Sermon for Evening Prayer on Saturday 7th March 2020 for the Prayer Book Society Guildford Branch, at the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse

Jeremiah 7:1-20; John 6:27-40 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=450504242)

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

I want to speak to you not just about the bread of life, but also about baked beans and sausages. At the same time we can’t ignore that it is the end of the first week in Lent.

The baked beans and sausage, you might be a bit surprised to hear, bring into consideration two theologians, one ancient and one modern, and the bread and the Lent give us a topical Christian context for that food, which is, fasting.

And I suppose that the other ingredient which I need to work in is some reference to our beloved Book of Common Prayer, and the theological developments which Cranmer was influenced by in writing it.

The first thing to reassure you about is that there is no command to fast in the Gospels – except that Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it. So the days laid down for fasting in Leviticus, for example on the Day of Atonement, mean that it’s not strictly true that there’s no Biblical justification for fasting.

As you will know, the Reformation, which greatly influenced Cranmer, was led certainly by Martin Luther in Germany but also by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written, ‘It was a sausage that proved to be the rallying-cry for the Swiss Reformation.’ A Zurich printer, Christoph Froschauer, with Zwingli and 12 of his followers in Zurich sat down on the first Sunday in Lent in 1522 and ate two large sausages. Zwingli followed up by preaching a sermon in which he argued that it was unnecessary to follow the church’s traditional teaching about not eating meat during Lent. It was a human command introduced by the Church, which might or might not be observed, but which ‘obscured the real laws of God in the Gospel if it was made compulsory’. [MacCulloch, D., 2003, Reformation, London, Allen Lane, p139]. Cranmer and Zwingli are supposed to have met, and the Swiss reformer is thought to have influenced the English archbishop.

So that’s the sausage. In the Reformation context, according to Zwingli, fasting is not divinely ordained. It’s up to you.

Not but what by the time of the Second Book of Homilies, published in the Church of England in Queen Elizabeth’s time, in 1563, whose author was Bishop Jewel, there was a published sermon – a Homily – called ‘Of Fasting’, Homily number 16. The Homilies were intended for the use of vicars who were not good at preaching, so they didn’t make any theological mistakes. We tend to think of a ‘homily’ as a short sermon – the sort that the vicar doesn’t get into the pulpit to deliver, but perhaps hovers invisibly on the chancel steps for; something like Thought for the Day in size and weight. Not so in 1563! ‘An Homily of Good Works and of Fasting’ is in two parts, the first being about fasting, and in the modern edition which I have, it occupies 8 ½ pages of very dense small type!

Some of the early Christian Fathers such as Irenaeus or Chrysostom or Tertullian or Gregory the Great all debated how long a fast should go on for. The possibilities included one day, as on the Jewish Day of Atonement, or 40 hours, mirroring Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, or indeed 40 days of fasting.

The ‘Annotated Book of Common Prayer’, edited by the Revd John Henry Blunt, published in 1872, which I’m very fortunate to have a copy of, says this.

The general mode of fasting seems to have been to abstain from food until after 6 o’clock in the afternoon and even then not to partake of animal food or wine. Yet it may be doubted whether such a mode of life could have been continued day after day for six weeks by those whose duties called upon them for much physical exertion… and although it may seem at first that men ought to be able to fast in the 19th century as strictly as they did in the 16th, the 12th, or the third, yet it should be remembered that the continuous labour of life was unknown to the great majority of persons in ancient days, as it is at the present time in the eastern church and in southern Europe; and that the quantity and quality of the food which now forms a full meal is only equivalent to what would have been an extremely spare one until comparatively modern days.’

The Victorians were too busy safely to fast, and their meals were cuisine minceur by comparison with the groaning boards enjoyed in olden times. Think of what we know of Henry VIII’s diet, or Sir John Falstaff’s. Having a rest from eating was probably very good for them, and there was no risk of starving. Come the industrial revolution, however, and meat and two veg in the works canteen was all you might have. If you gave that up, ‘night starvation’, as the Horlicks advert used to warn, was a real possibility unless you had some nourishment at least.

But it’s at least arguable that Jesus, in our lesson from St John’s Gospel, wasn’t talking about the ins and outs of fasting. [6:27] ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you..’ This leads up to one of the great ‘I am’ sayings in St John’s Gospel, ‘I am the bread of life’. Just as the name of God as He spoke to Moses in the Old Testament was ‘I am’, so in these sayings, Jesus is using the same form of words, giving a sign of his divine nature. And we are no longer thinking about whether or not to eat a sausage. This is spiritual, divine food, ‘meat which endureth unto everlasting life’.

And that, you’ll be amazed to know, brings us to baked beans, and to our second theologian. He is Jürgen Moltmann, the great German theologian, some time Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. (That is the same university at which Pope Benedict taught, once upon a time.) Moltmann is in his 90s now, and so it was a great honour for me to attend his lecture this week at Westminster Abbey, called ‘Theology of Hope’. This was the title of one of his famous books.

Prof. Moltmann comes originally from Hamburg. His excellent English still has the same accent that I know so well from my friends there in the shipping world. He was a boy when Hamburg was bombed, bombed by us, when there was the terrible ‘fire storm’ about which Kurt Vonnegut and others have written so eloquently. Moltmann was conscripted into the German army, and on Monday night he told us he had carefully learned two words of English, which he used when his platoon encountered the British Army for the first time. They were, ‘I surrender’. He told his audience that the abiding memory of his time as a prisoner of war was baked beans – which like all boys, he liked, and I think he still likes, very much.

So if the sausage in our baked beans and sausage is redolent of the Reformation, and the creation of the Book of Common Prayer, so the baked beans lead us to Jürgen Moltmann, and his Theology of Hope. What is this hope?

Moltmann saw, and still sees in the world today, great challenges in our life. They represent death, or even separation from God, which is another way of describing sin. Climate change, the destruction of God’s creation; nuclear war, where the use of nuclear weapons would end the world as we know it, because no-one could survive the nuclear winter. Division and separation among peoples instead of unity and co-operation; the erection or rebuilding of borders in contravention of God’s creation of all peoples as equals. The end time – what will happen when we die?

Maybe it’s not fanciful to say that this, this climate of despair, is somewhat reminiscent of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Lent is the right time for this kind of reflection.

Moltmann has argued that we should not despair or become nihilistic in the face of these challenges. Whereas we are often encouraged to have ‘faith’ when we have to confront these existential threats, Moltmann has suggested that what we really need, and what really reflects the presence of God in our lives, is hope. Hope, rather than faith.

For example, in the committal prayer at a funeral, the body is buried ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. You might think that what you need at that end time, at the end of life, is faith, a strong faith. But Moltmann says no, not faith, but hope is what we need. The fact, the great revelation, of Jesus’ life on earth gives us the grounds for hope. It is more than a bare belief, more than blind faith. If I hope for something, I reasonably expect that it will be possible. It’s more than an intellectual construct.

So there we are. Baked Beans and Sausages. Should we abstain from bread, or meat, or drink? Certainly not from the Bread of Life. But if even our spiritual bread is disappearing, overwhelmed in the apocalypse, in what looks like the end time, then what? 500 years ago Zwingli said, don’t stop enjoying your sausage – give thanks to God for his bounty. In the smoking ruins of that great city of Hamburg at the end of WW2, Moltmann discovered Baked Beans, and with them, divine hope. I hope that that will give you some food for thought this Lent.

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.

Sermon for 4th October 2020 – St Michael and All Angels (transferred from 29th September); St Francis of Assisi: Animal Welfare Sunday: on Zoom

Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 15:3-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=468720899)

St Francis of Assisi (unknown artist), from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi/images-videos, accessed 8th October 2020

Today we commemorate St Michael and All Angels, and St Francis and his love for animals. 

Blessings of the animals and pet services are usually great fun, especially for the children – although perhaps a bit less so for their parents, who have to catch the hamsters, cats and other exotic creatures which escape from their baskets during the service. We don’t have that problem, because all our pets are with us at home and they are only appearing and being blessed, like us, on Zoom. But I still think that it is important that our beloved animals, our furry friends, should have the benefit of a blessing at least once a year. In saying Saint Francis’ prayer and in blessing the animals, as we’re going to do, we are giving thanks for all God’s work in creation. 

