Sermon for Evensong on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 10th September 2017
Ezekiel 12:21-13:16; Acts 19:1-19

Click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=372404914  for the readings

 

Every now and again there is a news item or an article in one of the papers pointing out that fewer people claim to belong to the Church of England. Some go on to calculate how long it will be till there won’t be any churches left.

 

There was quite a friendly article in the Weekend FT colour section by Jeremy Paxman along those lines yesterday. He lit on the efforts of Holy Trinity Brompton, the evangelical church which created the Alpha Course, and who specialise in ‘planting’ congregations in churches which are fading away – and indeed HTB, as they call it, was the church where Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, started as well. Young ministers, without dog collars and robes, singing worship songs rather than hymns, and they pack them in! Perhaps Alpha and the HTB formula will be the salvation of the C of E, says Jeremy Paxman.

 

But of course there are lots of more traditional places where an ageing vicar ministers to an ageing flock of parishioners, declining in numbers. In some country places the vicar has to race round several churches at once. And there are traditional places like this, that are growing, if not spectacularly.

 

I have to say that I think that this question, whether the sea of faith is running out, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem on ‘Dover Beach’ – which, after all, wrote the Christian faith off as doomed as long ago as 1867 – is a bit like one of those sandwich-board men whom you used to see tramping about with ‘The End is nigh’ or something similarly apocalyptic on their sandwich boards. The End has been nigh for rather a long time, and it still hasn’t arrived. There’s a plaque commemorating Matthew Arnold in St Andrew’s in Cobham, by the way. I don’t know what his precise connexion was – he was buried in Staines.

 

The prophet Ezekiel gets involved in the sandwich-board stuff too, in our Old Testament lesson.

 

Ezekiel 12:26The word of the LORD came to me: 27Man, he said, the Israelites say that the vision you now see is not to be fulfilled for many years: you are prophesying of a time far off. 28Say to them, These are the words of the Lord GOD: No word of mine shall be delayed; even as I speak it shall be done. This is the very word of the Lord GOD. (Translation: the New English Bible).

 

I’m not desperately bothered about these expressions of gloom and doom about our church. The key thing isn’t to get bums on seats. It’s that church should be a place for encounters with God, with all the blessings that come with that.

 

 

So why should we start thinking about ‘Dover Beach’ and having all these gloomy thoughts? I wonder whether some of it has to do with how we go about meeting God, encountering Him. In the Old Testament, in the books of the prophets, it’s almost unremarkable, how the prophets do meet God. Look at Ezekiel. The context is that the ancient Israelites are either about to be or have been captured by the Babylonians. Just a few years afterwards, the Babylonians did invade, and the Israelites were rounded up and captured. Psalm 137,

 

‘By the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept
When we remembered Zion’

 

In that atmosphere of conquest and invasions, all armies and navies tried to get in touch with God, to find out if they were favoured. And God was close at hand. ‘The Lord said to me, Man, prophesy to the prophets of Israel …’ is quite different from our experience. If we said that we’d been told by God to do something, we’d be gently humoured, but regarded as eccentric or even mad.

 

 

Does it mean that nowadays, by contrast, God has gone away? Does it mean that because we can’t quite so easily get in touch with Him, we should give up even trying to encounter Him? Are we shy about it? I think there is a lot of British reserve to be factored in. What would you say, face to face, to Jesus, or God himself?

 

 

It begs the question, if you hear some rousing preacher, whether he is right in what he says. Just like the sons of Sceva in our lesson in Acts: were they the real thing? Were they in touch with God? Are we in touch with God and how can we tell if it’s the genuine article?

 

We have grown to be more humanistic, more sceptical. Whereas in Ezekiel’s time – say about 587BC – if the prophets told people that God wanted them to do something, they would simply obey, or disobey: they would not go behind it, they wouldn’t try to reason it out.

 

Then again, just after the time of Jesus, Paul is tackled by people, the sons of Sceva, who are claiming supernatural powers. It’s always been a live issue for philosophers what is really true. I have on my desk a book called ‘Truth Etc’, by the great Aristotelian philosopher Jonathan Barnes – and it’s 500-odd pages of ancient philosophy about what it true and what is false.

 

But what the disciples were worried about with the sons of Sceva, and what Ezekiel was criticising in false prophets, was not that some statements were illogical, but that they weren’t authentic at all – they were, to use President Trump’s favourite expression, fakes.

 

How can we tell? There aren’t any prophets any more. Even though Jesus said he hadn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, in effect he did finish off the prophets. He was the voice of God in a way that no prophet has ever been.

 

But just as when Ezekiel prophesied, not everyone took notice – and we don’t have any percentages to go on – so today not everyone bothers to take any notice of God. People don’t believe that God takes an interest in human affairs as they may have believed he did in Old Testament times.

