Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

The reason is, that it’s irrelevant. He is trying to give effect to the result of the 2016 referendum, in a way which does least harm to our economy; at the same time he is recognizing that only another referendum can affirm or change the original Brexit referendum result. Politicians can only serve to carry out the decisions of the people when a referendum has been held.

The last three years have shown, among other things, that there is no generally-agreed interpretation of what Brexit involves In detail; that there is no achievable Brexit which does not involve economic self-harm, leaving us to a greater or lesser extent worse off, economically and in terms of international influence, than we are as members of the EU; and that there is no reliable parliamentary majority for Brexit (pace one recent vote supporting it in principle).

The Labour policy, in the light of these difficulties, is to seek to negotiate a treaty to leave the EU with as little economic self-harm as possible, and then to offer the electorate a referendum choice between that real, achievable, Brexit deal – or to recognise the benefits of what we currently have, and to remain in the EU.

It follows from the above that the party leaders’ views concerning the relative merits of the two possible outcomes are strictly irrelevant; moreover, in order for the least harmful Brexit deal to be achieved, it is necessary that our negotiators should do their best irrespective of their personal views, like the civil servants supporting them.

Nothing should prejudice the free choice of the people: but unlike in 2016, they will choose between actual, feasible Brexit or actually remaining as we are. There will no longer be future unknowns which can be called ‘Project Fear’. Perhaps once the Labour Brexit deal is on the table, and not before, leaders may declare whether they prefer it to staying in the EU – or they may not. It will not matter, as it will be the people’s choice.

Hugh Bryant

19th November 2019

Sermon for Evensong with the Prayer Book Society on Saturday 16th November 2019

Daniel 7:15-28; Revelation 9:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=440816069

Earlier this week, some of us were here in this Founder’s Chapel at Charterhouse, also under the auspices of the PBS, for the competition to select candidates to go forward to the finals of the Cranmer Awards in February next year at the Bishop’s Palace in Worcester. Thanks to Revd Chris Hancock’s excellent organising efforts and Fr Tom Pote of Holy Trinity, Guildford encouraging four good students to enter, we had a very good selection of six candidates, four juniors and two seniors, who had to read passages from the Prayer Book and from the Authorised Version of the Bible, which in the final they have to memorise and deliver by heart.

Everybody did really well and we are putting forward from the Guildford Branch two very strong candidates. Competitors in the competition can choose the passages which they use, and because the competition aims to look for people who can bring out the richness of the language in the Prayer Book and the excitement of it, it’s a good idea to find passages which are in themselves dramatic and colourful. So, for example, the conversion of St Paul (Acts 9:1-19) was one passage used and another was the reluctant wedding guests, where one who turned up improperly dressed was cast out into the outer darkness where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. (Matt. 22:1-14)

We all love the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible for many things but especially for the spiky and memorable words. I don’t know how young I was when I first registered the idea of weeping and gnashing of teeth – possibly at the time when my milk teeth were falling out, the whole idea of gnashing them was even more exciting.

Today’s lessons are cases in point. They are fanciful, metaphorical, colourful evocations of things which no one could literally experience. Prof. John Barton, in his splendid book ‘A History of the Bible’, [J. Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, at p 369], has pointed out that the mythical animals which you meet in Daniel chapter 7 (just before the passage which was our lesson this afternoon), a lion with eagle’s wings, and a leopard with ‘wings of a fowl’ and four heads, are not animals which anyone could meet in a zoo.

Fr Etienne Charpentier, in his commentary on Daniel ch 7, [E. Charpentier, translated by John Bowden, 1982, How to Read the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, at pp 90-91] has observed that the second half of the Book of Daniel, from chapter 6 onwards, and the whole of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine at the end of the New Testament are what is known as apocalypses; uncoverings, literally, from the Greek ὰποκαλυπτειν, ‘taking the cover off’, literally; the Latin translation of that Greek word being ‘revelare,’ taking the veil off, revealing, so, Revelation. 

We have come to use the word apocalypse to connote a catastrophic end, possibly the end of the world. But this is not the whole story. Certainly in the Bible, in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the intention is to give a glimpse into heaven, a glimpse of the Divine at work. But this glimpse is not in the sense of a learned work of history or a Panorama documentary, but rather a metaphor, a myth, a picture of something which we cannot see. Charpentier writes, ‘History is thought to unfold in a straight line, the end of which is hidden in God’s secret.’

Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, speaks of seeing through a glass, darkly [v12], and contrasts that with the clear vision which will come with the coming of the Kingdom. We are not intended to take these things literally. We shouldn’t have nightmares about lions with wings or a beast with iron teeth. Remember that Daniel is supposed to be having his dreams and encountering the powers of evil at the time of the Persian Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Darius, who cast him into the den of the lions, at the time of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, whereas in fact he was writing about 165BC, at the time of the Maccabees, the great Jewish revolt against king Antiochus IV’s attempt to impose Greek religion on the Jews by force. 

The historical context when these books were written is very interesting. It gives us a clue why we should still consider them as relevant to our life today. They were written at times of danger, strife, when people were worried about the future, threatened by external forces, not sure what the right thing to do should be, and in particular how to deal with earthly powers opposed to the ways of God. 

Who are these four kings in Daniel, and who are the forces, a third of whom are wiped out in the vision in Revelation? They are mythical forces; but perhaps we can identify them down the ages with particular cases where faithful people have turned to the Bible for guidance and inspiration in their own times of trouble. As one scholar has written, ‘To uphold his people’s hope in dramatic times, God lifts the veil which hides the end, revealing the happy outcome to history as a result of God’s victory.’ This is the theology of apocalypse.

If we are looking for signs of the apocalypse today, you will not need me to add to the chorus of voices shouting the odds about our contemporary situation, with our general election, all the problems of the NHS, the need for food banks and the continuing consequences of the Brexit referendum. If we are looking for signs of an apocalypse, we might class the signs of climate change as ‘apocalyptic’ more than anything else.

What to do in the face of all this? The spiky words of the Prayer Book are very helpful. We pray the Collects; and as we use some of the wonderful prayers, ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’, the Book helps us to bring all those men – and women – before the Lord in humility. Let us reflect on how those apocalypses that we have read about, those revelations, visions of heaven, can tell us the true way to that place where true joys may be found. 

In the words of the psalmist, in today’s psalms,

‘Defend the poor and fatherless: see that such as are in need and necessity have right.

Deliver the outcast and poor; save them from the hand of the ungodly.’  [Psalm 82] or 

‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. 

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water.

They will go from strength to strength …’ [Psalm 84]

I wish you all a blessed Advent time, not too much Election or Brexit stuff, and a very happy Christmas. ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts!’

Sermon for Evensong on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, 27th October 2019

Ecclesiastes 11,12; 2 Timothy 2:1-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=439196125)

I don’t know what reading matter you have in your downstairs loo, or, I suppose, whether that loo does contain a library: but on the assumption that you read, rather than playing video games, in there, I wanted to mention that when I looked at our Bible readings for this evening – or at least at one of them – I got a strong Reader’s Digest feeling. You know, those wholesome little paragraphs at the end of the main articles and stories in the Reader’s Digest – possibly one-liners, suggesting that it might be a good thing to ‘cast thy bread upon the waters’ or something like that.

Both the piece from the second Letter to Timothy and the two chapters from Ecclesiastes could fall into this category of old saws and ancient wisdom. But if you look a bit more closely and compare these two bits of wisdom, you’ll see straightway that the piece from Ecclesiastes is actually rather bleak and nihilistic. You find the word which perhaps everyone associates with Ecclesiastes, ‘vanity’. It is, according to the learned commentators on this passage, a Hebrew word, hebel, which is ‘conventionally translated ‘vanity’, [but] the literal sense of this term is more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness or deceptiveness’. (Stuart Weekes in John Barton and John Muddiman, eds, (2001) The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford, OUP, p. 423).

‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity’. Whether you ‘cast your bread on the waters’, meaning if you speculate in different markets, possibly with seven different products and seven different opportunities – or perhaps even eight – you can’t know what’s going to happen. Whether it’s going to rain; whether a tree will fall in one direction rather than another, and so on. You can’t know. You’d better make hay while the sun shines.

‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.’

The Preacher, so-called – Ecclesiastes is a translation into Greek of a Hebrew word, Qoheleth, and it could also mean the Speaker or the Teacher – whoever he is, after these bleak beginnings, he says,

‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.’

That ending is rather incongruous with what has gone before, which is sceptical, cynical – with no thought of God, until all of a sudden He appears as the Judge eternal. Some scholars think that this bit was added on by a later scribe to make this ‘wisdom literature’ seem more scriptural.

