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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Third Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2018

Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 – Vipers?

For the readings, see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=411967662

‘You brood of vipers!’ said John the Baptist. You’re all damned, unless you repent and change your life. Oh dear. Actually I’m not going to give you a work-out from John the Baptist’s play-book this morning – partly because I covered the same ground last week, about living each day as if it is going to be your last; sharing your food and clothes with people in need; and if you are in a position of power or authority, as a soldier or as a tax inspector, not exploiting your power to bully people.

I’m not even going to try to bring the shenanigans over Brexit in this last week into my message, although there is a temptation to see some of the politicians involved as a brood of vipers. It is so sad that this business has been so divisive. This week I read that the Dean of Southwark has made a prayer, which I’ll come back to, to ask for God’s help in healing the divisions and bringing wisdom to the conundrums.

Instead, even though this is still the season of Advent, and there are definite challenges to repent still undoubtedly facing us, it is Rose Sunday today, with a pink candle – the Sunday when we can look up joyfully and sing ‘Rejoice! The Lord is king.’ Robert had a lot of nice Advent hymns to choose from today, but that splendid Charles Wesley one, ‘Rejoice! The Lord is king’, has had to wait on the bench this time. It’s hymn number 563 if you want to look it up. It’s a great hymn. It is based on our epistle, our letter, Paul’s letter to the early church at Philippi, whom he was very fond of. ‘Rejoice, again I say, rejoice’.

If you follow the story of St Paul’s three missionary journeys in the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and this bit is in chapter 16 of Acts – you will read about his visit to the important Macedonian city of Philippi, founded by Philip the Great in 348BC, which was a Roman colony by the time Paul went there in about 50AD. Philippi was where there was Lydia, who was the first European to be converted to Christianity, Lydia, the woman who had a business dealing in purple cloth, who invited Paul and his companions, probably Luke, Silas and Timothy, to stay with her. Her house became the first Christian church – the first ‘house church’ – in Europe.

Then after Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into jail in Philippi, and the jail was broken open by an earthquake, the jailer was so grateful, because they did not run off and escape, that he and his household asked to be baptised and become Christians too. After Paul had let on that he and Silas were Roman citizens, which meant that it was not lawful for them to have been whipped and thrown into jail in the first place, the magistrates came and apologised to them and they were allowed to go free. Philippi was truly a happy place for St Paul.

But when Paul wrote his letter, his Epistle, to his friends in Philippi, he was again in prison – most probably in Rome. In this short letter – only four chapters – there is some memorable teaching by St Paul. Is it better to die, and go to heaven, or to survive and preach another day? He is ‘torn two ways’ [Phil.1:23].

And there’s also this famous passage: that Jesus humbled himself, and made himself nothing: but ‘God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and … every tongue confess him Lord of all’ [Phil. 2:6f]. This is a real echo of the gospel theme, Jesus’ rather contrarian teaching that ‘the first shall be last’. It reminds me also of the revolutionary lines of the Magnificat: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ It’s upside-down. Upside-down Jesus Christ.

Perhaps another reason why St Paul was so warm towards the Philippians was that, as he thanks them for doing, they sent him two lots of contributions towards his expenses, when he was at Thessalonica. None of the other early churches had done this. He mentions it, and he praises the Philippians, right at the end of his letter.

In our passage today, Paul forecasts (because his letters were written before the Gospels), or rather he parallels the message that we’ll find in the Gospels, teaching by Jesus about not being too concerned with material things. According to St Matthew, Jesus said, ’Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; [but] … Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ (Matt. 6:28-29). Paul wrote very much in the same vein, ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’

So what shall our prayer be? In this time it is truly difficult not to worry, difficult not to feel animosity against people who, you might well feel, are threatening our cosmopolitan way of life and our comfortable standard of living – and you may well feel that, whichever side you are on. So this is what the Dean of Southwark has written, the prayer that he suggests we might use. Let us pray.

God of reconciling hope,

as you guided your people in the past

guide us through the turmoil of the present time

and bring us to that place of flourishing

where our unity can be restored,

the common good served

and all shall be made well.

In the name of Jesus we pray.

Amen.

Amen. So be it.

