Many thanks to you and your daughter. Do have a look at our website, cobhamarea.foodbank.org.uk, which tells you a lot about how we operate.

We collect the food, which people kindly donate, from our green bins, placed in all the churches in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the Horsleys, and from bins in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s Local (the little one on the High St).

Our van does the rounds collecting three times a week. You can drop off food at one of the collecting points on any date.

Please follow us on Twitter @CobhamFoodbank, where you’ll find our ‘shopping lists’ from time to time.

What to give: non-perishable food, toiletries and pet food. Must be at least six months in date, unopened packages. Imagine you suddenly ran out of money: what would you like to receive? (Hint – not pasta and beans!)

Have you seen the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’? If not, I really recommend it.

We give out on average 500kgs (1/2 tonne) of food etc every week to needy people in this immediate, Cobham and surrounding, area.

BTW, please ask your daughter not to wrap the food she collects, or put it in boxes. Bags are fine, and welcome: anything else is just discarded by our warehouse team.

Look out for our van!

Best regards

Hugh

Manager, Cobham Area Foodbank

Registered Charity No 1154217

Phone 01932-450282

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Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 12th November 2017 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Judges 7:2-22; John 15:9-17 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=377554049

This morning we held our Remembrance Day Services. Godfrey, in his sermon, said that, when he had first been ordained, in the 1970s, people had not expected remembrance services to carry on being held after the year 2000. There would be no-one still alive who had served in either of the World Wars. So the memory, the ‘remembrance’, would just be an impersonal one, a collective celebration of something we had learned about from history. It would be like our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation, or Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps.

But as Godfrey pointed out, since the end of WW2, there has been only one year during which members of the British armed forces have not been engaged in conflict, somewhere in the world. So there is still a reason to be thankful for their bravery, to remember them, and to pray that, through our bringing to mind their sacrifice, we will gradually and finally turn away from war and strife.

Now in this evening service, as we turn towards the ending of this day of remembrance, I want to reflect on some of the many things that challenge us – or which, I suggest, ought to challenge us, as we enter the 100th year after the promise was made that the First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’. Because, 99 years later, very sadly, that still isn’t true. Wars haven’t ended.

So I want to reflect, to look carefully at some of the things we have said and done in relation to war, and see if perhaps we can discern any factors which might help towards bringing peace in future. You may not agree that I am asking the right questions: but I hope that what I say may start you thinking critically and, I hope, constructively. I very much doubt whether there are any automatically right answers here, at least so far as mortal men and women are concerned, but I think we ought to try.

Love one another. On Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget. And, to pick up both our lessons tonight, you don’t need a big army to win a battle against overwhelming odds, if God is on your side.

How to make sense of all this. This morning we stood in silence by the war memorial and tried to commemorate all those who, in one sense, had not loved one another. They had killed each other. We honoured those who fell. We do honour, usually, those who fell fighting, fighting for our side. We don’t usually pray for the people who were the enemy, although there have been good exceptions, like the prayers at the service in Westminster Abbey after the Falklands War, for example, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that there should be prayers for the Argentines too.

After all, Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ (Matt. 5:44). But we – and mankind generally – never have. Indeed, we love to rake up, in a rather triumphal way, the history of the First and Second World Wars. We thank our ancestors for being brave and standing up against the enemy – Germany in both cases – and keeping us independent.


The enemy’ wasn’t just Germany, in fact: it also included Turkey, Japan, Austria, and Italy as well, at various times. Most of those countries have been friends and allies for far longer than they were enemies in one or other of the World Wars. The same countries, at different times, have been both allies and enemies.

It’s difficult to generalise about countries, whether they are always going to be friends or foes. But what we can say about most wars is, that in most cases, it wasn’t personal. Even in the terrible trench warfare of WW1, people weren’t fighting people whom they knew, and whom they’d fallen out with.

That should perhaps be something we could think about, when we’re tempted to think of the Germans as baddies, or someone makes a joke about them not having a sense of humour or wanting to extend their territory round a swimming pool on holiday. People were not fighting people they hated personally, but fighting for ideas, or for their country’s sovereignty. Our soldiers fought because our leaders thought that otherwise, we would be overrun by Germany – sovereignty; and, in WW2, to avoid being turned into Nazis, a question of ideas. Remember the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when the soldiers got out of their trenches and played football, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They had nothing personal against each other.

Again, I think that, as we reflect on the sad fact that no amount of ‘Remembrance’ has stopped wars from breaking out, we might try to identify some of the ideas which seem to have led to war. Sovereignty, for instance: not wanting someone else, foreigners, to dictate our laws. But think about this. A pooling, a watering down, of sovereignty, to some extent, in the European Union, has brought about the longest ever unbroken period of peace in Europe. And every treaty between countries, for any purpose, involves the parties giving up a little of their individual autonomy in order to agree together.