But what about the God that Ecclesiastes talks about, albeit that He appears only rarely? Ecclesiastes says, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments.’ The other day I was asked, ‘Why is it that we should fear God, if God is good and loving, as we say He is?’ It’s a good question. I’ll come back to it in a minute.

In Ecclesiastes, on the face of things it doesn’t much matter what we do, whether it will make our lives flourish or not. It is beyond our control, and the only certainty is that at the end of our lives we will come before the Judge Eternal.

The advice to Timothy, in our second reading, is rather different. God doesn’t just appear at random, on rare occasions. Everything is affected by the phenomenon of Jesus Christ, by the things that we learn about Him and receive from Him. So in the letter, Timothy needs to be strengthened by the grace, by the free gift, of Christ Jesus. He needs to be tough – ‘as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’

God himself is asked to help Timothy to understand what he ought to do. There is no ultimate hopelessness, as there is in the Ecclesiastes world; there are challenges, but at the end, Timothy can enjoy the fruits of grace:

‘The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.’

What a difference it makes to know about Jesus! The Speaker, Ecclesiastes, has such a bleak outlook. It doesn’t matter what you do in life: God doesn’t take any notice of you, except perhaps until the very end on the day of Judgement. You might as well make hay while the sun shines. God, as Ecclesiastes sees Him, really doesn’t take much notice of us. This isn’t what we are told about the God of Moses, who made a covenant, a solemn agreement, with his people, taking a very serious interest in them. ‘I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.’

For Ecclesiastes God is the ultimate creator and judge eternal: so enjoy life while you can. As well as ‘vanity of vanities, everything is vanity’, Ecclesiastes is where you find that passage which some people like to have read at funerals, ‘a time to live, a time to die. .. Everything in its season,’ and so on [3:1-9]. As Professor John Barton has pointed out, no-one usually quotes the last line of the passage, which simply asks, What’s the point of all that work? (See John Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, p68)

But it’s at least arguable that Ecclesiastes doesn’t reflect the way we understand how God works now. Compare and contrast how the writer of the letter to Timothy understands it. Your life is better, you are more able to withstand trials and tribulations, you will have inner strength if you are a believer, if you are ‘in Christ.’ ‘In Christ’ is actually an expression which doesn’t appear in the letters to Timothy, but it is quintessentially how St Paul puts it in many of his letters.

People who are in Christ have Christ in them; so their relationship with God is even more intimate than the covenant relationship that Moses and the prophets proclaimed. The chosen people of God are no longer just one nation on earth, but anyone, anyone can be saved, if they are open to the gospel of Jesus Christ and let Jesus into their hearts. There is no question of eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The Christian understanding is that we no longer have that threat hanging over us. Jesus has conquered death and we have nothing to fear because we are destined for eternal life.

So why should we fear God? It’s a good question. If we are in Ecclesiastes’ world, where God is the ultimate creator, the all-powerful, the almighty, all-knowing, and our judge at the end of time but not interfering with us much before then, with power to cast us out into the eternal darkness, then perhaps the way we should approach Him is the same way we would approach anything which is overwhelmingly big, disproportionately powerful, for whom we are a mere fleabite.

Think what happens in confrontations with things which are infinitely powerful. In biblical times kings could demonstrate their power by putting people together with wild animals. Think of Daniel in the lions’ den. The strength of the lions reflected the power of the king. The king could not avoid demonstrating his power by putting Daniel in with the lions. He didn’t expect him to survive. But what do you think Daniel was feeling? Granted that he had a very strong faith, but I can’t believe that he was not afraid. Confronted with overwhelming force, he was afraid of that force.

I think that one of the wonderful things which we can take from the revelation which is the life of Jesus and his teaching, is that God is a loving God. He isn’t somebody who would throw us to the lions. He isn’t a lion himself. He might be the lion of Judah, according to the early Christians in Ethiopia, but If so he is a very kindly and well behaved lion, more like Aslan in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I think it is intelligible for us to fear God in the sense that we respect the infinite power of the divine, but now that we have had the revelation of Jesus, because, as he says in St John’s Gospel, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’, we know that the first great commandment is a commandment of love rather than of fear. We should trust in the Lord and love the Lord our God. It is precisely that love which drives out fear.