But what about those angels? I am what is called a liberal theologian, which means (among other things) that I am not wedded to taking everything in the Bible absolutely literally. I think this passage about war breaking out in heaven and the battle between Michael and his angels and the Dragon, known as Satan and the Devil on other occasions, is a good case in point. I dare say if we were in the south of Italy, where they are more used to miracles, we would hear this lesson from the book of Revelation without batting an eyelid. We wouldn’t be too troubled about exactly where heaven was or what the Dragon really represented – or indeed possibly who the Devil was. But we do understand the contrast between good and evil and the way in which frequently, in order to uphold the right and the good, there has to be a battle. 

‘Guido Reni’s resplendently theatrical depiction of St Michael, part Roman soldier, part ballet dancer, was painted in 1635 and can be seen in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome.’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon at https://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/itp-238-st-michael-archangel-by-guido-reni.html, accessed 8th October 2020)

We will notice in passing that it is not George who slays the Dragon but Michael, although the stories are a bit similar. Also there is seemingly a second fight. It’s not just Michael. The good angels have conquered the serpent as well, the Dragon, ‘by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony and by their willingness to die’ for the cause.

So there are perhaps two stories here. One is the story of the war in heaven between Archangel Michael and the great dragon, a.k.a. Lucifer, the devil; and the other, where salvation is achieved and victory over evil by the blood of the lamb. 

In Jewish tradition there is this idea of a scapegoat, which could also be a ‘scape-lamb’; you read in Leviticus chapter 16 how this is supposed to work sacramentally, where all the sins of the people are symbolically loaded on the back of a lamb or a goat which is then cast off into the desert. In a sacramental sense, the scapegoat ‘takes the burden’ of the people’s sins, and dies for those sins. You can say that the lamb died for the sake of the people’s sin. It is very similar to the idea of what Jesus has done, ‘dying for our sins’ on the cross.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Liberal theologians like me have difficulty with the idea that a loving God would have demanded a human sacrifice, but certainly we can follow the development of the idea of the ‘atonement’, as it is called, by Jesus on the cross, by looking at the Jewish tradition of the scapegoat. 

You might think, from this story of the scapegoat, that people at the time of Jesus might not have been very nice to animals. But I don’t think we can necessarily draw that conclusion. There are many instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to love and care for animals. In the sermon on the Mount: ‘Behold the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them’ [Matt.6:26]; and as we can see in the parable of the lost sheep and indeed the other parable of the good Shepherd, Jesus certainly didn’t just think of lambs in the context of sacrifice, but rather as animals to love and care for. 

And this is one of the things which produced Saint Francis of Assisi’s distinctive theology, his famous preaching to the animals and his love for all creation. ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Brother Moon’, for instance. So on this feast of Saint Francis of Assisi it’s entirely right that we should bless the animals and bring them before the Lord in prayer. In a minute I will ask you to find your pets or pet pictures and put them up for a blessing.

But first, a final thought. This is the last of these Zoom Eucharists and we have become, I think, a proper little congregation. A proper little flock. Soon we will return to the various churches that we came from, as they are able to reopen for worship.

It seems to me that it would be nice to do something, to give some tangible expression to our gathering in the name of the Lord, every Sunday for the last few months. We could, of course, pass the plate round, and we would have to do it virtually using PayPal or something similar. But I think I’ve got a better idea. 

It occurred to me that on the day when we are blessing the animals, we should try to help our various zoos – Regent’s Park,  Whipsnade, Chester and Bristol (where I still hear Johnny Morris in my head) and all the others. They are all having a very hard time. Feeding all the animals at Regent’s Park, at London Zoo, for example, costs £1 million per month. So my suggestion is that, as we give thanks for creation and all the wonderful animals that the Lord has created, we should all consider taking a trip to the nearest zoo to where we are in the next week or two. I think that zoos are eminently safe places to visit even in the Covid epidemic, and the price of admission, if enough people turn up, will help to restore their finances. [Donations – https://tinyurl.com/y2m75jd4, https://www.chesterzoo.org/support-us/, https://bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/bristol-zoological-society-appeal, or to help a wonderful zoo in Hamburg, https://www.hagenbeck.de/de/_news/tierpark/Unterstuetzung_FAQ.php ]

We shouldn’t forget that the animals themselves will be very pleased to see us, because, as we ourselves have found, being locked down in quarantine with nobody to see is very lonely and no fun. I think that Jesus the Good Shepherd would want you to find out where your nearest zoo is and go and see all the lovely animals in it, very soon. 

Blessing of the Animals

Now we are going to bless all animals. If you have any with you, or any pictures of animals whom you used to have, please do bring them into the picture.

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. 

You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. 

You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. 

We ask you to bless all animals, and those which are or were our pets. 

By the power of your love, enable them to live in peace and harmony. 

May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. 

Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures!

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 6th September 2020

Matt. 18:15-20 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=466402456

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about people and things that I disagree with. Not just because I’m a cantankerous old bloke – although that may well be true – but because I think that we seem to be going through a period when attitudes are hardening and people seem less inclined, in some areas, to try to meet each other half way and settle their differences.

You know, what do people think about some of the controversies out there today? What do people think about refugees? Immigration? Black Lives Matter? What about Cecil Rhodes – that one’s near to home for me, as I’m the secretary of the Oriel College alumni. Do people think the government is doing a good job? Does an MP represent all their constituents, or just the ones who elected them? I’m not asking you to express a view, but just to focus on the thought that these are some of the things that people disagree very strongly about today.

Jesus was telling his disciples how to deal with disputes in the early church. ‘Try to reason with someone; if they won’t come round to your point of view, take a couple of the others with you and see if they’ll be impressed by the fact that it’s not just you who thinks in a certain way, so they’ll realise they’re the one who’s got it wrong. If that doesn’t convince them, put it to the congregation, and see what they all think.

But of course, if the person still won’t change, you’ll have to kick them out, and once again they’ll just be like the great unwashed, not with us anymore; beyond the pale.

And if you follow this plan, you’ll be doing the right thing. However you play it, it will be made in heaven. Because whenever two or three of you get together for something to do with the church, I’m going to be right there alongside you.’

It sounds good. Just follow these simple ideas and all will be sweetness and light. But unfortunately, it isn’t. As well as the controversies that I’ve mentioned, what about the ones which are in the church itself, even today, about same-sex marriage, for example?

You might say, see what the Bible says. But finding a definitive answer is more complicated than just turning up our Bibles to find out what Jesus told us, and trying to carry out literally what we find there.

That’s partly because the Bible often needs some interpretation. Translations can get in the way. For instance here: ’Try to reason with someone’ – what sort of someone? Someone who, according to what we’ve just read, is ‘a member of the church’, who ‘sins’ against you.

Actually what the Greek original says, is, ‘If your brother makes a mistake’. In recent years we have adopted a translation which says that the word ‘brother’ in this kind of context, about the early church, means ‘brother or sister’, and that they were called that as a way of identifying them as Christians, members of the church.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter. But to me, the word ‘brothers’ (and certainly I would accept that ‘brother’ in this means also ‘sister’) means a relationship much closer than mere ‘membership’. I’ve paid my subscription; but do you know? I hardly ever go to that club.

What has the other member, or the brother, even, done? Have they ‘sinned’? The word is a Greek word (ἀμαρτήσῃ) which is often translated as to ‘sin’. It means originally to ‘miss the mark’, or miss the target. Theologians today interpret the idea of ‘sin’ not so much as a mistake, a missed target, but as a separation from God, which is much more serious.

If someone is up the pole, or has got the wrong end of the stick, you may well want to put them straight. But how can you convince them that you are right and they are wrong? Jesus suggests that there is power in numbers. If loads of you all think that black is white, maybe I should believe you.

People dig in and become stubborn when they think that fundamental truths are being challenged. But I just wonder what would become of some of those entrenched views, if we were a bit more tentative rather than always being dogmatic. Is it really so fundamental that if you don’t come round to my way of thinking, I may have to ditch our friendship and have nothing more to do with you? If it’s really a ‘sin’, maybe so. But if it’s just an honest mistake? Surely not.

