Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.

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