 

We do the stuff, we wreck the environment – or not, depending who you believe – and if Houston is flooded and the British Virgin Islands devastated by hurricanes, no-one, or almost no-one, would think of blasphemy or disobedience to the law of Moses as being possible causes.

 

Perhaps these days we make a distinction between religious beliefs and practices on one hand, and practical behaviour on the other: what you do as against what you believe in. God is in the spiritual bit, but not the practical, we might think.

 

But I wonder whether that will really do. I would suggest that, if you take that distinction, between acts and beliefs, to its logical conclusion, then religion can never – or never ought to – affect our behaviour, for better or worse.

 

Jesus clearly didn’t see it that way. The Sermon on the Mount, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, not even looking at someone in a lustful or a covetous way, for instance, are all about doing things, about action.

 

Because you believe, because you believe in a God of love, as a Christian, you are supposed to act in certain ways, not just to keep it as a mental or spiritual exercise.

 

But we don’t. We don’t always follow what Jesus taught, in a practical way. Indeed, sometimes people criticise what Jesus taught, the Sermon on the Mount, for example, as being impractical, impossible to achieve in real life.

 

If someone is pointing a gun at you, you don’t turn towards him to offer him a bigger target – which might be how you would ‘turn the other cheek’; and our society works economically on the principles of ambition and greed, not ‘blessed are the meek’.

 

Or what about our recent encounters with Gypsies, with Travellers, in Cobham? Apparently they were washing horses, using washing-up liquid, in the River Mole at the picnic spot just up from the mill. They were holding trotting races on Portsmouth Road. There was drunkenness, fighting and betting. Wherever they went, people felt intimidated and there was a lot of litter.

 

It’s sort-of assumed that the only thing to do with gypsies is to get them to move on: in other words, to drive them out of our community. Not in any sense to treat them as our neighbours, not in any sense to love them, let alone to love them as ourselves.

 

Well, let’s think about it. I would suggest that Jesus didn’t want us just to love, to be kind to, only nice people. Who is my neighbour? was the question. And the story of the Good Samaritan isn’t just a story about two blokes, any two blokes. The hero is someone whom the Jews thought of a beyond the pale, a Samaritan. And Jesus had supper with, hung out with, friends who weren’t all ‘nice people’. Some were ‘publicans and thieves’.

 

I think it’s a serious challenge for us. What should our attitude towards the Gypsies, who come into our villages, be? Even if, indeed, they behave in an awful way? What should we think about ‘immigrants’? What happens, or what should happen, when we meet someone who isn’t very nice?

 

What about we feel about people in jail, or people who’ve committed the crimes and are sentenced to do community service? The community service bods did a great job tidying up round the church hall. Should we say ‘thank you’ to them?

 

‘Justice is mine’, says the Lord. So why do we lock up so many people? I’m just asking. There isn’t an easy answer, an easy answer to any of these challenges. But I do think that Jesus wanted us not to go for easy answers. It isn’t a simple distinction between religious stuff, spiritual matters, and actions, deeds. It isn’t the case that nice deeds only happen to nice people.

 

What would you do? What if you had a knock at your door, and a couple of bedraggled-looking black men asked you for a drink of water? Somebody who goes to one of the local church house groups, when that topic came up, immediately thought that they would be refugees who’d smuggled themselves into this country by hiding in the back of a lorry – so the right thing would be to call the police and get them arrested.

 

Again, what do you think Jesus would have to say? And if, as I suspect, Jesus wouldn’t be quite so quick to dial 999, then how should we be influenced? What should we do? Or is our belief, our Christianity, just as the Roman proconsul Gallio said about the Jews when St Paul was on trial before him, just a ‘question of words and names’?

 

I think we should really reflect – and pray – about that. It’s more important than bums on seats.

 

 

 

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Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 27th August 2017

Acts 17:15-34 – The Unknown God – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370781966

[Parts of this have already appeared in ‘My God is your God’, delivered at St Andrew’s, Cobham on 25th August. This sermon was delivered at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, the other church in the United Benefice of Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, last Sunday]

I’ve always loved this passage, this story of St Paul tackling the Athenian philosophers. As you may know, I was a classicist by education. I loved the thought that, 2,500 years ago, there was real civilisation and very sophisticated thought. The Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, of course, raised issues which are still debated today.

I had a sneaking suspicion then that the encounters in the New Testament between the Romans, whose civilisation was very much based on Greek concepts, and the Israelites and early Christians, showed the Jewish side as being rather lacking in intellectual firepower when compared with the greats of classical antiquity.

Now I’m more open to the idea that actually Jewish culture was similarly sophisticated. Granted the ancients were lacking in the means of transport – no planes, trains or automobiles – and they hadn’t harnessed electricity, with all it now does for us. But they were all, Jews and Greeks (to use St Paul’s terms) just as capable as we are of articulating arguments about what it is for something or someone to be good, or to do right.