The point of the Christian revelation, the key difference from the pointlessness that Ecclesiastes laments, is that we should never despair of being able to do some good. It means that Christians must be engaged, involved in practical things – dare I say, even political things.

If you say that preachers should stay away from politics, look at today’s headlines. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported in today’s Sunday Times as saying that the Prime Minister is ‘pouring petrol on divided Britain’. The Archbishop of York has written in today’s Observer about the poor migrants who died sealed in a refrigerated lorry. His article is headed ‘Grief is not enough. We must open our doors as well as our hearts’. And also in the Times, this time on Saturday, Revd Rosemary Durward, from our neighbours St Martin’s East Horsley, wrote an enlightened piece about under the title ‘Faith-led citizens’ forum can heal our disunited kingdom’. Christianity and politics can mix: indeed they must mix.

I think we should leave Ecclesiastes and his old saws metaphorically in an old copy of the Reader’s Digest and instead, as the writer of the letters to Timothy says, we should get out there on parade with the inner strength which comes from Jesus at the heart of our being. I’ll leave it to you to think what trials and tribulations we can confront in today’s world, but as we confront them we needn’t be cynical. It’s not vanity of vanities. It’s more ‘Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on’.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

Sermon for Evensong on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 6th October 2019 Nehemiah 5.1-13; John 9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=437270702

‘By the waters of Babylon’, as we know from Psalm 137, the people of Israel were in exile and were not happy: ‘.. we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’

But then King Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their ancestral land and to rebuild the Temple. If you look at the Book of Ezra, chapter 1, you will read the text of Cyrus’ proclamation:

The LORD the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. To every man of his people now among you I say, God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD the God of Israel, the God whose city is Jerusalem. And every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem. [Ezra 1. All Bible translations in this sermon are from the New English Bible – see, for this passage, http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/master.html?http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/IntroContents.php and mutatis mutandis for the other passages quoted]

Well, that’s the background to our Old Testament lesson, from the Book of Nehemiah. The Old Testament books 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are all reckoned to have been written by the same person, known as the ‘Chronicler’, and in the Hebrew Bible Ezra and Nehemiah are all one book. Nehemiah was the Persian king’s ‘cup-bearer’, in other words a senior official of the royal household, a Jew, who led a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem with a view to rebuilding the city and the Temple. Clearly his entourage looked to the local population, under the terms of Cyrus’ edict, to supply them with the wherewithal to get the job done and get fed and watered.

Note that: ‘… every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem’.

It didn’t go well initially.

THERE CAME A TIME when the common people, both men and women, raised a great outcry against their fellow-Jews. Some complained that they were giving their sons and daughters as pledges for food to keep themselves alive; others that they were mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and houses to buy corn in the famine; others again that they were borrowing money on their fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.

You might perhaps expect at this point that Nehemiah, perhaps with an additional edict from King Cyrus, would have said that, for the greater good of the enterprise, they had to make sacrifices. ‘Blood, tears, toil and sweat’, in Churchillian terms, or something more prosaic but equally tough, like that which came out under Margaret Thatcher or George Osborne; you might expect to have heard an austerity message, but from 500 BCE. ‘Just make do and put up with less: there is no alternative.’

But no: look at the fascinating exchange which actually did come next.

‘But’, they said, ‘our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, and there is nothing we can do, because our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’

It’s an explicit appeal to the principles of human rights, that people have worth and enjoy rights, simply by virtue of their being human. It’s the sort of language which William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect used 150 years ago. Now Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, prohibits slavery and forced labour.

In Nehemiah’s world, slavery was normal. Some people were free, and some people were slaves. But of course slavery is not consistent with the idea of human rights – and those rights, for Christians, Jews and Moslems at least, come from God. We believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God: all are created in the image of God. Nehemiah understood and accepted that. This is what he wrote.

‘I was very angry when I heard their outcry and the story they told. I mastered my feelings and reasoned with the nobles and the magistrates. I said to them, ‘You are holding your fellow-Jews as pledges for debt.’ I rebuked them severely and said, ‘As far as we have been able, we have bought back our fellow-Jews who had been sold to other nations; but you are now selling your own fellow-countrymen, and they will have to be bought back by us!’ They were silent and had not a word to say. I went on, ‘What you are doing is wrong. You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

And he, Nehemiah, the governor, and his entourage, gave up their right to extract tribute from the local population, and indeed, in the next bit of the story you’ll see that Nehemiah and his colleagues even gave up their salaries, so that he didn’t put a burden on the local people.

