The Reverend Mr. Brian
- 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.
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.
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."
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."
I re-read Wesley's address I noted that his depiction of Whitefield fitted Brian
Robinson over and over.
 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.
 "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.
 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.
 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.
 Whitefield was flexible, insisted Wesley,
pliable, accommodating -- but "immovable in the things of God",
immovable in matters of "conscience."
 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."
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?
total inability to save itself, its total lack of merit by which it would
deserve to be saved.
Christ as the sole meritorious cause of our blessing, "in particular of our
pardon and acceptance with God."
by which we are given new standing before God and are restored to God's favour.
Birth, by which we are given a new nature from God and are restored to God's
Don't Whitefield's doctrines square with Brian's?
They certainly do with the Brian I knew and loved.
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
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."
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.
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.
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 -
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
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."
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?"