And allied to that, perhaps we should reflect on what it is that makes us British, or French, or Chinese, or whatever nationality we are. In the majority of cases, it is an accident of birth. There is no special distinction, it confers no special entitlement by itself, just to be born. You certainly might say that the miracle of life itself, of being brought to birth, is itself hugely valuable. But whether you’re born in poverty in a Calcutta slum or in a mansion on St George’s Hill, that fact of itself doesn’t entitle you to do better or worse than another human being.

We are all children of God, equally. So aggressively putting up barriers to keep people out of ‘our’ country – and I’ve put the word ‘our’ in inverted commas, because although people use that expression, ‘our’ country, I’m not sure what it really should mean – aggressively keeping others out may not be a good, or a right, thing to do. But millions of people have died, effectively to uphold that principle.

We sense that there must be some reasonable limit, some reasonable extent of nationalism. In WW2, we would not have wanted our government to be in Berlin, or to have had to speak German instead of being able to speak English, (loudly if necessary, if people don’t understand us), to everyone we meet, wherever we happen to be. So where is the right balance?

The bravery and sacrifices made in the World Wars kept us free, and we are thankful. But if today the same instincts for independence result in our driving out from our midst people who have come to live and work here, and who provide such valuable contributions to our health service, to our farmers, in our hotels and restaurants and so on, if those people feel we no longer welcome them and accept them, this is not the ‘love’ that Jesus was talking about. It was αγάπη [agape], brotherly love, charity and kindness that he meant.

‘Greater love hath no man .. Jesus’ next sentence in St John’s Gospel, after the great command that we should love one another, is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ As Canon Giles Fraser pointed out on the radio on Friday, some war memorials don’t say ‘lay down his life for his friends’, but ‘for his country’ instead. But really, the context in the Bible is, of course, that Jesus is looking forward to his own death, to the crucifixion. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love each other.’

That is a sacrificial kind of love. Making sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for someone you love. There are all those stories of heroism and sacrifice in war.

Jack Cornwell, the under-age naval hero who stayed at his post during the Battle of Jutland, severely wounded himself, even though everyone around him had been killed or wounded, quietly waiting for orders.

My own relative, Dr John Fisher, who won the MC at Arnhem as a medic, by going into a minefield to treat wounded soldiers, laying a tape behind him so that the stretcher bearers could safely get through the minefield to the casualties and bring them to safety. Every step could have been his last, if he had trodden on a mine. But he was willing to risk death, in order to save others. He survived, fortunately.

Or other heroes, who weren’t soldiers. ‘Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted’. [ http://auschwitz.dk/kolbe.htm]

We should try always to remember them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. And as well, we should realise that Jesus wasn’t just talking about supreme, life and death, sacrifices. Love means giving things up for your friends, small sacrifices as well as big ones.

And what about Gideon, and his battle against the Midianites? Why did he go through this bizarre process of whittling his army down to 300 champions only, instead of the thousands he had at his disposal? God didn’t want the Israelites to be so powerful that they could boast that their own strength had brought them victory. To show the power of God, they had to be seen to win against impossible odds.

But the puzzling thing is the thought that, as so often in war, it is said that both sides are praying to God, to the same God, that their side will prevail. Will God support one side against the other? And if so, why? It is a version of the theological conundrum called ‘theodicy’ (θεοδικη), the question why a good God would allow bad things to happen. The answer in this story from the Old Testament is that God favours his chosen people, the people who worship him rather than any other, false gods.

There is also the story of the Roman emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in the fourth century, who had a dream about Jesus Christ and decided to paint his soldiers’ shields with a symbol of the cross. They won the battle, and Constantine, in gratitude, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – which was a major factor in making Christianity spread throughout the world.

But – but there’s something uneasy about this rather crude, almost superstitious approach to God. Having God as a kind of nuclear weapon, the ultimate ‘game changer’, seems wrong. Granted that we believe that God cares for us, knows all of our names, and so on: but why would He almost justify a war, by determining its outcome? Or to put it another way, why would the good God become involved in the evil that is warfare? The hymn says, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ Not, ‘Whose side is the Lord on?’

Enough for one Sunday evening, I think. Lest we forget. Let us love one another, as Jesus has loved us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 29th October 2017

Ecclesiastes 11 and 12; 2 Timothy 2:1-7 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375963679 for the readings

John Simpson, the famous BBC war reporter and foreign correspondent, send out a Tweet earlier this week as follows: –

‘MP wants details of anti-Brexit univ[ersity] teachers. Decent folk deported on technicalities. Daily hate in press. Doesn’t feel like my country now.’

You will remember that, on Twitter, everything has to be distilled down into 140 characters or less. You get these short pithy sentences.

It reminded me that I have a dear friend that I regret to say I haven’t spoken to for several months. But I see something of him, because, like John Simpson, and, dare I say, like me, he uses Twitter. Oh – I suppose there is an elephant in the room. Another famous person who uses Twitter – ah, yes: Pres. Trump. The less said about that the better, I think.

The problem so far as I and my friend are concerned, (and this is somebody whom I met in the very first week of my very first term at university, so is a very close friend) is that he is in favour of Brexit. I am, as everybody knows, sure that Brexit is an awful catastrophe for our country in all sorts of ways.