Just in passing, this passage in St Matthew does have in it a phrase which came from the translations – it started in the King James Bible, or perhaps with Tyndale – which bugs me. That is verse 18 of chapter 18: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

What is this ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’? To ‘loose’ something isn’t even English these days. We might ‘loosen’ something; but the real sense of the word is something like to ‘untie’ or ‘release’ something. And I don’t mean that common spelling mistake where people write ‘loose’ when they mean ‘lose’. I don’t think that’s what it is here. And ‘binding’? The idea is the same as the making of an agreement or a contract, a symbolic binding – or indeed a throw-back to parchment scrolls, mementoes of old agreements, bound, tied up, with string – just as barristers’ briefs are still bound up with pink string today.

So it’s something serious, so serious that its documents are bound up in pink string. But the modern translators must have been having a tough day somewhere else when ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ came up. Those are no longer the right words. Something like ‘forbid’ and ‘allow’ is better. Not ‘loose’, please.

So – how are we to know, who is right or not? It makes me think a bit about what the Archbishop of Canterbury said about Brexit, that we should learn to ‘disagree well’. One commentator (the former Dean of Exeter, Dr Jonathan Draper, in ‘Modern Believing, 61.2 2020 at p.120, see https://doi.org/10.3828/mb.2020.7)’ has written, for example, that ‘The process of Brexit has exposed our failures to listen’. He’s saying that we aren’t agreeing with one another because we haven’t really listened to each other’s point of view. That sounds good. But surely there is no point listening, if what is being said is nonsense.

I’m a bit puzzled also by the words that, according to St Matthew, Jesus used to describe people whom we can’t persuade, who are therefore to be kicked out, beyond the pale. You must treat them as you would a ‘heathen or a tax-collector’. But surely Jesus was quite happy to hang around with tax collectors and sinners, wasn’t He? Maybe, given that he was talking to his disciples, who were Jewish, it made sense to use a description they would recognise of people whom they wouldn’t have anything to do with, such as unbelievers and the hated taxmen.

So what did Jesus say we should do, to resolve these knotty disagreements? I think that that’s the point of His famous saying about where two or three are gathered together.

He’s saying that as Christians we should act in the knowledge that He, the risen Christ, is there among us. And our churches should not shy away from confronting those things which are not consistent with his commandments of love.

Sometimes people do say, ‘What would Jesus have done?’ Or ‘What would Jesus do?’ And it’s not hard to know, really, if we feel him present with us, in His Holy Spirit. Then as St Paul put it, we are ‘in Christ.’ Christ is in us. So come, Lord Jesus. Two or three of us are gathered together in your name.

‘Rule, Britannia,

Britannia rules the waves,

And Britons never, never, never

Shall be slaves.’

The fuss about not having the words to ‘Rule, Britannia’ and “Land of Hope and Glory“ at the Last Night of the Proms this year is not something which should be dismissed as “cringing embarrassment about our history“, as the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has described it. 

This is not something which only bleeding-heart liberals, so-called, have raked up; it is, though, a surprise. These quasi-national anthems, thumpingly delivered to 6,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall, are deeply embedded in our culture. It feels a bit unnatural to be parsing them in detail to see what they actually mean. 

They are surely, it will be said, just harmless noise, collectively joined in by everybody at occasions like the Last Night of the Proms, where we celebrate our Britishness. Why make a fuss? The problem is that when the Prime Minister talks about our stopping ‘our embarrassment about our history’, we ought to ask, “Who are ‘we’, who are being told not to be embarrassed about ‘our’ history?”

Nesrine Malik, of the Guardian, has written a very cogent article (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/24/british-hypocrisy-migrants?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other) about British hypocrisy in the context of questions of race. There is widespread support for the idea behind Black Lives Matter; and I think that most British people are appalled at what has come out about the WINDRUSH scandal; but, as Nesrine Malik has pointed out, very few people seem to make the connection between Black Lives Matter, racial profiling by the police, the ‘hostile environment’ so-called (euphemistically retitled the ‘compliant’ environment) pursued by the Home Office in relation to immigration, and the fact that there is a huge majority in parliament for the party which is responsible for these reprehensible policies. This has done nothing to improve the lot of black people, and indeed the situation is arguably worse now. 

So who are “we”, for whom Boris Johnson thinks “… it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history”? And who are the ‘Britons’ who ‘never … shall be slaves’? I’ve been to the Last Night of the Proms. There were very few black people there. To the extent that a cultural tradition is being celebrated it is not the cultural tradition of everyone in the UK. The ‘we’ that Boris Johnson refers to are not black Britons. To “rule the waves” (something which modern maritime law, for reasons of safety at sea, makes very difficult in the English Channel, for example), is an expression which can only make sense in the context of empire. 

But why on earth should one nation have any right to rule over any others? This is a completely outdated concept, susceptible to the usual zero-sum analysis: forasmuch as it is good to rule, it is correspondingly worse to be ruled – and in this country today we have representatives who have experienced both. 

Only one side could worry about having any ‘cringing embarrassment’ about their history. For the other side, their history is all about the indignities of being ruled. 

By all means let us learn about it, not in unthinking celebration, but in the same way that Germans are encouraged to ensure that they do not forget the history of the Holocaust. By the same token, we should not forget what we did to our colonial subjects in the past. 

You see, it’s absolutely vital to identify your point of view. 

If you are a white Anglo-Saxon you have a view of history which is entirely different from what a black person of African or Indian or West Indian heritage will have. Neither white nor black is inherently more worthy.

So if people come forward to say that it is wrong to suppress ‘wholesome songs which draw the nation together’, such as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’, this should be challenged. They do not draw all the nation together, but only some of it, the white Anglo-Saxon bit. The others, a substantial minority, are not drawn together so much as repelled and made to feel alien in their own country.

I freely admit that, because I am an elderly white Anglo-Saxon, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was a bad side to ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. But (apart from the fact that they are hopelessly corny, and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is horribly pompous) they are bad; in the light of our raised consciousness now, perhaps as a result of Black Lives Matter, we know better. Just as racist football chants have been outlawed on the terraces, middle-class colonialist racist and nationalist anthems equally should be put aside. 

Surely there is a challenge for the Poet Laureate or another poet – Roger McGough, say – to bring out some new words to the old tunes. What would a modern ‘Rule Britannia’ celebrate? Surely not world domination. 

Instead, a national anthem (or its surrogate) should surely be celebrating our friendship with other nations and our reliability as trading partners; our upholding the rule of law, both internally and internationally; and our charitable outlook, welcoming refugees. Now where is John Betjeman, when we need him most?

Hugh Bryant

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=464171095

‘And Mary said, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Really? Is that really what Mary, the mother of Jesus, said? Now what Mary is reported by Luke as saying, saying to the other rather unlikely mother, Elisabeth, the wife of Zechariah, was, of course, not transcribed from a dictaphone recording. Dr Luke was writing it up, 40 or 50 years later. These are the words that Luke felt that Mary would most likely have said, after the angel Gabriel had visited her and told her that she would have a baby who would be the Son of God. Picture the scene. ‘Hello Mary! I’m an angel. Call me Gabriel. You’re going to have a baby. He is going to be the Son of God.’ Y’know. As you do.

As you do? No – you don’t. It’s not a normal thing. What would you have said, if you were in Mary’s place? Some of Mary’s words are, indeed, what you’d expect her to have said: but other bits are more hypothetical, more speculative; they come more from St Luke, from Luke reflecting on the true meaning of the earth-shattering event which Mary was about to undergo. On the one hand, there is nothing too far-fetched about having Mary say, ‘My spirit rejoices’ because ‘.. he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. She’s saying, God has chosen me, an ordinary girl, to do the second most important thing for the world after its original creation. That is the sort of thing you’d have expected Mary to have said.

But what about this other bit: ‘… he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’, or ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’? Is that really something that Mary would have said? Because those are really quite revolutionary ideas. Let’s think a bit about them.

When Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, so far as we know, the rich were still comfortably situated; the Emperor, the Roman emperor, still had his clothes – and his mighty armies. The lowly were still poor and lowly. The hungry were still hungry. God hadn’t actually done any of the things which Mary was supposed to be celebrating.

St Luke was putting words into Mary’s mouth, thinking what Gabriel’s visit to Mary really meant. It meant that God wanted to upset the established order. Luke knew what Jesus was going to do, what the true values would be, in the Kingdom of God. No more inequality; no more rich people getting more in one day than whole countries’ worth of what ordinary people could earn in their lifetimes.

