A transcript of the eulogy delivered at Peter’s funeral in England on 31st January 2012
1970 was, I think, the year I first met Peter. Our college cricket team was on tour in the West Country, and we had a game against Millfield, which for once went rather well; our batsmen got a very respectable stack of runs, and Millfield performed gallantly, but not to great effect. Our Australian fast bowler, now a very eminent judge Down Under, was rampaging, and Peter, who had been bowling rather good loopy leg-breaks in our innings, came in at Number 11. He was a boy of about 14, I should judge, and we thought “this’ll be easy”. It was, of course, nothing of the kind, and he and his partner successfully and entirely calmly resisted all our weapons, and survived to secure the draw. I was particularly pleased to discover that he was a younger brother of Jim, with whom I had played a good deal of cricket for the Downside Ravens. The next time we met was a few years later, at Downside, playing together for the Ravens; Peter was something of a figure of awe, as he was by now a Somerset cricketer, and I recall our Captain, Dom Martin Salmon, asking him how Somerset would do that season. I was impressed by the rigour of his analysis, though it sounded like heresy to me, when he said, “Not very well – we have not got the ability to bowl sides out”. He was, of course, in that season, absolutely correct, even if alarming to the ears of a passionate Somerset supporter. The next time I can recall, though there were a good many other occasions on the way, was at the wedding of another famous Somerset cricketer, Victor Marks, and Peter was best man, and entirely efficient about his duties. The last time, for certain, was in South Africa; we had been in touch about various matters, and he wanted to come and visit. I was able to put him in touch with various cricket contacts in the Natal Midlands; it was most interesting to see South Africa through his eyes, as we struggled to emerge from the awfulness of apartheid. He was deeply critical of the set-up, even after the first democratic elections, and it made interesting if uncomfortable hearing. He was also a great friend to various young people of sporting ability, especially those at the bottom of the economic and political pile. He was very good to them, and as we know, that interest in helping the deprived continued to the very end of his life, whose untimely ending we celebrate today. And my last memory is of driving him down to Durban, whence he was to fly back to Australia. We had to stop halfway down, so that he could buy quite a lot of fruit; it was something to do with his system for avoiding jet-lag, and that seemed somehow entirely characteristic. Since then we had not been much in contact, I am sad to say, but I always followed with interest his rigorous analysis of various cricket matches, especially those which I had watched.
What are we to say to ourselves today as we commit him to God’s rest, this gifted and restless soul? One thing that perhaps we need to say is that we do not know the precise circumstances of his death, despite the apparent certainties peddled by the media. What are we to say, more important, to his wonderful family, and most of all his mother Elizabeth? Well, they have done it for us; they have preached the sermon by the readings that they have chosen, and all I want to do is to spell out what the readings seem to say. Both of them are rather shocking, but in today’s context enormously reassuring.
The first reading has Peter, not Roebuck, but son of Jonah, confessing to a huge change of outlook. He, leader of the early church, had been absolutely convinced that non-Jews had no place in the Jesus-movement, until, just before our reading starts, he had a vision which made him change his mind utterly, so that he now says “God does not have any favourites...anybody who does what is right is acceptable to him”. Jesus Christ, he goes on, “is the Lord of absolutely everybody”. And that, of course, includes Peter, not bar-Jonah but Roebuck, who followed a vision that was always very much his own, but a vision of doing good and helping people in need of help. It is not a silly or a pious thing to say, but a simple fact, that Peter Roebuck is just the sort of unexpected person, like Samaritans and tax-collectors, whom the gospel story always singles out as being open to the message of Jesus.
That is the message of the lovely psalm that we have just recited, one of the most beautiful in the entire Psalter: “the Lord is compassion and love”, it sings, and makes it clear that God’s compassion reaches way beyond those whom overtly religious people might think of as God’s favourites.
The gospel showed us Jesus, gathered round the table, the night before his untimely death. Judas has gone out into the night; the machinery is rolling that would lead to the appalling crucifixion the next day, and the little group is huddled together against the darkness, with the sad question hanging over them, “How can we survive without Jesus?” The astonishing answer is that they don’t have to: Jesus simply gives them a message of comfort, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled...in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places”, he says: and if that is so, then the words leap off the page at us, and we should breathe a long sigh of relief. When we die and are finally reunited with those who have gone before us, we are going to discover the most extraordinary and unexpected people there waiting for us: a place is prepared for us, Jesus tells us, and we know the way. Then we should listen fairly cheerfully to Thomas’ dumb question: “Lord – we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?”, and very cheerfully indeed to Jesus’ answer, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. No one is excluded from that way, because there are so many dwelling-places. Now it is true that he goes on to say, “No one can come to the Father except through me”, and it is true that many Christians have read this as meaning that the entrance is for Members Only, like the Pavilion at Lord’s; but our God, the God in whose image and likeness Peter Roebuck was created, is bigger than that, and everyone is welcome.
So we need to celebrate the words with which the gospel ends, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you...do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid”. That is the message that Peter’s family are giving us today by their faith-filled choice of readings. And that is why today we celebrate Peter’s life; it was a journey to God, following the vision that was his vision, and no one else’s. He was faithful to it, that task of helping those who needed his help, those whom, very often, no one else would help. You are all here to show solidarity with Elizabeth and the family in their sadness; but underneath it all God is whispering to all of us the truth that Peter has already gone to him, and will be waiting for us, with a sharply observed analysis or two, no doubt, to welcome us into that peace of God in which, I make no doubt, he already shares.