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Sermon for PBS Evensong on Saturday 24th November 2018 in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse

Readings – Isaiah 10:33-11:9, 1 Timothy 6:11-16 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=409977794

Psalm 119:1-32

We have a picture of the Messiah in Isaiah chapter 10, and a job specification for an elder in the church, a vicar, even, in 1 Timothy. The two lessons relate to each other. If you are a vicar, if you are taking the place, representing, the Messiah, the Lord incarnate, then it’s relevant to look at the characteristics of the Messiah: his gentleness, the judging honestly, the peace and harmony between God’s creatures that He has to promote. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain:’ and there is this beautiful picture of unlikely animal bedfellows. ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’

This is all very picturesque and nice. But what lesson are we supposed to draw from it? Are all vicars fair judges, promoters of peace and harmony, following Isaiah’s vision of the rod of Jesse, the Messiah? Or, following the first letter of Paul to Timothy, is a vicar supposed above all to ‘follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness…. [to]

Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life’?

If you put out a Parish Profile when you were looking for a new vicar, and you put those characteristics in the job specification, I don’t know what sort of a vicar you’d attract. No hurting or destroying. Right. Good judgement. ‘…with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth’. OK, all right.

But what sort of a vicar is he? Is he evangelical? Happy-clappy, even? He could be. But the job spec doesn’t help. Children playing ‘on the hole of the asp’ is something that I would have thought any decent vicar these days would regard as desperately dangerous, and put a stop to! It doesn’t go into any of the things that a modern congregation would look for. If he – or she – isn’t an evangelical, is this ideal vicar traditional? An Anglo-Catholic? Indeed, is this vicar an Anglican, even? Maybe he’s an RC, or a Methodist, or a Baptist.

People sometimes talk about the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’. In the ordination service, ‘The Ordering of Priests’ in the Prayer Book, the priest is asked to affirm that they will ‘teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture’. Sola Scriptura – only Scripture – is the basis of theology for our priest.

If we are looking for the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’, we have to bear in mind that Cranmer wrote it in the white heat of the Reformation struggles. Cranmer had been to meet the other reformers in Geneva and Zurich, Calvin, Bucer and Zwingli, and he may even have met Martin Luther. The Anglicanism which the Prayer Book represents is described as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. Just think of Henry VIII. He was a good Catholic, who just had a little local difficulty with the Pope. The Protestantism started later, under the boy king Edward.

If you follow the various versions of the Prayer Book from the 1549 original to the 1662 final version which we use today, for example the words of administration of Holy Communion, and the theology it signified, actually changed. Originally in 1549, it was, ‘The body (or blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given (shed) for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life’. That was a Catholic formula – the elements, the bread and wine, had really become the body and blood of Christ. It was called the Real Presence. In 1552, three years later, the words ‘The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ’ had been deleted. No Real Presence. A pure Protestant Eucharist. But in 1559, five years after Cranmer’s death, Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s Archbishop, brought in the formula which we now use, which will work whether you believe in Transubstantiation or not.

Still I’m struggling to find guidance from the Prayer Book about how to choose my new vicar. Richard Hooker, the great Elizabethan theologian, who was born just before Cranmer died, in his great work ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’, argued that the basis for the Church of England’s theology were ‘revelation, reason and tradition’ – ‘revelation’ meaning the Bible, Scripture. It went further than the Reformers’ ‘Sola Scriptura’. You needed to interpret scripture, with the help of common sense and with the benefit of ancient wisdom, of the work of previous scholars and the decisions of bishops, church leaders, too.

The elephant in the room, I would say, is that there’s nothing which I have found so far which would equate with a ‘Prayer Book theology’, in the way that some people talk about today. I fear that that expression may actually be code, a code expression to stand for a consciously archaic approach: no gender equality; maybe no women priests; literal approaches to sexual questions; homosexuality is sinful, even. Not things that I, for one, believe in for one minute.