You know that Jeff Bezos, the boss of Amazon, is said to have ‘earned’ – well, earned; perhaps a better word would be ‘come by’, or ‘trousered’, or ‘blagged’ – $14billion in one day, recently. And, incidentally, he tried to reduce the salaries of his employees on the same day. What a hero. Now God, according to Mary in the Magnificat, would definitely ‘send the rich away empty’. That means Mr Bezos. Amazon Prime to Amazon Zero. God will send the rich away empty.

Mary’s words, Mary’s rant, even, is a vision of the Kingdom of God. What do we think about that? Do we just hope, and pray, that things will eventually, miraculously, become fairer, and no-one will want for anything? Because if so, after 2,000 years, we’re still waiting. Or do we believe that God needs people, people to be His hands and feet, to be his eyes and ears?

If that’s how it’s supposed to work, then what the the Kingdom needs is activists. It needs people who are prepared to work really hard to change things for the better. Maybe their activism will even verge on being revolutionary. Activists. So who are these activists? Are there any activists about today?

I found some the other day, in what might seem to be a rather unlikely place. They were in ‘Vogue’ magazine. Yes really, ‘Vogue’. I’m hoping we can show the cover of the latest edition on our screen. There it is.

There on the front cover with the supermodel Adwoa Aboah, is Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, who made a fuss and persuaded the government to provide school meals for poor children during the holidays; and inside there are many more people who are called the ‘faces of hope’, working in many ways as activists to bring hope where previously there was none.

I assure you that I’m not a secret employee of the publishers Condé Nast. I’m not on commission based on how many copies of Vogue you buy. But it is worth a look. There are many inspiring stories – and, reflecting the rise of Black Lives Matter, for once the stars in this glossiest magazine are all black. Beautiful black people.

Hmm. In the Song of Songs the bride sings – as you can hear in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 – ‘Nigra sum, sed formosa’, ‘I am black, but beautiful’. ‘But’ beautiful. That’s the only false note in that beautiful song. Not ‘but’ beautiful, but ‘and’ beautiful is what it should be. And the editor of ‘Vogue’ has celebrated that. He is Edward Enninful, and he is an activist.

What else about these activists? A common feature of all their stories is that they all say their activism builds a sense of community, or having values and friendship in common with each other. So would the Blessed Virgin Mary count as an activist today?

I’m sure she would – maybe in a similar way to some of the beautiful people portrayed in ‘Vogue’, as icons to be followed, to be copied. Faces of hope.

Because what else does this make you think about? Surely we can loop back from our world today to the first century AD. The stories of the activists in Vogue are very reminiscent of the stories of the early Christians. They were activists; they were a community; they had everything in common. They would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. Build up your community – support your local food bank, say – isn’t that just another way of saying, ‘Love your neighbour’?

That might prompt you to think again about Mary’s song, Mary’s rant, the Magnificat, as it’s called. Because ‘magnificat’ is Latin for ‘bigged up’, ‘magnified’, ‘made more of’; as the hymn puts it: ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’. And the Magnificat, sung by a cathedral choir, is one of the highlights in Evensong, that lovely service, that you can hear on Radio 3 twice a week – this afternoon at 3 and then on Wednesday at the same time – or on any day in the Cathedral at 5.30 (in normal times). It’s something you might just let flow over you in its beauty. Well, you mustn’t stop enjoying the Magnificat – but do remember that it is a call to action, to be an activist, for God.

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 2nd August 2020

Matthew 14:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=463368596

When I saw that the Gospel reading for today was the story of the feeding of the 5000, my first reaction was to be very pleased. Everybody knows that story, and there are lots of things that you can say, that it illustrates, about Jesus and his teaching. It’s in all the gospels, but in St Matthew’s version, which Gail has just read for us, we have the least detailed version. For example it does not talk, as some of the other gospels do, about Jesus getting the people to sit down in groups of 50. 100 groups of 50 people – that really brings home the scale of the feeding problem.

There are lots of things that you can talk about. Bishop Jo, in her sermon for today, which you can see on YouTube, (see https://youtu.be/EqGmtC-Rlio) concentrates on Jesus’ order to the people to sit down. She spends quite a lot of time on the theology of sitting down, and also how to tell people how to sit down. Apparently when she and her husband Sam Wells were working in the United States, at Duke University in North Carolina, he got taken to task for saying to people, ‘Please sit down’, which apparently is not sufficiently polite. In the southern States the correct thing to say is, ‘You may sit down’. Sitting down and taking it easy for a moment has its benefits.

And then again, you can make a lot out of Jesus looking up to heaven, blessing and breaking the loaves of bread, (and, presumably, doing something similar with the fish), and then distributing them; it certainly could remind you of Holy Communion, and perhaps is supposed to be a sign that Jesus was pointing forward, towards that sacrament.

We use the expression ‘to break bread together’ as a shorthand for having a meal, and I have heard preachers deliver long and abstruse analyses of the menu on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day; that Jesus was handing out fish and chips, or rather, not literally fish and chips, but the Palestinian equivalent.

It’s interesting that there has been some fuss on social media recently because Mr Rees-Mogg, the MP, has a sister, who rejoices in the name of Annunziata, who has been giving advice to poor people about the virtues of making their own chips as opposed to buying them ready-made. It doesn’t touch on the question whether poor people, or indeed any people, should be eating chips, especially these days, in the light of the Prime Minister‘s campaign for the people to lose weight.

As some of you know, two weeks ago I ceased to be the general manager of Cobham Area Foodbank, after seven years, right back to the foundation of the Foodbank. I still have a tendency to see things relevant to food banks in all sorts of different contexts.

So obviously, Jesus feeding the 5000, in fact feeding them with something that Burger King used to refer to as a Fish King, a piece of fish in a burger bun, (or anyway wrapped in bread) – which was much loved by my children when they were little – that reminds me of all those times when I had to answer questions about what food people should donate to the food bank.

A Fish King from Burger King

What do poor people eat? Well, I would explain that the Foodbank gives out a nutritionally balanced parcel intended to sustain a family until the next time that the Foodbank opens. In our case this was one week. It is not the case that we just provide pasta and beans and other cheap things, because, as I tried to explain, the Foodbank clients, poor people who can’t afford to buy food, are human beings.

They are not a special breed of people who only live on pasta and beans. They are human beings just like you and me. So the real answer to the question, ‘What shall I give to the Foodbank?’ is not what’s cheap, but rather, “What would you like to eat?” And what would you think would be good to eat and nutritious? You don’t live on baked beans all the time – or at least I really hope that you don’t – and it’s the same with food bank clients. They need a variety of things. They need protein, even if it comes in tins.

Well I could have gone into great detail about that, and compared Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s recommended diet for poor people with what a food bank actually provides, noting on the way that Jesus followed the same principles as our Foodbank. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ – because, He provided some fish as well.

But the thing is that I bet that none of you actually think of this story as being just about all those rather abstruse points. Indeed I get a bit fed up when I hear sermons which don’t deal with the obvious things which I think leap out of stories in the Bible.

The obvious thing, that you would notice when you read it for the first time, is that Jesus somehow managed to feed 5000 people – or actually more than 5000 people, because it says that it was 5000 men, plus women and children – with five loaves of bread and two fish. How on earth could He do that?

I can’t honestly remember what my Mum or my Dad said in answer to that question when I first asked it when I was little, but I bet you that it had something to do with miracles. Miraculum, a Latin word – something to admire, something the be astonished at. Are we allowed to talk about miracles, or are we too grown-up? Do you believe in miracles?

When I went to Rome in October for the canonisation of John Henry Newman, I was reminded that Newman was only allowed to become a saint in the Roman Catholic Church when they had discovered and verified two miracles that he had performed, miracles of healing. Many people today do still believe in miracles. They believe in what Saint Athanasius or Saint Thomas Aquinas argued, that miracles are there to demonstrate that Jesus was not just a man like you or me, but he was also God and he had divine powers.

It’s not all straightforward. Think of Jesus being tempted in the desert, to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple for example. Satan wanted him to do all sorts of miraculous things which only someone with divine powers would be able to do. But he didn’t do it. But Jesus does go around healing people. Indeed, in this story it begins by Jesus ‘having compassion’ on the crowd and healing some people who were sick. No details. It’s just very simply said, in one word, ‘he healed’.