The mediaeval theologian Thomas Aquinas brought a lot of ideas from Aristotle into his great comprehensive theology guide, his Summa Theologiae. It’s at least arguable that the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman classical traditions are not mutually exclusive.

St Paul was speaking to the Athenians in the first century AD, or CE as it’s now termed, ‘Common Era’, not about philosophy – although he had been having a discussion with the Epicureans and Stoics, but about what God is like. Incidentally, for your own research later, if you look up Epicurus or Zeno and Chrysippus, the founders of Stoic philosophy, you’ll find that our words ‘epicurean’ and ‘stoical’ don’t really reflect what these Greek philosophers were teaching.

Well, so much for the history of ideas. What would St Paul say about us – or to us, today? Do we worship many idols, as the Greeks did? It shows such generosity of spirit for them to admit their ignorance by worshipping a god whom they’d missed, whom they’d overlooked, in effect. They didn’t know what characteristics this Unknown God had: but whatever his attributes were, he was worthy of worship.

St Paul filled in the blanks. It’s really interesting to equate the various characteristics of the Unknown God, as described by St Paul, with our own understanding of God, through our knowledge of Jesus Christ.

He didn’t live in a ‘temple made by hands’. He didn’t need anything, any sacrifices, from men, because he created everything anyway. He made all people ‘of one blood’. Not different nationalities. If you went looking for him, he wasn’t far away. In fact he’s omnipresent: ‘in him we live and move and have our being’. He can’t be made out of gold or silver. And there will be a last judgment. We can recognise the judge, the judge eternal, by the fact that he has been raised from the dead.

That’s all pretty well square with what we have said in the Creed. But then how come Christianity is actually a patchwork quilt of different denominations? It’s sometimes a good way of looking at ourselves, first to compare ourselves with someone else. In this case, it might be instructive to look down the road at our brothers and sisters in Christ in our United Benefice, at St Andrew’s in Cobham. What’s their church – our sister church – like?

As you may know, I started my Anglican journey at St Andrew’s, and I’m still licensed to that church as a Reader, as well as to St Mary’s. Now in the context of the search for a new Rector (who will really in effect be the vicar of Cobham), it might be interesting to look at St Andrew’s worship and witness, in the light of St Paul’s sermon which is at the heart of today’s lesson in the Acts of the Apostles, and against the description in the Parish Profile of the church’s offer as ‘middle of the road’. [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0]

When I first started going to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that the church was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped there was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. St Andrew’s had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for the church.

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

Then more recently, the vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and try to understand its mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, there are a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to faith which you will find at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught, and which Godfrey espouses here at St Mary’s . ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert Jenkins very much wanted the church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s, alongside St Mary’s, had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong at St Andrew’s. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert Jenkins’s time they tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

Now on Sunday evenings the two churches practise what they preach about having a ‘united benefice’, St Andrew’s with St Mary’s, and all are invited to join in Evensong here.

The other thing to mention about the worship and witness at St Andrew’s is their music. For 40 years at St Andrew’s David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns which successfully brought together all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in the church.

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of the faithful at St Andrew’s to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says they are ‘middle of the road’, but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! As you’ll appreciate from the history, it’s much better, more positive, than that.

Now we – they – are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of love for God in these two churches.

A PS – I’m indebted to Revd Mother Kathryn Twining, Rector of the Guildford Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests, for this additional note concerning liberal catholicism:

‘Belief in The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacraments and the sacramental life are key to catholic spirituality, in addition to a focus on social justice, beauty in worship, faith as a journey or pilgrimage.

Check out SCP website http://www.scp.org.uk/, as well as the Gospel Imprint http://gospelimprint.com/ website!’

Sermon for 10.30 Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, 25th August 2017

Ruth 1; Matthew 22:34-40 – click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370733798 for the readings

 

What a lovely story the Book of Ruth is! ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ Such a loving, trusting thing for Ruth to say to her mother-in-law. It didn’t matter where Ruth had come from, that she was a foreigner: she had become ‘family’ to Naomi, and their bond was based on the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour. Nothing to do with nationality, or citizenship. They might even have been referred to as ‘economic migrants’, as they’d gone to Moab in search of a better life, and food to eat, in the face of a famine at home. It’s something to think about today.

 

When Ruth talked about ‘your God’ being ‘my God’, she was saying something very interesting. I know that people say ‘my God’ these days very carelessly, as a sort of low-grade swearing. I’m not talking about that.

 

In Old Testament times, in the ancient world, the Jewish idea of the One True God was by no means accepted wisdom generally. The Persians, Egyptians and Greeks all worshipped several gods; and worshippers would cultivate one or more of a variety of gods. One would be devoted to Artemis – like the Ephesians (‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’); others, if they were Greeks, would worship Jupiter, or Mars, or Dionysus, or Mercury. Egyptians or Babylonians had their gods too: Marduk and Baal, for instance.

