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

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

See for the readings

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

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

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

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

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

The other angels are seraphs, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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