People say that scientific knowledge has pushed out the need for us to explain things by talking about God. CS Lewis however wrote a whole book, ‘Miracles’, against what he called the ‘naturalistic’ as opposed to the ‘supernatural’, the more-than-natural. Laws of nature, by themselves, don’t explain everything: that if nature governs everything, there is a contradiction at the heart of it. That is, who created nature? Was that creator subject to the laws of nature?

So over against that is the argument that there is more to it than what we can discover by scientific enquiry. More to it – let’s say, that ‘more’ is God. We can fairly uncontroversially define God as the ultimate creator and sustainer of life, all powerful and all knowing. Present everywhere: omnipresent.

But he could be what Richard Dawkins calls the blind watchmaker, the ultimate creator, who set the mechanism of the world in being, and then let it get on by itself. We as Christians bring up against that things such as the feeding of the 5000. We bring up the fact of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ lived and died, in the early years of the first century of the Common Era, is very well attested in conventional history.

We can argue that the story of Jesus would not still be so well-known today and it would not be the case that the Christian religion would be growing so strongly as it is (you have to remember that growth in South America and the Far East is far greater than in the north of Europe) – Christianity would not indeed be the fastest growing religion in the world, if Jesus Christ had been just an ordinary human like you or me.

So the point of this sermon, in case you had not realised, is that the feeding of the 5000 is a miracle, and as a miracle it is a sign of God at work in Jesus.

So in a way I hope that you don’t have a Fish King from Burger King for lunch; but if you do, please do remember that a forerunner of the Fish King was Jesus’ favoured menu.

(An edited version of this paper has been published at https://anglicanism.org/at-whitsuntide-trinity-sunday-encounters-with-god)

By Hugh Bryant

Archbishop John Sentamu retired on Trinity Sunday. There is a lovely tribute to him in the Church Times, which ends like this.

AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whether that could be true for them, too.

How well do you know Jesus? At Whitsuntide, Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, as Ruach, πνευμα, a rushing wind (with tongues of fire). Ruach and πνεύμα are Hebrew and Greek words which mean a wind, which by metonymy come to mean ‘Spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit. A divine wind.

As Christians we understand God as the Trinity. God the Creator: God as human: God the Spirit, replacing the human God when He has gone back to ‘heaven’, back into the Godhead. ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’. 

It’s a way of understanding the third act of the drama. Act one. God created the world. Act two. God was born in human form, as Jesus, lived and died. Act three. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but then eventually he left to join the Godhead, or more familiarly, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven,’ and was replaced by the Holy Spirit.

To explain the mystery of ‘God in three persons’ is a rite of passage for every preacher in training assigned to preach the parish sermon on Trinity Sunday. But perhaps a greater challenge arises in connection with Ascension and Pentecost. 

There may be many faithful people who are content to hold ‘in tension’ apparently contradictory ideas about ‘heaven’: that it is in some sense ‘up there’, but at the same time that God is not delimited in time and space, so there is nowhere, up or down, where God is particularly at home. 

I used the term ‘Godhead’ deliberately. If God is in ‘heaven’, it begs the question where exactly He is. So an alternative way of thinking on the Ascension would be that Jesus was somehow subsumed into the ‘godness’, the heart of being, the Godhead (cf. the ideas of Paul Tillich in John A T Robinson, Honest to God (1961)).

It is said that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported back that he had ‘looked and looked, but I couldn’t see God up there’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of his seeming to confirm Marxist atheistic dogma. Gagarin was a Christian. He believed in God: it was just that he hadn’t found him in space.

We make a rather easy move, I think, to dismiss the very long tradition that high places, being ‘on high’, say, on Mount Olympus, or above the clouds, are somewhere reserved to the divine. In the Old Testament, the Deuteronomist is concerned, in identifying divinity with the One True God, that the former places of worship, worship of idols such as Baal or Asherah, described as ‘high places’, should be eradicated. But Yahweh lived in heaven, and he was worshipped on the Temple mount, a high place in itself.

If what we are looking towards in God is ultimate power, truth and authority, again this is most simply imagined spatially: God reigns over the earth. The Enlightenment challenge is almost the same as Yuri Gagarin’s. If God is, if heaven is, ‘up there’, then why is He not observable and susceptible of scientific analysis? Because, indeed, He isn’t. Wittgenstein put this propositionally, that metaphysical statements could not be verified in the same way as ordinary empirical ones. 

So whereas we can agree about what it is for something to be a chair, or a nut cutlet (the humour of which, in concept, has not lasted so well since it convulsed the lecture theatres in the 1960s), we cannot say what would verify the truth of a statement about what it is for something to be good, or for someone to be the Son of God. 

‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein wrote at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He meant that his theory of meaning could not cover metaphysical concepts, and therefore he had nothing to say about them. But again, like Gagarin, Wittgenstein was a believer. He went to church throughout his life.

So we can infer that Wittgenstein, and presumably Gagarin, did not take the fact that their chosen means of verification had drawn a blank as proof that there was no God. Just because in earth orbit in VOSTOK 1, Gagarin did not perceive God with his senses, and just because Wittgenstein could not identify a way to verify metaphysical statements, neither of them took those failures as evidence of falsehood. 

Obviously by the time that the early twentieth-century Vienna School of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath and its founder, Schlick, had been written up by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), the doctrine of ‘logical positivism’ had assumed an atheistic face, or at least an anti-metaphysical one. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge, was militantly atheistic, as was Ayer.

Logical positivism is heavily influenced by mathematics. It distinguishes between ‘first order’, logical truths, such as that the same number cannot be both positive and negative at the same time, and ‘second order’, contingent truths that can be inferred or observed from first order truths – that something is a red cow, for instance. This has no room for the Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of metaphysics – μετά τα φυσικά, things after, or on top of, physical things. So there is the Platonic concept of Ideas, essences. Not just that something is a table, but that it has the qualities which make it a table, the essence of tablehood. 

Plato understood a dualism of body and soul. The soul of a person was that person’s essence, what it is for someone to be that particular person. So it was a short step to a concept of immortality, based on a transmigration of souls, a nether world, Hades, where the souls of the dead go across the river Acheron, and from which the blessed emerge into Heaven above, into the Elysian Fields.

The logical positivists had nothing to bring to this understanding. In a binary world or any other world conceived mathematically, it was impossible to find room for souls.

But more recently, Oxford philosophers of religion, most notably Richard Swinburne, have looked again at the apparent conflict between logic and metaphysics. Quantum theory has produced mathematics described as ‘fuzzy logic’. 2 + 2 does not necessarily equal 4. Logical proofs can be constructed so as to demonstrate that a soul could exist independently of a body.

But even if one allows that metaphysical entities can exist, how do they ‘work’? What are we to make of the concepts of ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’, in a sense of reunion with God? If sin is άμαρτια, literally, ‘missing the mark’, salvation lies in being recovered into the divine safe haven where the Godhead is.

Except it isn’t a ‘haven’, in most Christian understanding. It is ‘heaven’. But first let us go back to sin. The ingredients include, of course, not just sin, but

sins, bad acts. It seems to me that this might also lead to an examination of theodicy. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?

It is argued that, for instance in the Book of Job, when Job rails against the injustice of God, we are almost led into concluding that God is not in fact all-good. But suppose one brings in the traditional answer to this ‘problem of evil’, which is that humans have free will: we can choose freely to do what is bad, evil, as well as what is good.

In so doing, we are opposing the good God. If what we do goes against the goodness of God, it is taking away from, missing, the love of God – and it is therefore sinful. But it doesn’t make God into a bad God – indeed, just as Jesus wept, at the death of Lazarus, it may even sadden God.

But consider St Paul’s discussion in Romans 7, which arguably muddies the waters by positing limits to free will. Paul sins not because he has chosen the bad over against the good, but because he ‘couldn’t help it’. In other words, he feels himself not to be a free agent. So perhaps free will isn’t an explanation for apparent divine cruelties.

Traditionally, theologians have argued that sin and bad conduct are not the same. To follow the Ten Commandments will make one morally good, but one could still be sinful, it is argued. I am not sure, however, that Pelagius was entirely wrong. It may be that one cannot earn one’s way into heaven by good deeds; but to the extent that one’s good deeds draw one back into God’s entrance yard, they may bring one closer to salvation.