Let us give up this taking of persons as pledges for debt. Give back today to your debtors their fields and vineyards, their olive-groves and houses, as well as the income in money, and in corn, new wine, and oil.’ ‘We will give them back’, they promised, ‘and exact nothing more. We will do what you say.’ So, summoning the priests, I put the offenders on oath to do as they had promised. Then I shook out the fold of my robe and said, ‘So may God shake out from his house and from his property every man who does not fulfil this promise. May he be shaken out like this and emptied!’

Who says that our religion and our sacred texts are not political? Nehemiah was a minister in the government of the king of Persia. He was for 12 years the governor of the land of Judah, and he made very important decisions, as we saw, affecting the personal taxation of the population. He abolished slavery in Judah. In Judah under Nehemiah, people had intrinsic worth, and they were not a commodity which could be bought and sold. But the reason for this, the justification for it, in Nehemiah’s eyes, was his ‘fear of God’.

‘You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

It wasn’t the case that religion was on one side, in a separate compartment, if you like, and practical matters such as politics were on the other. When I read this passage again the other day I was struck by its contemporary resonances: if some people are so poor that they are sold into slavery; if they lose their homes; have to borrow money to pay for food to eat.

‘Our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves.’

That could be a criticism of quite a lot of the Anglo-Saxon world today. In the USA we read that there are 13m people living below the poverty line. In this country, as I’m sure you’ll be fed up of hearing me tell you how many people have to resort to food banks. In this really prosperous area, in the borough of Elmbridge, there are three food banks, and in the Cobham one we are distributing an average of ¾ tonne of food every week.

And yet, by contrast, here we are, blessed with lovely houses, nice clothes, enough to eat, decent cars and all the good things of life. What are we supposed to do?

I went to a very interesting breakfast lecture given by a new recruit to the Diocesan staff, who is a very interesting minister, a newly-ordained Deacon called Jens Mankel, who has come to live and work in Guildford Diocese from a church in Frankfurt. It was all about making Christian faith a living reality, a compelling reality, in today’s world, here in Surrey.

We find it easy to have mother-and-toddler groups, women’s breakfasts, men’s breakfasts, parish lunches – what used to be called Agapés – ‘faith suppers’: good fellowship, love for our fellow men and women – but, perhaps we have to be honest – only up to a point. Very few of the people who come to the mother-and-toddler group actually come into church, or do anything that is a church activity. Some do: we have had some baptisms, and confirmations, which began at ‘Mothers and Others’: we have a number of volunteers working for the Foodbank who are active members of the various churches around here. Three of the trustees of the Foodbank are from St Mary’s, for example. But they’re only a minority.

But what are we doing about refugees? We now have seven refugee families in this area, and one Kurdish couple staying with me. Until people have obtained confirmation that they have been granted asylum here, they are not allowed to work, and they receive a hand-out of £35 a week. That makes it very hard to get by.

I would suggest that we ought, as a church, to adopt some outward giving charitable targets. Maybe one domestic focus and one overseas.

What do you think? If those aren’t the sort of things we should be involved in as a church, what else could we do, if we wish to follow Jesus? Do we feel compelled, do we feel that, like Martin Luther, we ‘can do no other’, because of the very fact of God and Jesus in our lives?

Or are we still to some extent tentative? Well, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. He who is not against us is for us. Perhaps I can call this ‘Nehemiah’s Challenge’. Put yourself in Nehemiah the governor’s shoes, but here in Cobham, in Stoke D’Abernon in 2019. What would you say, what would you do, if you were the Chief Executive? Who is your king?

For Nehemiah, Cyrus was his king. But more than any earthly king, Nehemiah feared – revered, respected, even loved – his Lord. I pray that it may be so for us too.

Michaelmas

Lessons at Mattins: Daniel 12.1-4, Acts 12.1-11, Psalm 150

Lessons at Evensong: Daniel 10.4-21, Revelation 5, Psalm 148

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=436417887

Against the background of the continuing wrangling over ‘Brexit’, I expect you might feel that it’s rather good that we are, today with all the Western church, celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Where are those angels, when we surely do need them?