It’s something to talk about over our splendid Carthusian match tea. I think that, far from burying a church in the past, if its vicar really does try to uphold the ‘ancient formularies’ of the Church of England, indeed including the Book of Common Prayer, the clever thing about it is that the Prayer Book gives words to the via media, the middle way. It’s neither Evangelical nor Anglo-Catholic. Not necessarily happy-clappy. Not necessarily formal. It’s not necessarily literal either. Look closely at the Communion words next time, and try to decide whether you are meant to believe that the water and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Could be – but might not be. The truth is whatever is in the heart of the believer. I don’t think that the 39 Articles or the Catechism have anything to upset this conclusion either.

When we think about the coming of the Messiah, the ‘rod of the stem of Jesse’ as we go into the season of Advent, as Prayer Book enthusiasts we must be careful not to elevate the BCP above ‘Scripture, Reason and Tradition’, as the basis for our theology.

So when you do need a new vicar, of course the advice that St Paul gives Timothy is relevant; of course the vision of heaven, that the vicar will point to and try to lead his flock to, will be as Isaiah sets it out, on God’s ‘holy mountain’. But our Prayer Book will still give us the words, although actually nothing more. But that is, surely, an embarrassment of riches.

Sermon for 8 o’clock Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent, 9th December 2018

Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. ‘Every valley, every valley shall be exalted … the crooked straight, and the rough places plain’. Perhaps in your head you can hear the great tenor Mark Padmore singing this in Handel’s Messiah.

This is the second Sunday of Advent, the time when we look forward not only to Christmas, to celebrating and commemorating the birth of Jesus, his first coming, but also to his second coming at the end of time, to the day of judgement.

The ‘one crying in the wilderness’ was John the Baptist, and the words are from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.

There’s a sort of creative tension in the themes of Advent, between our looking forward to the happy Christmas time, and our thinking – if we do think about it – about the Last Judgment.

In our morning prayer services – which we have at 9.15 here on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – at this Advent time the prayers end with:

May the Lord when he comes

find us watching and waiting.

We say, ‘Amen’. Amen – so be it.

I wonder really what the background to John the Baptist was. St Luke gives him a precise historical context, ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea’, and so on – which all translate, the historians say, to about the year 29 AD – or CE, Common Era, as we say nowadays. By the same reckoning, Jesus’ crucifixion was in the year 33, so this was four years before the crucifixion.

But apart from the date, there’s not much else in the historical context to say why John the Baptist appeared at that point. Why did the people in Judaea need to be told to ‘repent’, to change their mindset, at this particular point? What were their ‘sins’ that needed to be forgiven?

Perhaps before trying to answer that, I should just say something about what this word ‘sin’ might mean. Although we sometimes use the word ‘sin’ to mean a bad thing, a bad thing that someone’s done, the church’s teaching has always been that ‘sin’ is not the same thing as crime. The idea is that ‘sin’ is something that drives a wedge between us and God. The Greek word used in the New Testament is άμαρτια, ‘missing the mark’, missing the target.

This is all linked to the Last Judgement. Did we pass the test? Or will we miss the mark? What do you have to do, in order to to pass the test?

You can work out what the Baptist had in mind, if you read on in this third chapter of Luke’s gospel. What do we have to do? people asked him. You have to prove that you have changed your mindset. Like a tree, you will be judged by whether your repentance bears fruit, whether there’s a practical consequence to it.

St Paul has a prayer for his friends in the congregation at Philippi, which echoes what John the Baptist was preaching. He says,

And this is my prayer, that your love may grow ever richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, and may thus bring you the gift of true discrimination. Then on the Day of Christ you will be flawless and without blame, reaping the full harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (3.9-11)

What they were doing wrong when John the Baptist appeared has to be deduced from what he was telling them they ought to do, in order to show that they had repented. It wasn’t enough just to say they were God’s chosen people – ‘We have Abraham to our father’.

They had to do something to show for it. If you read on in the Gospel passage – it could be your little extra thing to do over coffee before you get down to Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer today – you will see that John says, if you have two coats, give one away to someone who hasn’t got one; if you have more than enough food, share that; and specifically he answers the tax-gatherers, who were privatised, if you remember, and soldiers, telling them to do their jobs ethically, the tax inspectors not extorting too much from the taxpayers, and the soldiers not to be violent – presumably this meant, not violent when they were off duty – and to be content with their pay.