 

But the Jews – our theological ancestors – worshipped just one God. When Jesus came along, the Jewish idea of God as one developed among Christians as Three in One, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

But in both cases it seems as though the idea of ‘My God’ might have come through the worshippers looking outside themselves. For them, there was something ‘out there’, something which created the world and sustains it now.

 

Or perhaps their God is inside them; if there is no benign figure with a white beard reclining in comfort in the heavens, if there is no God ‘out there’, then He has to be inside us, if He is anywhere in particular.

 

But there’s another sense in which I think people use the expression. ‘My’ God connotes, brings with it, a type of ownership. My God is better than your God, as soldiers have hopefully said. But I think we can only say that sort of thing because God is not physically present with us. If Jesus were walking about among us, bumping into us, we couldn’t think of Him as some kind of pocket deity, a god who looks and behaves like we want him to.

 

In a way, because God is not there, because we’re not confronted by Him face to face, we can sort-of appropriate Him, take him over. ‘My God’ is somehow in my pocket, He’s whatever I want Him to be.

 

If you stop a minute, and ponder this: if Jesus came into St Andrew’s now, what would he be like? What would he like or not like? After all, when he went into the synagogue, he had definite views about what good worship was. He didn’t like to see people lording it over their neighbours, or parading their piety, being hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’, for example. His approach to liturgy was really simple – one prayer, one prayer only: the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So if you’re a follower of Jesus now, what sort of God do you follow, and how do you go around the business of offering Him worship?

 

When I first started coming to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that our church here was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped here was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

 

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. We had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for our church.

 

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

 

Then more recently, our vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

 

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

 

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, we have a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

 

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to our faith at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert very much wanted our church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

 

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – our worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong here. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert’s time we tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

 

Now on Sunday evenings we practise what we preach about having a ‘united benefice’ with St Mary’s, and all join in Evensong at our sister church. That is a growing congregation, made up from both churches, and there are also quite a few newcomers, who are perhaps attracted by the music and the beautiful words.

 

The other thing to mention about our worship and witness here at St Andrew’s is our music. For 40 years David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns to bring together beautifully all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in this church. Kevin and Cathy are carrying on that work, which is so much a trademark of St Andrew’s.

 

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of us to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says we are ‘middle of the road’, [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0] but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! It’s much better, more positive, than that.

 

Now we are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor for the flock. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of our love for God in this church. We will want them to be able to say, like Ruth, ‘Your God shall be my God’.

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!

Sermon for Evensong on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
2 Kings 4:1-37; Psalm 90; Acts 16:1-15

‘Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men’. That’s what we’ve just sung, in Psalm 90. It means, return to the dust, out of which you were made. Psalm 90 is sometimes used at funerals, and describes the insignificance and fleeting existence of human life when compared with the creative – and destructive – power of God.

 

There’s a powerful novel by P. D. James called ‘Children of Men’. It’s a dystopian vision of the future – just as 1984 suddenly wasn’t in the distant future, in this case, the future is 2021 – not long now.

 

Gradually, no more children are being born. The human race is dying out. Then, years after the last person was born, a woman becomes pregnant. Now read on! I won’t spoil it for you. There’s a film of it too, which is also good, but rather different.

 

One little switch. No more babies. And that’s it for the human race. It’s perhaps more frightening, as being rather more mundane, more feasible, in a way, than a nuclear holocaust.

 

There has been a school of thought – perhaps as a result of too much reading of the Old Testament – that if God does take steps against mankind, it must be to punish them for something they’ve done wrong.

 

So now, for people who think in that way, it will be likely to be rather a worrying time. We have the President of the USA completely failing to condemn white supremacists and Nazis – saying there are ‘some very good people’ among them; in this country, all of sudden, it’s not beyond the pale for people openly to want to shut out from this country anyone who isn’t a white, English-speaking person with useful skills and plenty of money.

 

Nearer to home, did anyone even think for a minute whether it was right to chase away the travellers, the gypsies, who came and camped out on the Leg O’Mutton field in Cobham? Remember, Hitler exterminated Gypsies as well as Jews. How should we treat them? What would Jesus have said?

 

Now again, instead of seeking closer union with our neighbours in Europe, we have set our faces against them with the vote for so-called ‘Brexit’. ‘Sovereignty’, whatever that means, is supposed to be more important than the brotherhood of man.

 

I think that Emily Thornberry was right, although she got into hot water for saying it, about the house with a white van parked in the drive, festooned with English flags. That flag is not benign: it is meant to say, ‘England alone!’ Go away, everyone else. Black, brown, foreign people: go away from our ‘crowded’ island. The crowds are, I would suggest, a myth. There is plenty of room in the UK. The hidden, evil message is that there are too many of the ‘wrong sort of person’ – people who are not like us.