But what about the cross, and Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice (ίλασμον)’? It seems cogent that, again, a good God would not want his own son to be offered as a human sacrifice. 

We are back to the question of knowing God. How do you know that God loves you? By being aware of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. ‘Greater love hath no man …’ There are examples of sacrifice – people standing in front of a gun pointed at someone else; standing in for someone else who is going to be harmed. The stories of a Maximilian Kolbe or a Jack Cornwell. 

But specifically, taking upon oneself the burden of someone else’s sin? Being punished for someone else’s transgressions? What is really happening? A suggested model is the Jewish idea of a ‘scapegoat’. 

Sacramentally or symbolically, the sins of the congregation are laden on to a goat (or a sheep or any other docile domestic animal to hand): the poor animal is then cut loose to fend for itself, and probably starve, in the desert outside. How exactly are the sins ‘loaded’ on the poor animal?

We are in the realm of classical drama. Achieving catharsis (‘cleaning out’ your soul) comes through pity and fear, according to Aristotle. Watching someone suffer, to some extent you suffer ‘with’ them. What does that ‘with’ mean? The difficulty is that I cannot know what it feels like to be you, or to experience what you do, and you can’t feel what I feel either.

Maybe this ‘atoning sacrifice’ is not a transaction – an eye for an eye, say, buying off, placating, a wrathful deity – but rather more akin to complementary medicine; healing, by way of a sort of inoculation. If we take in some minor badness or do it, it can protect us, vaccinate us, against being overwhelmed by total badness. In doing this sacramentally, in entering into someone else’s sacramental sacrifice, as the priest perfects the sacrifice, so we the congregation are blessed by an approving God, or, even, ‘saved’.

This kind of salvation does not, though, imply intimacy. It does not lead one to say one ‘knows’ God, or more particularly that one ‘knows’ Jesus, in the same way in which one would know one’s Aunt Florrie. The revelation experiences in the Old and New Testaments – the burning bush, the dove coming down from heaven, the ‘gardener’ at the empty tomb – none of these are at all comfortable. People who ask how well one knows Jesus cannot really be referring to those examples.

On the other hand there is the Pauline idea of Christians being ‘in Christ’, or ‘in the Spirit’. Among others John A. T. Robinson has, in his ‘The Body’ (John A. T. Robinson 1952, The Body – a Study in Pauline Theology, London, SCM Press) argued on the basis that ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the body of Christ’, i.e. in the Church. I do not think this sits particularly well with those passages where e.g. John, in Revelation (1:10) says that he did something when he was ‘in the spirit’.The NEB is stretching the Greek too much by translating έγενομην έν πνεύματι as ‘I was caught up by the Spirit.’ It clearly does not mean, ‘as a member of the church I… [did something].’ Another way to make sense of this is to invert the meaning, so to be in Christ means, to have Christ in you: and in that Christ has gone, has ascended, it is the Holy Spirit that will fill the believer in Jesus’ place. The Spirit is the Comforter, the spirit of truth, the Paraclete or advocate, the barrister at the court of life.

At the first Pentecost the Spirit manifested itself miraculously, burning – or not burning – the disciples’ hair as the burning bush similarly burned without being consumed, for Moses. The men of all the provinces listed in the Book of Genesis, from Parthia and Cappadocia and all, found themselves able to speak each other’s language.

We don’t have such astonishing experiences, however. What would it mean for one of us today to be ‘in the spirit’? 

Sermon on Zoom for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2020

Isaiah 55.10–13

Romans 8.1–11

Matthew 13.1–9,18–23

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=461593578

Maybe there is something a little bit superfluous about preaching a sermon about Jesus preaching a sermon. You couldn’t really improve on the message of his Parable of the Sower. Everybody who has had anything at all to do with Christianity has surely heard that one, and they remember it.

And it is certainly a good and encouraging message: pay attention, make sure you take things to heart, don’t be put off by distractions. Distractions: I think the expression is ‘displacement activities’ – you know, when you are a student, instead of writing your essays, you sharpen all your pencils – which is rather like the people who fall away in Jesus’s story.

Don’t be a fair weather Christian. Don’t give your soul to Jesus too lightly; you know, don’t come out to the front at a Billy Graham meeting, or maybe even get confirmed and have a big party afterwards – don’t do all that, if after all, you’re going to find that it is all a bit inconvenient, so you don’t bother much afterwards.

I’ve been reading a very interesting book called ‘Climate Crisis, the Challenge to the Church’, by David Rhodes. (ISBN 978 1 83858 081 0). It’s a different take on our Christian belief, in many ways.

When I was reading the book, this very parable, the Parable of the Sower, came to my mind. In his book, David Rhodes is putting forward the idea that Jesus, whatever else he was, was a revolutionary. A lot of the famous sayings of Jesus are consistent with this. You know, ‘The last shall be first’; ‘Blessed are the poor’ (poor in spirit, actually, but still poor); ‘He hath sent the rich away empty’; you know, the opposite of conventional wisdom. You could indeed say there is quite a lot of quite revolutionary stuff. Not so much spiritual, as subversive.

This parable could be a training session, a training session for his revolutionary followers. I’m sure that a lot of us have attended those sort of courses, (even though we’re not revolutionaries); but at work, you know, training you how to do various bits of your job more effectively.

A lot of those training sessions talk the same sort of language that Jesus used in his parables. None better than the Parable of the Sower. It’s no good just parroting things and doing nothing about them; no point not having any staying power; no point not resisting distracting temptations. That works for a middle manager just as much as for one of Jesus’ followers on the beach. Or for revolutionaries.

When I first wrote this sermon, my example of this sort of training session was a Labour Party canvassing course for young activists run by Momentum; and the temptation, the distraction, that I imagined at this point was that the Young Conservatives might have had prettier girls. But of course I couldn’t possibly say anything like that in a sermon, could I?

In politics, you must keep on sticking faithfully to the party message: and eventually you will be rewarded; you will become prime minister. Or, in following Jesus’ example, if you persevere, there will be salvation. Or, is it really, revolution?

Well, you can take the parable of the sower as revolutionary training, or on another level it can be perfectly OK in Sunday school or, indeed, after the Sunday roast, when Dad mutters something about what a nice service it was and how he couldn’t quite remember everything that the vicar said in his sermon, but that it did make a lot of sense at the time. Parable of the Sower; spot-on.

You might want to do a little bit of reading around today, because there are some other lovely Bible lessons in the lectionary for this Sunday. One of them in particular I just want to mention to you for comparison with the Parable of the Sower, to give you something to discuss over your roast beef – or your midnight feast in Australia or brunch in Canada or the United States. We are a very widely separated congregation!

The other lesson which I want to mention for comparison is the epistle today, which is from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8. The passage is at the beginning of the chapter. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ St Paul makes a big contrast between the Jewish law, the Ten Commandments, the law of Moses, and the law of the spirit, making a distinction between the flesh and the spirit. Paul says, ’But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. …But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life …’ Romans chapter 8, verses 1 to 11, if you want to look it up this afternoon.

In this book which I am reading, David Rhodes makes the point that, although St Paul was amazingly influential in spreading Christianity, stopping it being just a narrow Jewish sect, and becoming a worldwide religion instead, so that Saint Paul was called the apostle to the Gentiles – the apostle to us, in fact (at least those of us who are not Jewish as well as Christian) – and although in fact some of St Paul’s letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, written before the Gospels, only 30 or 40 years after Jesus’s death – even so, St Paul never once tells us what Jesus said, what he preached and taught. There are none of Jesus’ sayings, none of his famous parables, in St Paul’s letters.

Instead St Paul has this much more cerebral, much more philosophical approach, maybe in order to get the non-Jewish world to accept Jesus and become Christian. He had to bring Christianity within the tradition of ancient philosophy, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, in order to give it intellectual respectability, rather than sticking with homely sayings to gaggles of unsophisticated people crowding round a guy on the beach or floating in a boat just offshore, as Jesus was, when he told them the Parable of the Sower.