So we can perhaps infer some things from that. People were being mean. Perhaps they were saying that poor people were poor because they were lazy or indolent, that they were not ‘deserving’. How does anyone know why someone is poor? The only safe thing is to follow the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. What does it feel like to have to go and ask for a food voucher for the food bank? What does it feel like if you have a chronic illness, which means you can’t work – but you might look OK? What would it feel like if someone said you were just a skiver?

I think the injunction on the army not to beat people up in pubs and things is straightforward. But what about the tax gatherers? As I said, they were privatised. In the Roman Empire you could acquire a franchise to collect taxes for the government. You passed on whatever the government set as the required amount, and to the extent that you could extract more from the taxpayer, you trousered it.

We used to have a rather similar system with insurance brokers, pension fund managers and financial advisers. Now the law requires them to be transparent, and show how much they are charging by way of fees and brokerages. The point is now, just as it was in the time of John the Baptist – that people shouldn’t exploit their economic strengths in order to screw their customers.

And finally, interestingly, soldiers were supposed to be content with their pay. I must confess that I don’t really see how that one fits in with the general objective of showing that you’ve changed your mindset, that you’ve repented. Perhaps one of you could put me right on your way out in a minute.

Sharing your clothes – not putting on two cloaks, as Jesus told his disciples – and not exploiting your economic strength – are very like what Jesus was preaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If somebody wants to sue you, and take your coat, give him your cloak as well – Matthew 5:40; you can’t serve both God and wealth, God and Mammon – Matthew 6:24. And again the Golden Rule, do unto others, is at Matthew 7:12.

As St Paul explained at great length later, salvation doesn’t come just from doing good works. You are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1). But at the great Day of Judgement, what you do to show it will matter nevertheless. We could say it was necessary but not sufficient. Jesus said he would say at the great Day of Judgement, ’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ Look at Matthew 25, from verse 35 on. When people queried how this had happened, Jesus said that he would say, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:40f).

I don’t know whether we really believe in a Day of Judgement any more. The ‘Dies Irae’ (Latin for ‘the day of wrath’) is perhaps more familiar as a spectacular part of Verdi’s Requiem – which some people say is more of an opera than a solemn mass, a religious service. Certainly I don’t feel shaken or apprehensive when I hear it, as I expect I would if I really thought that someone had pressed a nuclear button.

But then, I think that the idea of trying to live each day as though it is your last, is not necessarily bad. Just as we don’t know – by definition we can’t know – how God works, we don’t know when or how or if Armageddon might come. Both John the Baptist, and Jesus after him, though, said we should try to be ready, whenever it might come.

If that sounds a bit sombre, think of the adverts for the National Lottery. The odds are millions against – but ‘It could be you’. So when we remember John the Baptist, and perhaps also Jesus’ story of the Unwise Bridesmaids, perhaps we can also think about how happy it can make you, as well as how sensible, how wise you will be, if you expect the unexpected, and make good preparations for it. Is there anything in our lives that we need to repent of, to change our attitudes about? That’s the message of John the Baptist, and it still makes sense today.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 25th November 2018

Revelation 1:4-8, John 18:33-37

This could almost be a Thanksgiving service, in solidarity with our American cousins, as Thanksgiving Day was on Thursday. For several years I have been invited over to Hartford, Connecticut, to preach at Thanksgiving at two churches where friends of mine were the incumbents. But now they have retired, and so I’m not chancing my arm this year by being a Brit in the pulpit on the day the Americans celebrate their release from our colonial yoke.

Quite apart from that basic scenario, what I was doing could be hazardous, you know. One year, as I sometimes do, I preached, in the lovely church of St John’s, West Hartford, about our human brotherhood – and sisterhood, of course – my message being that we are all equally children of God: and I may just have strayed a little into a message which might just have reminded one of two people of Christian Socialism – although I think this was before Bernie Sanders. Of course most Americans don’t know anything about socialism, and so most of the faithful just beamed benignly and shook my hand warmly at the door.