 

I still remember the first time I went to Bombay – the first time I went to India – and walked down the street. I was the only white man. The only white man among thousands of brown and black faces. I began to imagine what it must feel like to be a black person in England sometimes. No wonder that black people may congregate in places where there are already significant numbers of black people. We have a certain innate small-c conservatism, all of us, I think, which makes us easier with people whom we know.

 

Obviously in a country of nearly 70 million people, we can’t know everyone, so I suspect that we fall back on what people look like. If they look like us, fine. If not, there might be a reservation, a hesitation, a query in our minds.

 

This isn’t good. Xenophobia, racism, white supremacy. No thought for the idea that we are all equally God’s creatures, God’s children. God, if He cares about us in the way the Old Testament describes, might well send some plagues down on us for being so awful.

 

Yet so far as I know, God hasn’t worked that way recently. Taken as a whole in the Bible, in contrast with the various chastisements in the Old Testament – and Psalm 90 is said to be a Psalm of Moses, inspired by the complaining of the Israelites in the desert – there are many stories of healing and salvation.

 

Elisha’s two miracles described in our first lesson are cases in point. The first one is a sort of self-help example with a miraculous element, a bit like feeding the 5,000, in that the oil never ran out, and the resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s daughter is like the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter – ‘damsel, arise’ – in the New Testament.

 

We don’t know how these miracles worked – or else they wouldn’t be miraculous. Maybe these stories are just mythical. It’s striking how similar the miracles done by Elisha are, in these two cases at least, to Jesus’ miracles.

 

The ‘rose of Sharon’, the beautiful girl, in the Song of Solomon, ‘nigra sum sed pulchra,’ in the Latin words of the beautiful canticle in Monteverdi’s Vespers, is said to be a ‘Shulamite’, or a Shunammite. Perhaps there’s a link with the ‘great woman’ in our lesson from 2 Kings. She was kind to the man of God, Elisha, and ‘constrained him’ to eat bread. It’s a bit reminiscent of Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, pressing ever more cake and sandwiches on her hapless priestly charges: ‘Oh, go on, go on, go on …!’ Maybe she was Abishag, the most beautiful woman in Israel, who went to comfort King David in his old age – she too came from Shunem.

 

But even in the beauty of Monteverdi there’s a wrong note. ‘Nigra sum sed pulchra’ sings the girl – although often, for mysterious musical reasons, it’s actually a male counter-tenor singing – meaning, ‘I am black but beautiful’. To sing ‘but’ beautiful is awful – but in 1610, when the Vespers was written, that kind of casual racism was unfortunately there. I feel that if we can change the words of the Lord’s Prayer so that we ‘forgive those who’ trespass against us, instead of ‘them that’ do it, we could change ‘nigra sum, sed’ (black, but …) to ‘nigra sum et pulchra’. ‘And’ beautiful. Perhaps you, Robert [Prof. Robert Woolley, Director of Music at St Mary’s], could speak to Harry Christophers or Sir John Eliot Gardner about it.

 

The disciples with St Paul – (including St Luke, who most likely was the author of the Acts of the Apostles as well, and who was an eyewitness with the Apostles, at least for some of the time, which we think partly because of the passage which was our lesson tonight, in their journey, where it says, ‘We’: ‘We came with a straight course to Samothracia’, and so on) – well, he and the disciples went to pray, not just in the synagogues, but in Philippi they went to a part of the river bank, where people went to pray; actually, not just any ‘people’ went there, but a group of women. And there they met and got to know Lydia, who, like the Shunammite woman with the man of God, Elisha, invited them to stay with her. She ‘constrained them’ too; she was another Mrs Doyle!

 

Shunammite women, blacks, and the women worshipping with Lydia on the river bank: all a bit different, according to the lights of the time then; but all variously blessed. To be with Elisha, and with the apostles – and of course, with Jesus – we should be celebrating diversity and welcoming the people who are shut out – shut out by polite society, but also because they are black or strangers or refugees. Let us not shelter behind false distinctions between ‘genuine’ refugees and ‘economic migrants’. Whatever they are, they are here; they are human beings like us; they’re just as good as us; and if they are refugees, they need our welcome, our love, and our help. ‘Come again, ye children of men.’

Sermon for Evensong on the 9th Sunday after Trinity, 13th August 2017

Acts 14:8-20 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=369736259

 

I love the adventure stories in the Acts of the Apostles. They’ve got elements of a road movie – Paul and his companions make various journeys to exotic places, dangerously, and have exciting encounters on the way. The good guys are our hero Paul and his team. Their task, their mission, is to spread the word about Jesus.

The bad guys – hmm, who are the bad guys in this? If you say, simply, ‘The Jews’, it might well lead you into antisemitism or Nazism. It’s more complicated. Paul was a Jew – a leading Jew, a Pharisee. And the first disciples were all Jews. Indeed Jesus himself was a Jew. But Paul saw his mission as being the apostle, the man sent out as a messenger, to what the Bible calls the ‘nations’, to the non-Jews. Paul remembers the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 42:6-8:

 

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;…. I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.