But which of these two passages do you remember? Do you remember St Matthew’s Gospel, the Parable of the Sower, or Romans 8? You are all good churchgoers, so if you read ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’, it will probably ring a bell with you. But I’ll bet that it doesn’t ring as loud a bell as the Parable of the Sower. So, let’s take a moment for reflection. What do you think? Are you fired up by the revolutionary message of the Sower? Or would you rather stick with some armchair philosophy with St Paul? Which is the more powerful message?

Even so, although you know the Parable of the Sower pretty well, is it actually working like an ear-worm, so that what was ‘sown on good soil bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another 60 and in another 30’? Does it make you do things? Does it make you not just sign up to petitions online; not just click on YouTube?

I do wonder why St Paul didn’t quote any of Jesus’ sayings, even the straightforward ones like this one. Could it be that they were what we would call “too political”? Too risky? Who is right? It’s dangerous stuff. But it is stuff that we must think about. Is it time for something revolutionary?

Well, as you digest that thought, maybe it won’t be too long before we get back into church, and then before too long I hope we will be able to sing a hymn or two again. I couldn’t resist mentioning to you that the Old Testament lesson prescribed for today is another lovely one. It is Isaiah chapter 55:

For you shall go out in joy,

   and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

   shall burst into song,

   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands …

Did you sing that as a hymn at school? I certainly did. On YouTube I’m sure you’ll be able to find a link to a good choir singing it, so you can sing along too, maybe in the bath – but remember! – first you’ll need a bit of Jesus’ revolutionary training.

For you shall go out in joy,

   and be led back in peace …

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands …

When I first started to train as a Reader (the Diocese likes to call us ‘licensed lay ministers’), the vicar of St Andrew’s Cobham, where I was worshipping, said to me, when he asked me to do my first sermon, that it should be eight minutes long. Eight minutes is still the target, even now. Keep an eye on your watches, but I have to warn you, there may be more. Eight minutes, right?

Jesus said to the first 12 disciples, as he sent them out,

‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, the kingdom of heaven has come near’. …

‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.’ (Matt. 10:5-8)

It’s practical stuff. The kingdom of heaven has come near. It isn’t a message about heaven in the sense of it being at the last judgement, after we die; this is the here and now. The kingdom of heaven is here, and what it implies is not particularly spiritual either. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers.

Most of that today would equate to being an instruction to become a doctor or a nurse. ‘Curing the sick’ is just that – become a doctor or a nurse; ‘raising the dead’ looks totally miraculous, but today there are cases where people who have been given up for dead are actually revived and brought back to life through the exercise of expert medical knowledge. ‘Cleansing the lepers’. ‘Cleansing’ meant that by curing the leprosy you removed the disfigurement from the faces of people who had been sufferers. Their faces were clean, unblemished, again. And ‘casting out demons’ is what we would understand today as psychiatry.

The Holy Land then was a land under foreign occupation. I think that suggests a way we might understand this rather odd instruction that Jesus gives, about where the disciples should concentrate on going, going to the lost sheep of the house of Israel rather than to the Gentiles or the Samaritans.

That doesn’t sit very well with our understanding of Christianity. Christ was – is – Lord of all. He was God in human form, true God, the Almighty, the creator of all there is, seen and unseen, not just of the Jews.

I think the way to understand what Jesus said, seeming to favour the Jews, is simply that the Jews were the lost sheep because of the fact that they were under the oppressive rule of the Romans. ‘Gentiles’, which means ‘nations’, is a shorthand expression for the Romans, because lots of nations became Roman citizens. So Jesus wanted his disciples at least initially to concentrate on people who needed help, on the oppressed, not on their oppressors.

Oppressed people. I think it’s time to come clean, to let you into the secret, what that’s got to do with my trying to preach for eight minutes. Time’s nearly up. Eight minutes. Not yet for this sermon, actually.

It’s how long it took for that policeman to kill George Floyd. ‘I can’t breathe’, he said. And amazingly, other policemen, who were standing around, and even bystanders, who were filming the scene on their phones, just watched and did nothing: they let him die. They let him be killed. Nobody really thought of him as a human being. He was a black man, and as such, he wasn’t counted as being, really, human.

A great movement has sprung up in reaction to this terrible crime, to point out that it is the tip of an iceberg and that black lives matter. It is because Mr Floyd was black that he was treated as subhuman. What would Jesus do? His lost sheep of Israel, I’m pretty sure, would today include plenty of black people.

This part of Surrey isn’t a very racially mixed area. Our congregation today doesn’t seem to have any black faces in it. It ought to have. I can assure you that there are black people around, and the important thing is that they are just like us. They are human beings.

Down the road from Whiteley Village and Saint James’s in Weybridge is St Mary Oatlands, where there is a very wonderful vicar called Folli Olokose. He is a French national, born and brought up in Nigeria. He is a black man. At St Andrew’s in Cobham there is a deacon, shortly to become a curate, Dr Moni Babatunde; born in Nigeria and brought up in Wimbledon, living in Cobham for the last 20 years or so. A black lady. And it’s not just black vicars. There are many other black families living around us.

In a way, it’s not right to go into the question ‘where they came from’. It ought not to make any difference. The only reason I mention African or Indian or Caribbean heritage is simply to emphasise the fact that they are black people. They are not being treated equally. Dr Babatunde told me that when her son passed his driving test, she took him on one side and quietly gave him some advice on what to do if – when – he is stopped by the police. For eight minutes.

He is a talented young man who has just achieved first class honours in philosophy at Nottingham University and is now doing the law conversion course in order to become a solicitor. But even so his mother has had to warn him how to conduct himself so as not to get arrested. Because he is black.

So there it is. Eight minutes. Time to die. Time to live. Time for the kingdom of heaven to come near. But let’s do something about it.

A reflection

John 10:1-10 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=455280521

One of my friends has started putting pictures of sheep on her Instagram page. Every day she puts up a picture of a different sheep. At first I wondered whether I wasn’t really getting the hang of the Instagram, and that there was a message about the sheep that I wasn’t seeing. Perhaps there were some words somewhere which I was not seeing on my screen. So, after about five different sheep pictures, I asked her, “What’s with all the splendid sheep on your Instagram?” She answered, “I have always loved sheep. I’m fed up with the negative news, so I just set myself a challenge to post at least one sheep each day to remind myself of the Good Shepherd.’ That really says it all. Maybe I should just stop there. Sheep are good animals. They are a Good Thing. But perhaps I should elaborate a little bit.

I have to say that I’m not a country person, so the only times that I have met sheep face-to-face have been at Bockett’s Farm with my children and my grandson, little Jim. Actually, now you come to mention it, when I was little, on holiday in North Wales, I do remember another time: stopping for a picnic on the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, when a couple of sheep climbed into Dad’s car and tried to have the picnic that we were having. But they were very nice about it and they didn’t bite anybody; just our sandwiches.

I don’t really know what the ‘sheepfold’ is that our Gospel reading talks about. I thought sheep just roamed about in a field, and every now and again got rounded up by the shepherd and his sheep dog, to be taken off to have their coats shorn and and be put through a sheep dip.

In Jesus’s story, there isn’t a sheepdog. But there is somebody, who is called the ‘door-keeper’ or the ‘gatekeeper’. Where these sheep live, this sheepfold, it sounds a bit like an hotel. Indeed the King James version of the Bible identifies the chap who lets the sheep in and out, this gatekeeper, as the ‘porter’. I’ve got visions of one of those little Paris hotels with a porter at the reception who gives you your key, or of an Oxford college, where again, the man at the door is called the porter. But that’s maybe a bit grand – for a sheep. Maybe they did things differently, in first century Palestine.

Jesus does use sheep quite often in his parables and teaching. Think of the parable of the lost sheep, or the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or the crowds, that Jesus pities, because they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. Immediately after the story which we have as our lesson today, he goes on to talk about being the Good Shepherd.

These references to sheep do give you confidence that God cares for us. Jesus is God, and he is also the good Shepherd; so we can be confident that he will look after us.

Here Jesus says that he is “the gate for the sheep”. Not just the gatekeeper, but the gate itself. Before he came to be the gatekeeper, or the gate, all sorts of people got into the sheepfold, who were not proper shepherds. They may have been just rustlers and thieves.