First, let’ s define our terms. “Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are the three named biblical angels, depicted as the beloved messengers of God.” Αγγελος, in Greek, means, a messenger. “Michael, which means ‘who is like God?’, is described as protector of Israel and leader of the armies of God and is perhaps best known for his victory over the dragon, which is told in the Revelation to John.” [Rev. 12 – quotation from Brother Tristram SSF and Simon Kershaw, eds, (2007), Exciting Holiness, Norwich, Canterbury Press, p. 412].

Angels I – sermon delivered at Mattins

This morning I want to look at ‘angels’ in the Biblical context, and this evening I want to spend more time looking at the theology behind the idea of angels. Both this morning and tonight I will look at how angels could be relevant to our lives today.

Both this morning and this evening the lessons include passages from the Book of Daniel, which is almost as spectacularly weird a book as the Book of Revelation; indeed tonight, if you like apocalyptic stuff, you will get a double treat, because you will get passage from Daniel and a passage from Revelation. Definitely you are in the heavenly realm. As you read both of those passages, I think that merely earthly concerns will tend to fall away. Come tonight as well, and I’ll tell you about a very special guardian angel.

This morning we have heard a little passage from the twelfth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Daniel purports to be all about the people of Israel in exile in Babylon and then under the Persians, Syrians and Greeks, in such a way that Daniel, who was supposed to be along for the ride at all stages, would have had to have been alive for more than 400 years.

Scholars believe that the book wasn’t written at the time of the exile in Babylon, but 400 years later, about 200 BCE, after the Seleucid overthrow of the Ptolemies in Syria: the Syrians, the ‘Chaldeans’, and the resistance of the Jews led by the Maccabees. In this little vignette from Daniel’s visions we have actually what is the only explicit mention in the Old Testament of life after death. ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake.’ We know that the Pharisees did believe in life after death, but this is the only place in the Old Testament that you’ll actually see it spelt out. It’s pretty vague. The only thing to observe is that, if you read on beyond our passage, not everyone rises from the dead, but only the virtuous believers, the good and pious.

And the one who will lead the people of Israel against the evil Persian king in Daniel’s vision is Michael, ‘the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.’ Michael, whose name means, ‘Who is like God’.

And then we come to the adventures of the Acts of the Apostles: this one not one of St Paul’s adventures, but involving St Peter himself, being put in prison and being guarded by four ‘quaternions’ of soldiers.

If you look up what a ‘quaternion’ is, the most common usage today connotes a complicated piece of mathematics. But under ‘rare’ meanings, the dictionary lists the meaning we would expect, which is that a quaternion is a group of four, so we have 16 soldiers guarding Peter in prison. Nevertheless, when everybody was asleep, somebody came along and let him out. He thought he was dreaming, but he went through the city gates – which opened by themselves – and then found that he was on his own, that the man had disappeared – or rather, the angel had disappeared. St Peter woke up and said that it had been a messenger from God. It had been an angel.

The ‘Herod’ who had put him in prison was the grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I. Of course there is another miraculous escape from prison that Paul and Silas went through, in chapter 16 of the Acts. There they didn’t in fact run away, though there had been an earthquake and the doors of the gaol had been opened; ‘We are all here’, they said, and the grateful gaoler became baptised and was converted.

What are we to make of these angels? Later on in the chapter in Acts, St Peter went, after he’d been freed by the angel, to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. Initially he couldn’t get in. The maid, Rhoda, didn’t open the gate to let him in, but instead she went inside to tell everyone that Peter was outside, standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are nuts; you’re out of your mind’, but she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel’, meaning that it wasn’t really him.The idea was that a person’s spirit – their ghost – could somehow separate itself from their body and roam around on its own. It could be mistaken for that person. They did let him in eventually.

There’s that lovely passage in the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.

There is Michael, who is like God: so maybe in some senses an angel is God. In various places in the Bible there are hierarchies in heaven; in the Letter to the Hebrews, Psalm 8 is quoted:

‘What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?

You have made them little lower than the angels.’

Messengers of God. Maybe in future people will not really understand what a messenger was. The idea of having ‘brought the news from Ghent to Aix’, or that image from all those war films of the dusty dispatch rider on his Matchless 500 miraculously getting through a bombardment in order to give the news to the colonel in charge, just won’t make sense in an era of instant communication. Why do you need a messenger when you can use Skype?