But one of the last people out was a nattily-dressed gent in a dark blue overcoat with an astrakhan collar, highly-polished shoes and a bow tie. He too shook my hand warmly. He said he had enjoyed my sermon. But he went on like this. ‘I found it challenging. In fact, come to think of it, I disagreed with you. 180 degrees!’ He warmed to his theme. ‘You know, if I had still been a young man, I would have had to shoot you!’ I smiled weakly, as you do at such times, and I offered him my hand.

In the car home, I told my hosts what had happened – one had actually overheard it – and asked how serious the man had been. How many of the congregation were – ‘Carrying?’ said my friend Bill. ‘Maybe five or six of them’. Now Hartford, Connecticut is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Co, makers of the famous Colt 45 revolver. So now, when I am tempted to think that, in the pulpit, I’m ‘six feet above contradiction,’ I reflect that, at least if I’m in the USA, I’m still within pistol range …

But it isn’t Thanksgiving today – although a lot of my friends in Hartford regard the whole period from Thursday until Sunday night as the Thanksgiving holiday – and it isn’t Advent yet. The beginning of Advent is in a fortnight, on December 2nd. But here at St Mary’s we have slightly got ahead of ourselves over the years, and now we have our Advent Carol Service tonight.

This morning, though, we are on track with the lectionary, and we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King. What does it mean to be a king? Can we relate to Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus, ‘Are you a king?’

Actually I think this little passage, the conversation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, comes across rather awkwardly. In the Bible that Godfrey has just read from, (just to remind you), it says:

“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ [and] Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king.” But it’s not obvious that Pilate does say that he’s a king. True, Jesus talks about his ‘kingdom’, but in terms that make it different from any kingdom anyone’s ever heard of. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’.

Eugene Peterson in his Bible translation ‘The Message’, which is not strictly supposed to be a translation, but rather a ‘paraphrase’, puts the conversation this way.

“… Pilate said, ‘Are you a king or not?’ Now for my money, that’s a better translation of the Greek ‘Ουκουν βασιλευς εί’ than the first reading, from the NRSV, which says it’s a literal translation. 0υκουν, ουκ, not, ουν, then. Not a king, then?

And then Petersen goes on to put Jesus’ answer, not as this odd ‘You say so’ (which he doesn’t, he doesn’t say so), but rather a much more likely answer – which does actually work as a translation. Peterson’s version is, “Jesus answered, ‘You tell me.”

“Are you a king or not?” “You tell me.” You can really hear them saying that. [Peterson, E. 2004, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, Colorado Springs, Navpress]

Another good idiomatic translation, incidentally, is from the New English Bible. “’You are a king, then?’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘”King” is your word.” [See https://tinyurl.com/ycd2qybq]

The point is that Jesus isn’t very happy with being called a king. Maybe he is thinking back to the first Jewish king, Saul. The Israelites asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, and Samuel was pretty unhappy about it, because he thought that they were better led by a prophet, that the One True God was their true ruler. That doesn’t end well, of course. You can read about it in 1 Samuel. In Jewish history, kings are not necessarily a good way of being governed. In ancient Rome, Sulla, the first dictator, was regarded as being a bad thing. Cicero and Livy both praised the old republic, where SPQR, the senate and people of Rome, ruled, rather than a monarch. The republic gave way to an empire, to the rule of, effectively, kings. There were good ones and bad ones. Nero, for example.

I don’t know whether you’ve been listening to the Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 recently. This last week – and you can still get it on iPlayer (or BBC Sounds, which it’s called now) – it has been the most wonderful experience, hearing Michelle Obama read from her autobiography, called ‘Becoming’.

In the context of being a king, I recommend episode 5 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00018db], in which the First Lady, who is at once very articulate, clearly highly intelligent and wise, but who has come from a humble background, arrives in Washington DC, is met by the Presidential motorcade (dozens of vehicles, to protect the President and his family against more or less any threat short of a nuclear direct hit), and then moves with her family into the White House, where even the children’s bedrooms had been decorated by ‘a high-end interior designer’ and there were Old Master paintings everywhere. Then, she says, just when she’d begun to get used to the magnificence of the White House, she went with Barack to London, and they visited a real palace, Buckingham Palace. Buck House!