Ah! [Said in the manner of Luca Zingaretti in ‘Montalbano’, passim]. Ah! But you will be relieved to know, this is a sermon and not a political speech. We’re not going to discuss the relative merits of the cases for and against leaving the European Union. What we are going to talk about is what John Simpson is alluding to, that our world does not feel very nice at present. The problem with the difference in views between me and my friend is that it has stopped us talking to each other – and enjoying music together and generally being good friends. John Simpson goes on in another Tweet to say that what upsets him is not the merits or otherwise of Brexit or some other political question, but what he describes as ‘the current viciousness in British public life.’ It’s all about how we cope with disagreements.

My friend Tweets passionately in favour of Brexit and he makes rude remarks about people he calls ‘remoaners’ [sic]. I retaliate, I am ashamed to say, with a homophone pejorative epithet for those in favour of leaving the European Union – you know, which rhymes with ‘Brexit’. The problem is that we are both passionate, and I think that I would accept that my friend not only feels passionately that it is important to leave the EU, that it is vital to the flourishing and well being of our nation as a whole: he feels that if we don’t do it, we will be ruined; I feel the exact opposite. I feel passionate. I feel that it is terribly important. We are walking over a cliff, I feel. We are moving inexorably towards a catastrophe.

I am, really, really not going to talk about the merits of the actual dispute. But what I am worried about is the fact that we have such a bitter dispute and that the general climate, as John Simpson suggests, is that our world is becoming one of bitterness and a tendency towards extremely negative views, even hate speech. Some people indeed say that this is whipped up by some of the newspapers.

The ‘Preacher’, so-called Ecclesiastes, whom some people call the ‘Speaker’, would tend to discourage all this passion. [12.8] ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.’

‘Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, emptiness, all is empty. What does man gain from all his labour and his toil here under the sun?… What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Eccl.1:2 and 9, NEB). Why would you bother? Que sera sera. What is going to happen, will happen. There’s nothing anyone can do to change it.

Within our church, although not necessarily within this particular congregation, but within the Church of England in general, there are very sharp divisions, in the area of sexuality for example, both regarding so-called gay marriage and also, still, concerning whether there can be female priests. What is the Christian response? What should Christians do when we catch ourselves in disagreement with each other? When we both think that we are right and moreover, when we think that the thing that we are right about is of really paramount importance?

It’s not ‘vanity of vanities’, not something that you can just take or leave. Jesus seemed to think that he himself, in his own message and preaching, would not necessarily always bring about serene contemplation and blissful agreement. You will remember that in the 10th chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, after he has sent out the 12 disciples on their mission to proclaim the gospel, the message that ‘the kingdom of heaven is upon you’, sending them out ‘like sheep among wolves’, he tells them how tough their job will be. They will be arrested and put on trial, disowned by erstwhile friends. Christianity will be controversial; it will set families against each other even inside themselves.

Our second lesson, from 2 Timothy, emphasises the quasi-military discipline which the true disciple needs, to avoid being put off or distracted from his work on behalf of the Lord. ‘Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.’ No man that warreth; no man who goes to war, who becomes a soldier. He mustn’t get tangled up in mundane stuff, minor domestic admin, instead of doing what he can to please, to obey, his superior officer.

Back to what Jesus said. ‘You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a young wife against her mother-in-law; a man will find his enemies under his own roof.’ (Matt.10:34)

And again I suppose that it is the same thing. Some people will be very sure that they are right about the kingdom of heaven and others will have their doubts. Where it gets in the way of loyalties to the state, as it did in Roman times, when Christians refused to worship the Emperor as a god, following Jesus, believing in God, it could even be lethal. It was so important: it was a matter of life and death, literally. An appointment with the lions in the arena.

More topically, this Tuesday, 31st October, will be the 500th anniversary of the date when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his list of differences or disputes with the Roman Catholic Church, his ‘95 Theses’, to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony – now part of Germany, and started the great division in the Western church between Catholics and Protestants. Another debate, another bitter division. The Reformation, as it was called, caused hundreds of people to be killed, burned at the stake. Arguably, Protestant and Catholic are only recently becoming friends again.

A world full of sharp disagreements, meannesses and doubts doesn’t feel congenial. It doesn’t feel like home, as John Simpson has said. But perhaps, despite saying he was bringing a sword, in fact Jesus wasn’t encouraging people to disagree, but rather just describing how disagreements might arise, might just crop up, even in face of the Gospel message.

The message of Ecclesiastes is perhaps not just almost a nihilistic message: is he really saying, nothing has any worth: nothing matters: everything is vanity? Instead surely the Preacher, Ecclesiastes, is urging his listeners to have a proper respect for God as being unknowable: invisible: but ‘God only wise’. So we should rein in our enthusiasm for certainty. Because none of us really knows.

So often, when we hit these seemingly impossible dilemmas, it’s worth looking again at what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. How about Matthew 5:25: ‘Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him..’ Because Jesus says that, otherwise, you might get bogged down in litigation – and you might even end up in prison! (Obviously as a lawyer, I couldn’t possibly comment!) But think of the rest of the Sermon – turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. Even if you really disagree, it’s better to be friends, and stop fighting.

