christian, I do not tell you to pretend that loss and sorrow are not sad or should be ignored.  That is unreal.  Death is a deep sorrow for those who are left.  What I do say to you is this:  ‘thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’  We are not as them without hope, for I believe, and so should you, in the Resurrection of the dead, and the Life of the world to come.  For which, again, thanks be to God.  May the soul of Henry rest in peace.  Amen. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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