 

At one and the same time the Jews are God’s chosen people, the ones who received the prophecies, but also the prophecy is that the Lord will make his chosen Messiah ‘a light of the Gentiles’. (There is also a wonderful message of liberation and social justice in Isaiah 42, but that’s for another day.)

 

In the previous chapter in Acts, before our lesson tonight, in chapter 13, Paul preaches in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, rehearsing the story of the Jews and linking it with the story of Jesus, his baptism by John, his death and resurrection.

 

Let me read you a bit of what Paul said: [13:32-39, NEB] He told them that, after Jesus had suffered, been crucified and then resurrected from the dead, appearing to the disciples over a lengthy period, ‘They [the disciples] are now his witnesses before our nation; and we are here to give you the good news that God, who made the promise to the fathers, has fulfilled it for the children by raising Jesus from the dead, as indeed it stands written, in the second Psalm: “You are my son; this day have I begotten you.” Again, that he raised him from the dead, never again to revert to corruption, he declares in these words: “I will give you the blessings promised to David, holy and sure.” This is borne out by another passage: “Thou wilt not let thy loyal servant suffer corruption.” As for David, when he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, he died, and was gathered to his fathers, and suffered corruption; but the one whom God raised up did not suffer corruption; and you must understand, my brothers, that it is through him that forgiveness of sins is now being proclaimed to you. It is through him that everyone who has faith is acquitted of everything for which there was no acquittal under the Law of Moses.’

 

Listening to him was a mixed congregation, of Jews and ‘Gentiles’, non-Jews; we can identify with them, because we – or most of us – are not Jews. In this context, we are Gentiles. As the passage continues, we learn that the Gentiles ‘got’ it, and ‘those who were marked out for eternal life became believers’ (13:48).

 

But the Jews weren’t convinced: they ‘stirred up feeling among the women of standing who were worshippers, and among the leading men of the city’. The women were not the Christian women, but worshippers in the synagogue. Interesting that they were thought important enough, in this patriarchal world, to be canvassed by the anti-Christian Jews. So the two Apostles beat a hasty retreat and moved on, to Iconium and then to Lystra (this is all in what is now modern Turkey), where, in Lystra, not only did they preach, but Paul healed a crippled man, lame from birth, who had never walked in his life beforehand.

 

And that brought out an extraordinary reaction from the Lycaonian people, the people of Lystra, who, we are told, spoke a local Lycaonian language. I wonder if this is an echo of the Greek historian Herodotus, who distinguished Greeks and βάρβαροι, people who spoke in languages that sounded like grunts, ‘bar-bar’ – barbarians. If so, we are meant to think of these people in Lystra as being really rustic, really uncivilised.

 

But I wonder if that is right: because what the Lycaonians did was to hail Paul and Barnabas as gods, Greek gods. Interestingly, they said that not Paul, but Barnabas was the father of the Greek Gods, Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, and Paul was Hermes, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, because he was ‘the bringer of the word’.

 

You’ll remember that Paul falls foul of Greek gods again, in Ephesus, where there is a cult of the goddess Diana, or Artemis in Greek, the huntress. ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ they shouted, against Paul and his companions.

 

In Lystra, when the locals hailed Paul and Barnabas as gods, and especially when the priest of the local temple of Jupiter appeared with garlands and some oxen which he was about to sacrifice, they ran into the crowd and made a big fuss. ‘We are just human, who feel the same feelings as you do. We want you to turn away from ‘these follies’ (NEB), or ‘these vanities’ (AV) to ‘the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein’.

 

It was the same contrast as you get in the Old Testament, between gods who are just idols, just statues or other man-made objects, and the One True God, creator of heaven and earth. Psalm 135 (page 522 in your Prayer Books) has a picturesque way of putting it: it says

 

As for the images of the heathen, they are but silver and gold
the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, and speak not
eyes have they, but they see not.
They have ears, and yet they hear not
neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them
and so are all they that put their trust in them.

 

The point is that the Greek gods, according to the Jewish understanding of them, are not real. They are just images, statues, idols. They can’t do anything. There is no reality standing behind them.

 

But I wonder whether we ought not to think again about the Greek gods, and perhaps not be quite so ready to dismiss them. What were the people who worshipped those gods doing, when they built temples and made sacrifices to those gods?

 

If it were really the case that they were just empty images which couldn’t do anything, would these sophisticated people – who were not just Bar-Bars – have built all those temples and made all those sacrifices? There were of course creation stories before Judaism – the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. So god, or gods collectively, as a force for creation, and as being immortal, and as all-knowing – ‘immortal, invisible, God only wise’, would square with the Greeks’ understanding of their gods, just as much as it does with the Jewish ‘One true God’.