When Peter was released from prison by the angel and went to the house where the faithful were praying for him, on the face of things we could say that their prayers had been answered. They were praying for him to be released, for sure. But perhaps we should be a little bit cautious about this. If we always pray for a guardian angel to come along and save us, or fix our problems, it’s like any other prayer. We can’t boss God about, even if we want to. We’re not addressing God as some kind of superhero boss, you know; ‘Please will you send your superman down to fix things for us.’ The most we can do is to pray, ‘Thy will be done’, and that God will do whatever is in accordance with his divine will.

I think we can infer from all this that what angels do, above all, their function in the divine economy, if you like, is that they are part of God’s revelation. They are one way that God makes Himself known to us. So if indeed something good happens, and an angel seems to be involved, then perhaps we can infer that we have had a glimpse of what God really intends. And given that it does look from time to time that there are guardian angels at work, that things happen, that things turn out, better than we could reasonably expect, for no apparent good reason, then we are tempted to say that it must be a guardian angel looking out for us. Why not? Why not let us give thanks to God for showing His love for us through an angel?

So let us in all humility give thanks to God for saints and angels, and for all the company of heaven.

Angels II – sermon delivered at Evensong

Tonight’s lessons are visions of heaven, or at least of heavenly beings. Daniel’s vision was of the ‘man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz’, and all the other amazing jewellery and other finery, whom no-one except Daniel could see, who told him about being ‘sent to him’, but being delayed, by being caught up in a battle involving ‘one of the chief princes, Michael’, against ‘the prince of Persia’.

It looks as though the angel, the messenger from God, is the man clothed in linen, rather than Michael, who is a leader of the Jewish army. But as I pointed out this morning, the Book of Daniel purports to cover a 400-year swathe of history, personally witnessed throughout by Daniel himself. Of course it isn’t that: scholars agree that it is a book written about 200 BCE, in the context of the people of Israel’s subjection to the Greeks – Alexander having conquered the Persians, who previously ruled Judah – and the history that Daniel claims to have witnessed from the exile in Babylon and Babylon’s conquest by Syria, and so on, is not accurate at all.

The book falls into two halves, the first six chapters being this quasi-history, or rather a series of stories, like the fiery furnace and the escape of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from it in the face of the anger of king Nebuchadnezzar; King Belshazzar’s feast, the writing on the wall, and the interpretation of it by Daniel; and Daniel’s escape from the lions in their den, having been saved by the Lord – and by his angel. That’s what it says.

The second part consists in Daniel’s visions. The one we have here, of the spectacular man in linen clothing, comes in a dream where Daniel hears from Gabriel – described as ‘the man Gabriel, whom I had already seen in the vision’ – because indeed, when he had a vision of a ram being attacked by a flying he-goat, he heard a human voice asking someone ‘with the semblance of a man’ standing in front of him by the river Ulai, ‘Gabriel, explain the vision to this man.’ The name Gabriel, we are told, means ‘the strength of God’. He appears in other parts of the Bible where he is clearly identified as an angel – most famously in the Annunciation to Mary, that she will become the mother of the Messiah.

Then we have the chapter from Revelation, where there is a ‘strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice’, asking who is worthy to open the Book of Life with its seven seals, the answer being the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain, the embodiment of the humility, and at the same time the power, of God.

These visions of ‘saints and angels, and the whole company of heaven’ are clearly not meant to be literally interpreted. ‘Heaven’ isn’t a place; it isn’t, as indeed Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, is supposed to have reported, a glittering mountain above the clouds. It’s more of an idea, a concept. God and the realm of God is beyond our comprehension – indeed the idea of a ‘realm’, in the sense of a particular place, also doesn’t make sense. God is, more or less by definition, everywhere.

In most of the angel stories in the Bible, the angel appears to someone in a dream. For instance you will recall the stories of Jacob’s Ladder; of Jacob seeing a vision, in a dream, of angels ascending and descending into heaven; and the warning to Mary and Joseph in a dream not to take the baby Jesus back home to Nazareth, which saved him from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; and so on.

I think that angels are more personal, more targeted in their message towards a particular individual than the prophets. Prophets, on the other hand, proclaim to the world at large the word which they receive from God.

But why do people believe in, or at least feel so positive towards, the idea of angels? Why do people talk about having ‘guardian angels’? I myself talked that way last autumn, almost exactly a year ago. I’ll tell you the story.