But when Jesus became the gatekeeper, then he was properly careful about the ones he allowed in. We are reminded about the Great Judgement at the end of time in St Matthew ch 25, the sorting out of the sheep from the goats: remember, you see, the sheep are the good ones. And by the way: just as there aren’t any sheep dogs in these stories, there aren’t any black sheep either; so I don’t have to talk about exceptions that prove the rule.

The straightforward idea is that we are in his Great Congregation – because ‘congregation’ is another sheep-y word. Grex, gregis, in Latin, which is the ‘greg’ bit in the word ‘congregation’, means a herd or a flock. A flock of sheep. We are the great congregation, the great flock. We are the sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd.

And Jesus says, ‘Whoever enters the sheepfold through me will be saved; going out and coming in through me, the sheep will find somewhere good to graze’. …. ‘I am there in order ‘… that you, (the sheep), may have life, and may have it abundantly.’

You can see why lambs are something we often think about at Easter, in the springtime, when they are playing in the fields, when the flowers are coming out; because it is usually a wonderful time of regeneration, a time for having life abundantly.

But it is rather poignant today, when there is so much sadness and worry about the terrible coronavirus epidemic; against that background I think it is especially welcome that we should be able, for a few minutes this morning, to fix our minds on a nice, warm, woolly, sheep. I think Jesus would have approved. That sheep stands for all sorts of good things to come.

A Reflection at Easter, April 2020

By Hugh Bryant

‘The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues’ll tell us. And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking. Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf stackers; nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher; those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health. Tonight, as France goes into recession, and the World Trade Organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.’ (Emily Maitlis, introducing ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two, 8th April 2020.)

That was such a grown-up and eloquent comment on the COVID-19 plague, that my first reaction was to scratch around to see whether Emily Maitlis had been quoting some eminent philosopher or grand old man or a woman of world affairs when she introduced ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 on Wednesday night. But my instinct was unworthy. She is a very talented journalist in her own right and those are her words.

Her words are among the most apt and most challenging words in the torrent of verbiage which the first week of lockdown has produced. I can’t really get excited by this procession of metropolitan sophisticates discovering the joys of birdsong and blue-skies-without-aeroplanes, empty roads and silence.

I’m sure there is a place for all those good things, but somehow I don’t think that, when this is all over, historians will look back and celebrate stumbling prose about the unaccustomed joys of birdsong. Instead our generation will be judged on how we dealt with this ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, [or] …welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health’, as Emily Maitlis so eloquently put it.

It seems extraordinarily apt that Emily Maitlis said what she did on the eve of Maundy Thursday. For Christians, Maundy Thursday is the day when they remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The son of God, arguably the most important man who has ever lived, doing the same sort of thing that a care home worker does, washing the dirty bits, becoming a servant. As we have seen in this COVID-19 plague, the sort of thing that Jesus was doing can become very dangerous. So dangerous that only people who don’t matter are put in the line of risk. Only the expendable ones, although nobody spells this out. As Emily Maitlis said, the bus drivers, the shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers. The government has advertised jobs in the new Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre including receptionists at £37,500 per annum, when at the same time nurses and doctors, after years of training, start at less than £25,000.

Somebody will say that the market justifies this, that there are fewer people willing to be receptionists in the Nightingale hospital than there are willing to be doctors and nurses in that dangerous place. Therefore by the inexorable laws of supply and demand the willing, the brave, are worth less than those in short supply. Put that way, the proposition looks quite indefensible. How could the market, even if it is correct in identifying shortages in that way, be the only guide to the value of these vital people’s work?

But wait a minute. How does the market account for the fact that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses? Either the market is not functioning properly, as their value is not rising to reflect their scarcity, in which case all these political statements based on “realism” and “the market” are not true, or the market as an index of value is not actually accurate. Either way there is a glaring injustice. As Emily Maitlis put it, ‘… what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’ How are people to be valued in future?

Christians have a number of pointers in front of them, particularly at this time in Holy Week and Easter. So much of what Jesus did and said was counterintuitive and back-to-front. Before he was born, when an angel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, what she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…’: this speech, this aria, this canticle, is one of the most subversive, even one of the most revolutionary, passages in the whole of literature. ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. God chose an ordinary young girl; he selected her knowing that she was one of the little people. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’. The omnipotent, the divine, the greatest power, has chosen me, small and insignificant, and made me great.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

This is what God is doing. This is the implication of his having chosen someone not special, just an ordinary girl; but having chosen that person to be the mother of the divine incarnation, God with us. God in human form. She wasn’t in any way rare or perfect or uniquely suited to this job. She was just an ordinary girl from a humble background. God’s choice implies a direct challenge to the value system that we have had and we have in our world today. The Magnificat shows up and challenges head-on the great divide in our society between the rich and the poor, between the great and the little people.

That was before Jesus was born. The Magnificat points to how he is going to operate. It points forward to the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sustained piece of counterintuitive argument that you are ever going to come across. The Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the – poor: blessed are the meek. Not ‘blessed are the people in large houses riding about in Lamborghinis’. (See Matt. 5,6 and 7 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=453535527)

In one sense I disagree with Emily Maitlis. She says, ‘And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.’ I know – indeed I passionately agree with – what she means. But in one important sense, there is equality. We are all – wherever in the world we come from – we are all creatures of God, made in His image. The virus is not a leveller, as Emily Maitlis rightly says. It affects all humans – and, unfortunately, tigers too.

Where it does not level us is shown by what happens when the virus has struck someone. Then it depends where you are and how wealthy you are, either as an individual or because you belong to a rich society, whether you will get full treatment. Even so, so far we have not yet discovered a cure, so even with the best treatment in an intensive care unit in a European or American or Far Eastern teaching hospital, you may still die – but you will be made as comfortable as possible, and you will have the very best chance of survival.

If on the other hand Coronavirus strikes and you are in a refugee camp on the border of Syria, in Jordan perhaps, or if you live in the slums of Calcutta or Bombay, or in many parts of Africa, there are far fewer doctors, far fewer hospitals, and no money or National Health Service to pay for your treatment. In the USA, except in one or two enlightened states such as Massachusetts, unless you can afford to buy expensive health insurance, no-one will treat you.

But perhaps the reason why this is so wrong, and why this is a ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare’, is that there is no good reason why some people should be so much better off than others – or rather, that so many people should be so much worse off than the fortunate few. Why should there be any entitlement in an accident of birth? Rich and poor, G7 or Third World, we are all susceptible to COVID-19. But if we are all liable to suffer, should we not all share the means of salvation?

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently about the objective of the Good Life (with a capital G and L) being, not, as theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas have argued, ‘human flourishing’ (ευδαιμονία) but rather, the objective, the objective of the Good Life, is to be safe. Safe. Safe from harm. Safe from disease. Safe from hunger.

Again, Christians can turn to the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Great Judgment in St Matthew chapter 25 (from verse 31), the division of the sheep and the goats, the saved – the ones who are safe – and those condemned to eternal damnation. Hunger. Thirst. Disease. They are at the heart of it. What did you do for them? No suggestion that some hungry people, or thirsty people, or poorly people, might deserve to be safe, to be saved, more than others. Absolutely not. Jesus says that He is in all of us, however lowly.

Again, just as God chose the humble Mary, so ‘the righteous will [say]…, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me”. (Matt. 25:37-40, NEB). (Jesus would surely have wanted to be explicitly gender-neutral if he had been saying this today, and would surely have said, ‘anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.’)

So at this Easter time, when we remember Jesus’ amazing self-abasement, his humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and then his enduring the most terrible torture and death – being the most important man on earth, but beaten and strung up to die with common criminals, as a common criminal, because that was actually his rank, his lowly position in society – and then rising in triumph, leaving the empty tomb: when we reflect on that extraordinary sequence of events, the Triduum, the Three Days, we can realise that there is an alternative. There is an alternative to the dominion of the market. There is an alternative to people who know the price of things but not their value. The fact that Jesus beat death – and that must be about the most counterintuitive thing he ever did – has given us hope: the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. And that is for everyone, for everyone who could possibly catch COVID, wherever they are and whatever flag they fly.

Emily Maitlis concluded, asking ‘what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark’. That is the most important thing we have to do when the medical campaign against COVID-19 has been won. It is a huge challenge: but Jesus has given us hope, hope that we can do it. The Easter message is one of hope, and of salvation, that we can make that Good Life, where all people, everywhere, are safe.