There is a delicious description of Mrs Obama standing with – or rather, towering above – the Queen at a reception.The Queen commented that Mrs Obama was very tall. Michelle Obama pointed out that she was wearing high-heeled shoes, which added two inches to her height – but yes, she was tall. The Queen pointed to her own, similar, shoes, and said her feet ached in them. So did Mrs Obama’s. As she put it, they were just two more or less old ladies complaining about their sore feet. On the strength of that, Mrs Obama very spontaneously, gave the Queen a little hug – which went around the world in minutes – and the Queen discreetly hugged her back.

What price that as a model of monarchy? Real monarchs – well, the most powerful man in the world’s wife, and the longest-serving monarch – behaving humbly, sharing their humanity. ‘What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 6:8]

I think that in that vignette, Michelle Obama has shown how she, and our Queen too, were really on the way to that style of kingship which Jesus spoke about. Not worldly. Not grandiose. Not oppressive. Humble. As the hymn puts it, the ‘Servant King’. “Are you a king or not?” “You tell me.”

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

Sermon for Evensong at All Saints’ Day, 4th November 2018

Isaiah 65:17-25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

As you can see, you’ve got some neighbours in church today. 17 silhouettes, each one representing a soldier from Stoke D’Abernon who died fighting in the First World War. There are little plaques in front of each one of the silhouettes which tell you the name of each of the soldiers and the regiment that he belonged to. There are two pairs of brothers, you will find. All over the country there are churches with these silhouettes in. They have been created by a new charity called ‘Remembered’ and our Vanessa Richards is a trustee of the charity. A number of us have subscribed to buy the silhouettes which are in the pews.

These soldiers are ‘there are but not there’, which is the name of the campaign, launched by this charity called Remembered, to remind people, and especially people like me who have never been in a war, to remind us of the great sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers – in what they had hoped would be the ‘war to end all wars’; and also to raise money for the relief of mental conditions caused by war such as PTSD, combat stress, which used to be called ‘shell shock’.

Our silhouettes were first installed in the pews on Friday, for the All Souls service, when we remembered the dead, our dear departed, and today is All Saints, when we remember and celebrate that ‘cloud of witnesses’ that was mentioned in our second lesson from Hebrews.

We will of course come back and make our main act of remembrance next Sunday. Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Day, which follows very closely after our celebration of All Souls. Using the word ‘souls’ reflects the idea that we are made up of a body and a soul and that in some sense our souls are immortal and eternal, carrying on after our bodies have died. So All Souls is the great commemoration of the dead.

Today we focus on the idea of saints and sainthood. Through both these festivals we may get a glimpse of heaven; this is a chance for us to reflect on what we can understand of heaven, at All Souls on life after death and today on the saints, the great ‘cloud of witnesses,’ in history – and perhaps nearer to home as well.

We can think of ‘saints’ in two ways. On one hand we can understand the expression ‘saint’ to cover all Christian people. St Paul’s letters refer to the ‘saints’ at Ephesus and in Rome and in Jerusalem, meaning the normal members of the congregation in each church. So in that sense we are all saints. We are the saints at Stoke d’Abernon.

The other sense, which is perhaps the one which we would normally think of when we use the word ‘saint’, is to identify people who lead exemplary and virtuous lives, who are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus through the self-denying love which they show.

We should notice that there is a difference between the beliefs of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church where saints are concerned. Roman Catholics see the saints as being so close to God and to Jesus that they can intercede for us. In other words, Catholics address prayers to one or other of the saints and ask them to pass on their prayers to God. As Protestants we use the same language and perhaps adopt the same thought when we end our prayers with the words ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’, but this is as far as we go.

Praying through a saint, through a person who speaks for us to God, is a very old idea, a mediaeval idea, but it was one of the things which was attacked by Martin Luther and the Reformation theologians. If you look at the 39 Articles of Religion at the back of your little blue Prayer Book, if you look at article 22 on page 620 and article 31 on page 624, you will see what the reformers were objecting to.

Article 31 was against people saying masses for the dead – at first sight, against what we were doing on Thursday. Before the Reformation, people left money in their wills to pay for masses to be said for them after they had died, to help them to get to heaven and not be stuck in ‘Purgatory’, a kind of half-way house for those whose virtues were not clear enough for them to pass straight through the Pearly Gates. People built ‘chantries’, chapels where they could be remembered and prayed for.