I had gone to bed as usual at about 11 o’clock, and after reading three lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I was sleeping the sleep of the just. But at about 3am I suddenly woke up, shivering violently in a way I had never experienced before. It was very worrying. I decided that I needed a Beecham’s Powder. I took one, and the shivering gradually subsided. Then I realised that I was feverish, and that my right ankle and shin were sore and swollen.

I went back to bed, thinking that I’d caught some fluey bug – the sort of thing that some people call ‘man flu’ (which is a misconception, of course) – and that if I stayed in bed for a day or so, took more Beecham’s Powders and possibly had a snort or two of Scotch, I would be fine. At 9 o’clock I woke up again, phoned all the people that I was going to see that day, and cancelled my appointments. I relaxed, took another Beecham’s Powder, and went back to bed.

About an hour later, my daughter Emma rang me, completely out of the blue. She is a head-and-neck surgeon, and last year she was a surgical registrar in a hospital in Bristol. She was between operations on her morning list. In the post that morning, her new iPhone X had arrived. In between operations, she was trying it out.

‘I know’, she said to herself, ‘I’ll ring Dad and see how he is’. And that’s what she did. I told her how I was. She said she didn’t like the sound of it, and would come and see me. I told her not to worry. I’d taken the Beecham’s Powders and I would be absolutely fine in the morning.

Actually, in the morning, I wasn’t fine. My leg had really swollen up, and I felt pretty ghastly. But before I had had time to worry much about it, Emma was there. She’d scooped up my little grandson Jim, who’s now nearly three, and driven from Bristol first thing. An hour later I was admitted to Epsom Hospital with what she had correctly diagnosed, over the phone, as sepsis.

Those of you who follow the Archers will know that sepsis will see you off in 48 hours, or at the very least cause you to have limbs amputated, if it’s not treated very quickly. I had about 24 hours to live when I was admitted. Emma had saved her Dad’s life.

Emma had no good reason to ring me. It wasn’t a regular phone call spot. We didn’t have any special news to tell each other – or rather, she didn’t have any special news to tell me. What gave her the idea to call me? We’ll never know – but I know that she saved me, and that it felt as though she was really my guardian angel.

Who knows whether that makes coherent theological sense? All I do know, is that I did feel very blessed. God had cared for me, and had sent Emma as His angel. How wonderful thou art!

I don’t know whether it is more than just a nice heartening story. A sceptic would surely say that. Even comparing it with the Biblical angel stories, Emma certainly didn’t remember any dreams, with angels telling her to ring home in them.

We like to experience visions, or to use our imagination to create worlds. Think of the popularity of those epic TV sagas like Game of Thrones – or indeed the upstairs-downstairs world of Downton Abbey. For most people that world, that world of the landed aristocracy in a bygone age, could be just as much a figment of the imagination as Game of Thrones. Maybe indeed the visions in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the pictures in glorious Technicolor of the heavenly realms, the images of God on his throne surrounded by his angels and with the Lamb at his right hand, sitting on golden thrones; maybe those visions are just that, dream sequences, myths which our own minds have produced.

We are attracted – perhaps in the way that we feel a pull to look over the edge of a precipice – to the idea of the end time, to the Apocalypse, the great revealing, the great Revelation, and the final judgement, the separation of the sheep from the goats.

Poor old goats – they’re always the baddies. Just as in Daniel’s vision of the Lamb and the he-goat, and again at the end of time. The Jews had their idea of the Scapegoat, another poor goat on to whose horns all the sins were metaphorically, sacramentally tied in a red cloth by the priests, who drove the poor animal out to starve in the desert. He died for their sins. He took upon himself the burden of their sin. Just as we say Jesus did for us.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856)

Liberal theologians like John Robinson, in Honest to God, and Don Cupitt, in The Sea of Faith, or Paul Tillich,have argued that God isn’t a thing, defined in time and space, but rather is the heart of our being, or that God goes beyond, transcends, all existence; so perhaps in a similar way angels, angels appearing to us in dreams, may not exist in the same way that tables and chairs exist: but it is perfectly in order for us to fantasise about them, to make pictures in our minds of them, in our semi-conscious moments. And I still think that my daughter Emma has an angel behind her. I hope and pray that you, when you are in need, are as fortunate as I was. I really think that God sent me an angel.

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?