So I think that Jesus’ message is contrarian, as it often is. ‘The first shall be last’, and so on. Even if my friend is behaving like a complete idiot – or worse – we can, we must, agree, we must agree to differ. It’s less important that one of us should win the argument than that we should agree to be friends.

I don’t think Jesus, or Ecclesiastes, is telling us not to talk about things that divide us. There is a tendency just to avoid each other – which is what has happened so far, sadly, with my friend and me – but it would be much better if we can agree to engage, to talk, even if we both think the other one is completely wrong. There Ecclesiastes does offer something. When you cast your bread on the waters, who knows what you will get back?

You can’t be sure, but I think it won’t be too bad after all. It’s worth a try. Do please pray for me – and I’ll tell you how I get on.

Sermon for the 10.30 Holy Communion Service on 20th October 2017

Romans 4:1-8; [Luke 12:1-7] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375448546

‘If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.’ [Rom. 4:2]

What does it mean to be ‘justified’?

This is one of those ‘railway words’ that we get in church. It’s a word like ‘alight’, ‘Alight here for Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon’. You only come across the word ‘alight’ in a railway context. Similarly, ‘justified’ has a special meaning in a church context.

It’s not the same as saying something like ‘He was entirely justified in his opinion that it would be unwise to drink that second bottle of wine, when he woke up the next day with a hangover.’

In that everyday sense of what it means for something to be ‘justified’, it means it turned out to be true; there was a good reason for it. But in the context of our Christian belief, to be ‘justified’ is something different: it means, to be in a right relationship with God.

It is related to the ideas of salvation, of being one of God’s elect: put another way, people in the Bible who are ‘justified’ will go to heaven, will have eternal life. But what does that really mean? This is one of the areas where Martin Luther challenged the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.

Before Luther, the Roman church had operated a system of ‘indulgences’, according to which, if you had committed sins, which otherwise might be classed as being so bad that you could never get into heaven, you could pay a fine, and buy an ‘indulgence’, a confirmation, from a priest who heard your confession, which meant that your sin was forgiven – and the way into heaven was clear.

Luther argued instead that you were saved ‘sola fide’, which is Latin for ‘by faith alone’, and not by buying indulgences – or indeed, not by doing anything. It became one of the defining differences in the Reformation – and this month we are remembering that it is 500 years since Martin Luther, so it’s an occasion to look again at something which has caused a lot of fuss in the past.

Our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives a lot of support to the idea that people are saved by faith, rather than by what are called ‘works’ – good works, doing good. The example of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people, is that there is a distinction between doing a good job, for which you quite rightly earn a reward in the form of salary, and putting your trust in God, who reconciles those who have become estranged from Him, and who does not demand a fee.

Doing something for free – although to the same high standards as if I was doing it as paid work – doing something good for free is worth more than doing something in return for payment. This is generous and kind, right in the spirit of Jesus. It’s like going the extra mile in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in St Matthew Ch. 5. If you show that faith, the faith that doesn’t look for a reward, you will be ‘justified’, you will be forgiven your sins and go to heaven.

But what is ‘heaven’ like? Would you want to go there – if there is somewhere where heaven is? I think we can’t really say where God is. Surely it’s not as simple as being literally ‘up there’, up above the clouds. Being on a spacecraft hasn’t taken astronauts into the kingdom of heaven.

But leaving aside where heaven is, what would getting closer to God, being ‘justified’, mean, for most of us?

Surely, doing good must come into it. Think of what it says in the 1st Letter of John: ‘But whoso hath the world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up the bowels of his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ [1John 3:17] People aren’t fit for salvation, if they behave in a way which belies their status as having received God’s love and being saved, justified.

It’s not a question of earning your right to eternal life. The idea is that faithful people receive salvation as a free gift, through God’s ‘grace’, His generosity. The example of Abraham, according to St Paul, shows how it works. ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now if a man does a piece of work, his wages are not ‘counted’ as a favour; they are paid as debt. But if without any work to his credit he simply puts his faith in him who acquits the guilty, then his faith is indeed ‘counted as righteousness’ (Romans 4:2,3 – NEB). St Paul is referring back to the story of God’s covenant with Abram, Abraham, in Genesis 15:

‘After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Elie’zer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’

So far as Martin Luther was concerned, that was it: you couldn’t do anything to be justified, to be put right, in a right relationship, with God: you just had to trust Him: sola fide, by faith alone, you are saved.

Luther didn’t think that the epistles which told Christians to do good works, like the 1st Epistle of John, quoted earlier, or the Epistle of James, were proper scripture – Luther called James’ Letter an ‘epistle of straw’.