 

The only difference is that in the Greek heaven, the Pantheon, literally the ‘Every God Place’, on Mount Olympus, there was not one God but several gods, who all had different ‘portfolios’. We’re quite fierce on saying that the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is one, a single God: but I think there could be a sense in which the Greek pantheistic idea, of departmental gods, if you like, is reminiscent of the Trinity.

 

Our worship, our services, and our idea of sacraments, the ‘outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace’, are surely similar to what the Greeks – and in earlier civilisations before them, in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates, modern Iraq – modern Mosul, sadly – practised. What is the Eucharist, if not a symbolic sacrifice, in one sense?

 

Nowadays, would we be as definite as Paul and Barnabas? Would we, if someone got hold of Professor André Simon and his team at Harefield Hospital just after he had saved someone’s life, someone impossibly ill, as my brother was, and said, ‘You are medical gods, you are Asclepius and Hippocrates’, would we say, ‘Oh no, that doesn’t square with what we know about God.’ Those guys, André Simon and co, they’re just ordinary men.

 

Well, think about it. What do we know about God? It’s interesting that Paul, when he wanted to describe, and give evidence of, the One True God, said this:

 

The living God, … made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In past ages he allowed all nations to go their own way; and yet he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows: he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’ (Acts 14:15-17)

 

He didn’t mention Jesus – except of course that Jesus was the absolute heart, the centre, of Paul’s message. But in this instance it was almost like one of those debates you might have with a New Atheist, a Richard Dawkins, say. You can still attest to the existence of a creator, an ‘unmoved mover’ such as Aristotle posited in his Metaphysics (Λ 7, 1072a21-26)[τοινυν έστι τι ό ού κινουμενον κινεί ,…]. You can point to creation, and to the apparent benevolence – at least in part – of the creator: he ‘he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’

 

But, as Bishop John Robinson said in his great little book ‘Honest to God’, these days we generally believe that God isn’t ‘a supreme Being, the grand Architect, who exists somewhere out beyond the world – like a rich aunt in Australia – who started it all going, periodically intervenes in its running, and generally gives evidence of his benevolent interest in it.’ [Robinson, J., 1963 (50th Anniversary edition, 2013), ‘Honest to God’, London, SCM Press, p.15].

 

I think we’re pretty sure that God is more than that. If we are Christians, our picture of God depends much more on our perception of Jesus. ‘He that seeth me seeth him that sent me’, John 12:45. But I daresay that if I put you all on the spot, and said, ‘OK, I’ll give you ten minutes to think about it, and then please tell me all about ‘your God’, your idea of God,’ you would understandably feel rather challenged – although of course I’m checking for theologians and philosophers in tonight’s congregation, because you never know who might have come in tonight!

 

But these days, in certain circumstances, not to be able precisely to describe God might be quite dangerous. What if a Moslem or a Jew challenged us, on their ‘home turf’? What if they got the idea that you had changed, changed religion, away from what they see as the ‘true faith’? Well, it might not happen to us, but what if you were a person who had become a Christian in Pakistan, or Iran?

 

We sometimes say that Christians, Jews and Moslems are all ‘people of the Book’, that book being the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which all three religions use. But sometimes that’s not accepted – for instance, when Christians are accused of blasphemy or apostasy. Do you think we should bone up on some more theology? What would you have said if you had been one of the well-meaning Lycaonians?

 

 

Sermon for Evensong on 30th July 2017, Seventh Sunday after Trinity

1 Kings 6:11-14, 23-28; Acts 12:1-17 – ‘To thee Cherubin and Seraphin: continually do cry’

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=368280207 for the readings

Tomorrow, whatever the Brexit people may say, the people of England will start to turn to Europe. August is not just the time when Paris, and Rome, and Bologna are deserted, and those delicious little cafés in the back streets have the shutters up and a small card in the window telling you of the ‘fermeture annuelle’, that the family will be back at the beginning of September: now something rather similar affects our own City of London and the great commercial centres of Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, among others.

It's holiday time! There are hardy perennial indications, of course. Where have the great and good gone on holiday? Ah, there’s Theresa May and her hedge-fund husband, looking relaxed in dark glasses and what her office assures us is a Marks and Spencer knockoff of a nice designer top, striding forth into the pedestrian zone in Como in search of the perfect cappuccino.

And perhaps – especially since she’s a churchgoer, (at least at home), Mrs May might step into one of those lovely Italian churches. Perhaps she will be tracing the work of Piero Della Francesca.

And what she could be seeing, I feel sure, (from my intimate knowledge of such people on holiday, of course) is cherubs. Putti, cherubim and seraphim. ‘To thee Cherubin and Seraphin: continually do cry’. (The Book of Common Prayer, Morning Prayer, Te Deum Laudamus – We praise thee, O God)

Actually in my mind’s eye there’s a range of possibilities, where cherubs are concerned. On the one hand I do think of putti, those little stone carved babies that you find decorating churches and holding up the vaulting in cathedrals. Definitely babies, not grown-up angels – ‘cherubic’ is an adjective that you wouldn't use for a grown-up, except perhaps for a smile.