Our Norbury Chapel is an example of a chantry. It was built for Sir John Norbury after the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Sir John died in 1521, before the Reformation, or more particularly before Henry VIII. His original statue must have been destroyed in the Elizabethan purge on ‘monuments of superstition’, and now his monument is the little figure of a kneeling knight, whose armour is in the style of Charles I’s time, 100 years later.

I think that we can agree with Article 31 that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only thing we need, in order to be reconciled with God and forgiven our sins. We don’t need to make a ritual sacrifice as well, in order to buy forgiveness for someone’s sins. But remembering our dear ones by reading out their names doesn’t go against this, I believe.

Martin Luther, who started the objections to ‘masses for the dead’, was aiming at what he thought was a racket run by the Roman church, getting money for saying masses and building chantries, although there was no theological justification for it. We should remember that Jesus’ salvation is for all, not just for the ones whose names we read out in church – but that’s not a reason for us not to remember our dear departed ones.

Article 22 is even more specific about the worship, or ‘veneration’, as it was called, of saints, their statues and pictures. It reads:

‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’.

The reformers thought that there was an element of idolatry, that people were worshipping the saints rather than God, and that there was really no need to use an agent in order to be able to say your prayers to God. There is a reflection of John Calvin’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ here. Again, in the Jewish faith, only the High Priest could enter the the Holy of Holies, in the Temple, to come close to God, once a year only, without being consumed (cf Moses in Exodus 33:20). This is one place where the idea, that God needs to be approached through somebody, comes from. In our first lesson from Isaiah there is also the example of prophecy, where God speaks through the mouth of a human, a prophet.

Because St Mary’s is so old – its origins are 7th century Saxon – if you look around, it shows you signs of all this historical theology. You will see some images of saints in some of the windows, but the only statue of a saint is the statue of Mary, the Madonna and Child, at the front. Actually pretty well all the images of saints, the windows and the statue, although they are often of mediaeval origin, were imported during Revd John Waterson’s time (1949-1983), because whatever was here before the Reformation was removed or smashed up. In the Baptistry some of the windows contain bits of the remains of pre-Reformation windows, but I think that is all.

The Church of England is often called ‘catholic and reformed’. Henry VIII was a faithful Roman Catholic, except for his little difficulty with the Pope! The question of how we look at saints today is a good example of how our church’s theology and history are combined in a rich mixture. The greatest of the saints is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was always closest to him, even at the end; his mother stood grieving at the foot of the cross. Who better, who closer, to intercede, if you feel you need someone to do it? The words of the ‘Hail Mary’, which Roman Catholics use almost as much as the Lord’s Prayer, end with

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

And at the hour of death’.

Indeed Mary is the saint preferred by more people than any other to pray through, in the Roman Catholic Church, where veneration of the saints and praying through them still thrives – they still create saints, for instance recently Archbishop Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador, who was martyred on the steps of his cathedral in 1980, and who was renowned as a liberation theologian, concerned to minister to the poor.

So I have taken you through the story of what it could mean to be a saint. We can be one of the saints at Stoke d’Abernon, one of the people who turn up faithfully in the pews, contribute to good causes and are happy to let people know that this is what we do on a Sunday and indeed, perhaps, what we do on other days. Church saints are involved, involved in church activities.

Or you could be a witness. You could stand up and say to other people what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. You could do things, things which actually take a little bit longer than signing a cheque or turning up to a meeting. You would have to show commitment. The touchstone for being this kind of saint is selfless giving.

Or you might even be a martyr. ‘Martyr’, after all, is just the Greek word for a ‘witness’. Your being a witness may have a price. People may not approve of what you have to say. You may be put to the test as a result. Being a saint, being a witness to the gospel of Christ, may be tough.

There have been occasions when some of you have said to me that my interpretation of what it is to be a practical Christian, to be a practical witness, shades over into politics. Well, on this occasion, I leave it to you. You work out what it would be for you to be a saint. All I would say to you is that I think we all have it in us to be some kind of a saint. Which one are you?

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.