Because, you see, James [1:14f] puts the alternative. He says:

‘… what use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? 15 Can that faith save him? Suppose a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, 16 and one of you says, ‘Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat’, but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.
18 But someone may object: ‘Here is one who claims to have faith and another who points to his deeds.’ To which I reply: ‘Prove to me that this faith you speak of is real though not accompanied by deeds, and by my deeds I will prove to you my faith.’ 19 You have faith enough to believe that there is one God. Excellent! The devils have faith like that, and it makes them tremble. 20 But can you not see, you quibbler, that faith divorced from deeds is barren? 21 Was it not by his action, in offering his son Isaac upon the altar, that our father Abraham was justified? 22 Surely you can see that faith was at work in his actions, and that by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved. 23 Here was fulfilment of the words of Scripture: ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness’; and elsewhere he is called ‘God’s friend’. 24 You see then that a man is justified by deeds and not by faith in itself. 25 The same is true of the prostitute Rahab also. Was not she justified by her action in welcoming the messengers into her house and sending them away by a different route? 26 As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.’ [NEB]

Surely Luther was wrong. Even today there are occasions when we go to church, and say our prayers – but still do mean things. Are we ‘justified by faith’, by faith alone? What do you think? Of course Luther was right to object to the church selling indulgences: but surely, if you really have faith, it really ought to make a difference to what you do as well.

Sermon for Mattins on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Isaiah 50:4-10; Luke 13:22-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375138685 for the readings

‘O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us
And grant us thy salvation’ (or in the Cathedral style, as we are learning, ‘salvat-i-on’).

What is salvat-i-on? A couple of years ago I was invited to a pub lunch by a man whom I’d got to know locally, who was – and who is – active in local charities, and a churchgoer, although not usually in our congregation. The idea was to try to get to know one another better, and see if there were any projects which we could work on together.

We met up and enjoyed a nice lunch, with lots of ideas going back and forth. And then, all of a sudden, my friend turned to me and looked very seriously into my eyes. ‘Now tell me, Hugh,’ he said, ‘have you been saved?’

‘Have you been saved?’ Golly. What to say? Surely he knew I was pretty regular, straight down the line, C of E? But no. I realised he wanted to know whether, like John Wesley, my ‘heart had been strangely warmed’, whether I had had a conversion experience. Well, never mind John Wesley – think of what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus. I had to confess that, if that was what salvation, being saved, was, well, I hadn’t been.

I could tell that he was a bit disappointed, but not really surprised. I wasn’t really animated enough for him. I hadn’t really ‘got’ it; (whatever ‘it’ was). It is something that I do think about, periodically. The lesson from St Luke about entering in ‘at the strait gate’, and the first one from Isaiah, turning his back to the ‘smiters’, not hiding his face from ‘shame and spitting’, both describe ways of making the grade, winning God’s approval, being saved.

The picture in St Luke is very much a picture of getting into heaven. Only a few will be ‘saved’. Others will be left on the outside – in hell, presumably – where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. And the criteria for admission to heaven, to the kingdom of God, will be counterintuitive: ‘there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last’.

So there is a sense in which salvation is something which belongs to eschatology, to considerations about the end of the world; or, it could be, to what happens to each of us at our own end, at our own death. According to what Jesus appears to be saying, not everyone – in fact, only a minority – will be chosen, will be saved. The rest will be damned eternally.
And that is perhaps why some of us have come to church. We might see coming to church as an insurance policy, a way of avoiding going to hell at the end.

But there are various things which make this not a particularly attractive – or even, really, believable – way to understand ‘salvation’. First of all, it doesn’t seem to square with everything else we believe about God as a result of our knowledge of Jesus: that God is a god of love, that indeed God has demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus and giving us a priceless gift, by taking upon himself our guilt, our sin, on the cross.

But if that supreme witness, supreme sacrifice, was only for a small minority, for the ‘elect’, for the chosen few, surely it can’t mean what we have taken it to mean. If Jesus didn’t come upon earth and become a man, if he didn’t suffer and die, for all mankind, for the whole human race, but only for some of us, I don’t think that we would be justified in our faith.

Again, rather similarly, I don’t think that the God of love in which we believe would inflict such suffering, as it implies He would do, if he condemned the majority of people to eternal damnation.

So I would argue – even though there are indeed passages in the Bible where indeed Jesus does describe a last judgment – for example the famous passage in St Matthew 25 (vv 31-46) where the Son of Man in all his glory separates the sheep from the goats, and the ones he lets into the kingdom, on his right hand, are the ones who have ‘done it unto one of the least of these my brethren’.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ They got life eternal, whereas the goats, the ones who hadn’t shown love, ‘shall go away into eternal punishment’ [25:46]. Not but what I would hope that that passage is more an encouragement to us to love our neighbours, more than to fear eternal damnation.

Then again this brings up the whole question when the kingdom of God will come in. I think that the picture in Isaiah of the prophet relying on God to protect and vindicate him, right there, in the midst of the smiting and the spitting, is something we ought to consider. There’s a strong argument that, following Jesus’ time with us, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the kingdom of God is here, now. There may also be an end time, an Apocalypse. But God’s Holy Spirit is here already. Indeed, that may be why some people do experience personal revelations, conversion experiences, such as my friend was looking for me to have had.