The other angels are seraphs, of course.

‘Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng ..’

[Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, carol, ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’, music by Georg F. Händel]

Again, what the seraphs look like is hard to say, except again that the adjective derived from their name, ‘seraphic’, is usually applied to a smile. So whatever they look like in general, seraphs are, typically, smiling.

All this angel-stuff is all very well if you are happy with a vision of heaven which is like a special palace, a paradise above the clouds, where God lives surrounded by his holy saints and angels. Of course it's what the artists and sculptors whose masterpieces fill those Italian churches – and to some extent also our own churches and cathedrals – depict. Any decent picture of the Ascension has Jesus being helped to lift off by angels, and indeed, by cherubim, by cherubs, little angels.

So understandably, when Solomon wanted to build a house on earth, a temple, for the One True God, in Jerusalem, which his father David had conquered, he built something like his idea of heaven, including cherubs. But these cherubs were statues representing rather major architectural structures, not angelic babies. The two cherubs here are ten cubits high. A cubit was the length of a forearm, 18 inches: so they were about 15 feet high. And their wings – they're definitely angels, because they've got wings – were ten cubits wingspan: ‘from the uttermost part of one wing unto the uttermost part of the other’. 15ft wingspan. Bigger than humans.

St Peter certainly had good reason to thank an angel, who rescued him when he had been put in prison by King Herod – not the Herod who condemned Jesus, but Herod Agrippa I, a grandson. This Herod is reported to have had a shaky relationship with the Jews over whom he reigned, as client king, for the Romans. This may explain his persecution of the Christians, so as to curry favour with his Jewish subjects.

There are apparent parallels between this story of Peter’s imprisonment and the actual Passion of Jesus. Both stories took place at the time of the festival of Unleavened Bread, the Passover. Also, Herod intended to ‘bring Jesus out to the people’ after the festival, much in the way that Jesus was brought out for the people to choose between him and Barabbas to be pardoned.

But this ‘angel’ is called an ‘angel of the Lord’, αγγελος κυρίου – which also, and perhaps more naturally, means a ‘messenger of the lord’; yes, a messenger. The business with wings and heading upwards to heaven is perhaps something extra which we could get, infer, from the Old Testament story: but perhaps these days we should be a bit cautious about doing that.

What we have in 1 Kings is a description of Solomon’s Temple, the first Jewish temple. In it we have a description of two statues or structures in the sanctuary: ‘within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree’. It wasn't whatever the cherubs were supposed to resemble or stand for which was being described, but rather the representations, the statues.

So the question arises how reliable any of the pictures of cherubs really is. Are we to think of Superman, or at least Robin to Jesus’ Batman? Or is an ‘angel’ just a messenger?

‘Just a messenger’ probably won't do, as an explanation. What sort of a messenger? The angel might say, ’I bring a message from God.’ Can you visualise that, in your mind’s eye? How would you react? Here’s St Peter’s prison escape story again.

‘All at once an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was ablaze with light. He tapped Peter on the shoulder and woke him. 'Quick! Get up', he said, and the chains fell away from his wrists.

 
The angel then said to him, 'Do up your belt and put your sandals on.' He did so. 'Now wrap your cloak round you and follow me.'
 
He followed him out, with no idea that the angel's intervention was real: he thought it was just a vision.’ (Acts 12:7-9, NEB)

That was the exciting bit of our New Testament lesson. On the face of things it was a bit more than a simple courier service that St Peter benefitted from.

I worry a bit about the Richard Dawkins faction here. On the face of things, if one really thinks of St Peter as being rescued by some divine Batman or Superman, I think it might lay us open to scientific scorn. The Dawkinses might say, with some justification, ‘But that’s not how things work!’ They know how flesh and blood operate, and that we can be sure that Superman & Co couldn't do some of their more spectacular stunts except in computer-generated images in the cinema – or with obvious technical assistance such as one of Yves Rossy’s jet-packs. I slightly worry that such people’s simple faith is vulnerable to a scientific challenge – that, if God is understood as everything we believe in but don't understand, as we get to learn more and more, so God becomes less and less.

But even so, there are many people, even today, who do say they have been helped by angels, who either don't worry about the luxury residence above the clouds – for them it doesn't have to be literally true – or who have an idea of God which allows for cherubic or seraphic interventions. This is how I think they do it.

Just as we may understand God’s Holy Spirit as being in us, in the way that St Paul did, as he put it in Romans 8:9, ‘You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you’, so if God is in us, we could argue that God’s messengers, his angels, are likely to be round about us too, personified by our friends and fellow-Christians. You might have an angel in you, and you be that angel’s eyes and ears.

So when we say to someone like me (when I have done my annual washing-up duty,) ‘You are an angel’, there might just be a bit more to it. We can all play host to an angel. Some of us are, of course, more cherubic than others.