The Spirit there was unmistakable. It was the type of place where all of my senses were pricked the moment I walked into the door. I heard worship music in the sanctuary, saw hundreds of people gathered, exalting in praise. I felt the strong hands of fellow pastors as they welcomed me into the gathering, the place smelled of anticipation and at the same time tasted of grief. I was entering a funeral where hundreds had gathered to celebrate the life of Rev. Vipul Kharat who died unexpectedly at the age of 51.
Most funerals begin with soft music playing in the background while the family of the deceased processes into the sanctuary. Once the family arrives at their seats the congregation is seated and the funeral begins. Everything is calm and orderly, songs are sung, remembrances read sermons preached. These are wonderful funerals, wonderful tributes, wonderful sermons calling us to faithfulness. But most funerals spend their time looking to the past.
In contrast, Vipul’s funeral was focused on what God is presently doing and what God desires to do in days that are yet to come. This was obvious from the beginning. As we gathered, we worshiped in song inviting God’s presence among us. When the time came to begin we all stood and Vipul’s body was brought into the sanctuary in a procession of pallbearers and family. Like the rest of us Vipul’s body was being carried into the sanctuary, the place where God dwells among God’s people, he was being brought into the presence of Christ. He was being welcomed into the body of Christ, into the all-embracing arms of the resurrected Christ alongside of whom Vipul will stand resurrected in the coming Kingdom. Yes, this was a day for grief, but it was also a day for celebration, a day for hope, a day to shout our victory in Christ from the mountaintops. For in this sanctuary of Christ, death has no voice, death has no power.
As a new pastor on the NZ District I had only met Vipul once, and as I walked into his memorial service I was immediately struck by the type of man he must have been. There was grief in the room, there were those asking why, there was the ever-present sense of loss that inevitably comes when we lose those we love. Those here had lost a husband, a father, a pastor, a friend, a district leader, and by all accounts a man who believed that God is at work in the world. He was a man who did not shy away from participating in that redeeming work no matter what the cost to himself.
But what struck me most about the gathering was the attitude of worship. I came to a funeral, and found myself at a worship service. Not fake or fancy worship. True worship. We sang and we prayed and we remembered not only the man Vipul, but the call that God had placed on his life and the call that God was continuing to place on the life of those in the room that day.
A number of people spoke, stories were told and tears were shed, but the common theme that day was a call to God’s people to be inspired by a man who followed God with all that he had to give. The call was to say yes to God so that many more could experience the grace of God through us, in the same way that those in the room had experienced that grace as Vipul poured out his life into them.
About halfway through the service, one of Vipul’s ministry partners shared how stunned he was to hear about Vipul’s untimely death. His immediate reaction was to ask God why. How could they continue their ministry without Vipul? Vipul was their key man. His shoes would be impossible to fill. In that moment the Spirit whispered to him that God’s desire was not to replace Vipul with one person but with ten, and that those people would be at Vipul’s funeral. So as he concluded his remembrance he simply asked those in the room to stand if they felt God calling them to be one of those ten. The Spirit of God was moving and one by one men and women from around the room began to stand in silent testimony to the call that God was placing on their lives. From among those who grieve, God has begun to call out those who will carry God’s kingdom forward in Vipul’s stead.
As the service drew to a close I was struck by what had happened. This had been like no funeral I had ever experienced before. It was a time of very real pain and grief, and there will be many days, months and years of grief to come. Yet the Spirit of God was so heavy in that sanctuary that even in grief we exalted in our Creator and in the comfort we are offered because of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Even in grief God’s kingdom is coming. Even at a funeral the Spirit of God moves and calls people to ministry. Even in the face of tragic death we can celebrate life, both the life that we have been given now and the life that is to come.
Last Saturday more than ever I understood the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 15: “Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?” It is not here, not among God’s people, for he has risen. And so we will grieve, but we will also worship and be called and revel in the knowledge that the day will come when the dead are raised and we will stand at the feet of our Lord in the glorious Kingdom that is to come. May we serve well. May we stand up and proclaim the Kingdom that is coming so that all we meet will know and believe and stand in worship alongside us on that day when there is no longer death, only wonderful, healing, transforming worship.