Bishop Jo’s husband, Revd Dr Sam Wells, who is the vicar of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, has written a fascinating article in the Church Times about salvation, entitled ‘It’s about abundant life, not hell-avoidance’. [See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/6-october/comment/opinion/it-s-about-abundant-life-not-hell-avoidance%5D

He quotes Jesus’ saying in St John’s Gospel (10:10), ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ In that passage, Jesus is again the shepherd of the sheep, but not sorting out the sheep from the goats. Sam Wells writes, ‘Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the abundance of healing and resurrection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves and all creation.’

This view of what we could believe God is doing in our world, Sam Wells argues, would produce a different kind of church. No longer would church be a place where we cut ourselves off from the sinful world outside and become ‘a mechanism for delivering people from the perils of damnation to the joys of the Elysian Fields’, but rather ‘The central purpose of the Church … is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose.’

This approach would lead to greater, rather than lesser, involvement in society. ‘It should be about capturing … imagination with a form of social practice so authentic and so inspiring that, instead of being embarrassed that their Church is so off the pace, [teenagers] are, instead, attracted by a community whose form of relating is striding boldly ahead of their culture rather than dragging grudgingly behind it.’

It would change the way we use our churches. Instead of the church being empty for most of the week, we would aim to make our church a place ‘that advances abundant life locally, within which liturgical worship should take an honoured but not unduly privileged place.’

This is very much what our our St Mary’s vision of community engagement will bring. Dr Wells has offered an exciting theological basis for it. He says, ‘I’m describing what happens when we cease to use God as a device for acquiring the ultimate goods that we can’t secure for ourselves, and start to adore and imitate the God who in Jesus models, offers, and advances abundant life, now and for evermore.’

It sounds good to me. As we explore our vision, it’s a very positive way to look at how salvation might work for us. Abundant life. Maybe I have been saved, after all. And you, too.

Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3:1-15 – for the readings please see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096631
Psalm 139 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096854

What do you feel about being on camera all the time? You know, anywhere on the M25; and actually, when you get out of your car, more or less all the places that you walk these days, in built-up areas, seem to be under surveillance by cameras of one kind or another as well.

Do you have an iPhone? Because, if you do, you can almost stalk your favourite people, with the ‘Find Friends’ app. I have both my daughters in my phone’s Find Friends application, so I can see at a glance where they are and not disturb them if they are working in the hospital. I also have my lodger, a young man who works at rather odd hours, so quite often he’s out when I am in, and he’s awake when I’m asleep: using the app I can keep tabs on whether he’s in or out and about. He is very welcome in my house, especially as he’s very good at feeding my cats, so I don’t want to lock him out by mistake.

But although all this stuff is very common, I expect that most of us would say that we were not too thrilled about the fact that all our comings and goings are under surveillance somewhere. Big Brother is, indeed, watching us, and we don’t much like it. We like to think that we have privacy; that it’s not the case that everybody knows what we’re doing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say.

Now part of the attraction of being a private person must surely be that it saves you from being caught out in some misdemeanour and getting into trouble. So long as people don’t know what you’re doing, within reason you are free to do more or less anything, and there’ll be no consequences.

You can do that, when you’re a grown-up: obviously when you were a child, you didn’t have that freedom. Your parents and your teachers kept an eye on you and made very sure that you didn’t stray from the path of righteousness. When you grow up, you find that things change. You have to take responsibility for your life and it’s your choice whether you do good things or bad things, or whether in fact you just keep quiet, keep very private and try not to bother anybody. You pursue a style of life which may not be particularly good or particularly bad.

And then along comes Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me:’ ‘Thou … spiest out all my ways.’ ‘Spiest’. God is the ultimate surveillance camera. There is no hiding-place from God.

I first came across Psalm 139 properly when I went to the Cathedral to make a confession to the last Dean, Victor Stock. He used to hear confessions and I had never done it before. Indeed I had been brought up to have a vague suspicion of confession as being a dastardly Roman Catholic device.

Then I realised that the Catholics were not dastardly, and that indeed you can say confessions in the Church of England as well. So I went along and Dean Victor got me to kneel down next to him and say the words on a card to introduce my confession. He said, ‘Take your time, and think about what you want to confess to the Lord’; and I did, and the Dean blessed me, pronounced absolution and gave me a task to do, a sort of penance. You know, in the Catholic Church, and in all the literature and on the TV in things like Father Ted, the penance is often to say so many Hail Mary’s.

Dean Victor gave me a different sort of penance. He said that I should go away and read Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me.’ Of course I went and read the psalm and thought about it carefully. Over the years since, I have gone back and thought about Psalm 139, asking myself, why did Dean Victor recommend that I should read that particular psalm after I had made my confession to him?

Now tonight we have only sung the first nine verses of Psalm 139, but there are in fact 24 verses – it’s not a very long psalm – and it is well worth getting your Prayer Book out at home (or borrowing one from here if you haven’t got one at home) and reading it again, this time the whole way through. Why do you think that the Dean prescribed Psalm 139 for me to read? It got me thinking about the whole philosophy of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system only works if criminals get caught. There is no deterrent preventing them from committing crimes unless they believe that there is a chance that they will be found out.

‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me …’

This psalm is all about God knowing all about everything we do, good and bad. So maybe that knowledge, that awareness on my part, if I am going to do something naughty – that awareness that God knows about it, will serve as a great deterrent. Our lessons today go in the same direction. In Proverbs the passage might look at first almost like a ‘prosperity gospel’:

‘Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase’:


That could mean, make sure that you keep up with your planned giving:

‘So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.’

Speculate, charitably, in order to accumulate.

There’s also this sense of keeping us in order, by chastisement if necessary.

‘For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth’.

The Lord is like a good parent, not letting the children get away with anything.

‘[E]ven as a father the son in whom he

This leads not just to riches, but to the riches of wisdom and understanding, which is worth more than silver and gold and precious stones.

When this idea is translated into the world of the New Testament, as in John’s first letter, (which we had as our second lesson today), God has shown his love to us, and called us the sons of God, in that we are like his son Jesus. It’s quite tricky to understand. St John says, ‘Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’

We have no image of God that is particularly plausible, except our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he was a man just like us. And again the lesson from this is that, if we are to be like Jesus and therefore to be sons of God, we must behave ourselves.

‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’

There was no sin in Jesus, and if we hope to be like him we must try to avoid sin ourselves. If we are to be children of God, we must uphold God’s law as best we can. Of course, most importantly, that means that we must love one another.

‘For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.’

But it can go further than that.

To show you what I mean, I’ll finish by telling you a little story about when I was training to become a Reader. My training coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting to read Medicine at Bristol University. One day I went to visit her to see that she was safely installed in her hall of residence and that she was getting to grips with university life. Indeed she was doing fine.

The following Sunday I was having coffee after the morning service at St Andrew’s in Cobham, with some other members of the congregation, and the conversation turned to my recent visit to Bristol.

‘How was it?’

‘Very nice thank you. Mind you,’ I said, ‘I think that I may have had a very expensive journey.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, just as I was turning off the M4 on to the M32, to go into the centre of Bristol, I passed under a bridge – and I realised too late that the bridge was bristling with things that must have been speed cameras.’

‘But surely, you were only doing 70 mph? So no problem.’

‘Agh! Well, I managed to get it below 100 …’

Whereupon some of the party giggled; but one of them took me by the hand and earnestly counselled me. What she said was, ‘Now that you are going to be a minister in the church, you have to change your ways. No more breaking the law by speeding – and definitely no more crowing about it!’

Oh dear; but she was right. I did learn a lesson. Fortunately there was no nasty speeding ticket in the post, so the camera must have not had any film in it on that occasion. I have tried to slow down since. I suppose that’s one way that one can ‘purify oneself’. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.’ I hope that I’m all the better for it, for that friendly scrutiny.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1st October 2017

[Ezekiel 37:15-end], 1 John 2:22-29

Please click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=373669534 for the readings

You remember the ‘comfortable words’, in the Communion service. ‘Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’ – and, ‘Hear also what St John saith: If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins’. I’m going to talk about the things that ‘St John saith,’ in his first Letter.

There could be a sermon just about that phrase in the Comfortable Words, what it means for Jesus to be the ‘propitiation’ for sins. Some theologians say that it means a ‘ransom’, ‘paying the price to get us out of jail’: others would argue that, for that understanding to be right, you would have to think of God as a kind of terrorist taking hostages – which doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of a loving God. Another translation of this word, which is ίλασμος in Greek, has been that it is a ‘remedy for the defilement’ of our sins. It almost has the connotation of a ‘solution’, a solution to the word translated as ‘sin’, but which literally means ‘missing the mark’, making mistakes. A ίλασμος is a fix, a solution. But I’m not going to talk about that, tonight.

This little letter, the first Letter of John, is supposed to have been written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, the author of the fourth gospel. The same John, in his old age living in Ephesus, wrote this letter, which is where our second lesson came from, and it is pretty full of well-known passages. Indeed it’s a pretty good revision guide to some of the most important questions and teachings in Christianity.

Even in the short passage which was our second lesson, St John deals with who Jesus is: how He relates to God – and what is true in this area; he goes on to explain how a believer should react to this theological truth – and what it means for a theological proposition to be true, how to tell it’s authentic.

You will recall at the beginning of the service that I have read to you one or two passages from the Bible which are known in the Prayer Book as the ‘sentences’. It says, in the stage directions, in the ‘rubric’, in the Prayer Book – you can find it on page 16 – ‘At the beginning of evening prayer the minister shall read with a loud voice some one or more of these sentences of the Scriptures that follow’: and there’s another quote from this important letter.

The last one which comes up, which I read out before the service tonight, is, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. That is also from the first letter of St John.

In the communion service, after the sermon, in the bit called the ‘offertory’, when the collection is taken up, there are more sentences.

It starts “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”, from Saint Matthew’s Gospel; and, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the Earth where the rust and moth doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;…”

There are a number of sentences, all of which go to point out the difference between spiritual and worldly wealth; but a couple of the sentences bring to mind Jesus’ teaching about love. And then the most important one comes, from St John’s first letter.

“Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” [1 St John 3, BCP]

Put another way, “If a man has enough to live on and yet when he sees his brother in need, shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the divine love dwells in him?” [1 John 3, NEB]

Chapter 3 goes on, ‘Love must not be just a matter of words and talk, it must be genuine and show itself in action’. [verse 18]

So this little letter, the first letter of Saint John, contains some very important theology. It gives you a big clue about the nature of God, what God is and how God works. Like a lot of the letters in the Bible, it’s a bit like overhearing somebody on the telephone. You don’t know what the other person is saying.

It’s clear from the context that St John may have written this letter because he disagrees with somebody. Indeed he disagrees with them so much that he calls them the ‘antichrist’. The opposite to Christ, opposite, because, according to St John, his opponent is denying that Jesus is Χριστός, anointed: denying that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one of God.

John’s argument is that the liar, the antichrist, the person who is saying something that is not true, is saying that Jesus is not the chosen one of God – not indeed God himself, in human form, God incarnate. So John reasons like this.

God has anointed Jesus as his son, as the Christ.
God and Jesus are two aspects of the godhead, as it is sometimes called; two aspects of being God, inseparable.
Antichrist denies that Jesus is part of the godhead.
Therefore, if he is right, there is no godhead;
you can’t have Jesus without there being also God.

In the passage in 1 John 2, in verse 23, “To deny the son is to be without the father: to acknowledge the son is to have the father too”.

There was a huge fuss in the early church about what precisely the relationship between God the father and God the son is. The relationship described as father and son in, for example, this letter of St John. Does that mean that Jesus is really God, or whether instead Jesus was created by God and therefore somehow Jesus is lower than God and not actually part of God himself? That was the argument a scholar called Arius put forward In the fourth century, and it’s one reason why the Orthodox Church differs from the Western Church, Protestant and Catholic.

We in the Western Church understand God as the Trinity, father, son and holy spirit, in the way in which we say, in the creed, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ In the Eastern Church, they just say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’.

After the Council of Nicaea and Council of Constantinople in the fourth century, the western churches added the words ‘and the son’ – in Latin, ‘filioque’, to make it plain that it wasn’t a chain of creation, from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit: but that the Father and the Son were consubstantial, part of the same Godhead.

Actually we might be tempted now not be hugely bothered about this argument. For instance, I can’t help thinking that the nature of God must be far more complicated than you could describe simply as involving being a father, or being a son. We might well find it quite compelling instead to think of all this language as being a myth, a picturesque way of describing something that is beyond description. You could say that you only get into trouble, philosophically, if you take it literally that God had a son. If on the other hand, God and Jesus are two expressions of the same, ineffable, thing, then the question doesn’t arise whether one created the other.

But again, as St John points out, if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can’t really get to God. Think about how you would describe your belief in God, your faith, if you didn’t know about Jesus. Think about what the Jews and the Moslems, who both say they worship the same god that we do, but who deny the divinity of Jesus, think how they justify their belief.

They look to prophets to be conduits of communication between the deity and mankind. There’s no real direct contact. There’s always an issue, whether the prophet in question is genuinely passing on the words of God or not. Running through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, before Christ settled the argument, very commonly there is the question, ‘Is it true?’

Christians have a great advantage. The question need not be, ‘Is it true?’ Instead, it’s just, ‘What did Jesus say?’ or ‘What would Jesus do?’ To know Jesus is to know God.

And in an important way, once Jesus ‘abides’ in you – ‘abides’ is a sort of church ‘railway word’; you know, like ‘alight’; ‘Alight here for Stoke D’Abernon’: you never see the word except on the railways – well, apart from rugby matches, singing ‘Abide with me’, you only come across ‘abide’ in church – if Jesus abides, stays, in you, once you’ve come to faith in Christ, there’s no risk that your faith will need to be revised or corrected or changed in some way. ‘.. the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you’ – verse 27 of chapter 2. You need not chase after the latest fashionable fad. (I nearly ended that sentence, ‘.. like mindfulness’, but perhaps that’s a bit hard).

This theological wisdom is all in this little letter. If you read all through St John’s first letter, you’ll come across many of the points which the church has spent so much time on in the past. ‘What difference does it make?’ you might say.

The difference, a big fundamental truth of Christianity, is in the last line of tonight’s lesson.

‘If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.’

Christianity has a practical effect. You believe, and this leads you to action, to doing. By doing good, you show that you are a child of God.

The Prayer Book again, in the ‘sentences’ in the Communion service [page 243], quotes a slightly longer version of this practical gospel, which appears in 1 John chapter 3: “Whoso hath this world’s good and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up … his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

A real Christian understands that Christ was, is, God incarnate. He was, is, both God and human.

A real Christian can’t claim to have fellowship with God, while still ‘walking in darkness’, as the 1st chapter of the letter puts it. Faith, if it’s genuine, if it’s true, leads to action. Go and read all five chapters – they’re short. It won’t take long. Then you’ll know what is the Christian thing to do – and why.