Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 4th August 2019

1 Corinthians 14:1-19 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=431776062)

I was going to say that what St Paul says in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, about ‘speaking in tongues’ and prophesying, isn’t very British. You know, I don’t think you very often do get people ‘speaking in tongues’ in your average parish church.

When we were doing our theological training I once had to ask Christian friends in my own and other churches that I knew of, whether they knew of anybody who spoke in tongues. I was surprised to hear that several did.

But do we know what ‘speaking in tongues’ really is? In the New English Bible they talk about ‘using the language of ecstasy’; and of course in the chapter before our reading tonight, there is that very famous passage that you often hear at weddings, which begins, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels …’ Or the hymn,

‘Angel voices, ever singing,

Round the throne of light’…

How lovely. But ‘.. if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’. (1 Corinthians 14:11).

‘Barbarian’ is an onomatopoeic word. The Greeks thought that somebody who was speaking unintelligibly made a noise like ‘bar, bar, bar’, and maybe it was a sort of animal grunt, a sub-human noise.

In other words it’s a mark of humanity that the language that you talk is an intelligible language. But of course it may still not be understood, because the person to whom you are talking may not understand your language. If somebody spoke Mandarin to me, I regret to say that I would not understand, and I imagine that a Mandarin speaker might have the same difficulty in understanding somebody speaking in Glaswegian English.

From this passage in chapter 14 and what follows it in 1 Corinthians we get an idea what the early church was like, that is, a bit of a glimpse of what happened in the early church services.

26How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

27If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

28But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

29Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

30If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.

31For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

St Paul is very keen on the idea of prophesying. You’ll recall, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul identifies all the various talents that you find in the ‘body of Christ’, that is, in the church.

27Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

28And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

So the body of Christ is made up of all these different limbs, if you like, each one doing something different to build up the church. That’s another key word in these passages. Building up, edifying, is key. To edify, in Latin, means to make a building, and so it has grown to mean simply to build up something. What goes on in the meeting, in the teaching in church, exchanging spiritual gifts, doesn’t necessarily educate, but rather it edifies, it builds up our faith.

You’d think that this was all pretty much self-evident, and you couldn’t really imagine churches growing up where St Paul’s advice about communicating in a mutually intelligible way was not going to be followed.

Even if you are a Pentecostal church, where people do speak in tongues, nevertheless for the majority of the time people are speaking, among themselves in church and addressing God, in a language which they all understand.

But think of one of the great steps in the Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. It was actually revolutionary for the Bible to be in a language which was ‘understanded of the people’ as Article XXIV of the 39 Articles puts it. It was a big step also for the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book to be used by all the people, to be written in English. You can get another take on what I’m talking about tonight, indeed, by reading Art XXIV of the 39 Articles. It’s on page 621 of your little Blue Prayer Books.

When the services were all in Latin, only the priest, and perhaps one of two well-educated members of the congregation, would be able to understand what was going on, in any detail. At the time of Henry VIII the words of institution in the Mass, in Holy Communion, the words ‘This is my body’, which in Latin is ‘hoc est corpus meum’, became known colloquially as ‘hocus pocus’. Divine service was not something which people took particularly seriously, because it was ‘hocus pocus’; it wasn’t able to be understood.

If they had paid more attention to what St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, they would perhaps not have made that mistake. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, when the tongues of fire came down on the heads of the disciples, they all spoke in tongues on that occasion. It wasn’t a question of babbling in animal grunts, but they spoke all the various languages which the people, who were visiting Jerusalem as pilgrims from all over the Roman empire, understood, each in their own native language. That’s properly a miracle, but it points to a less miraculous but still vitally important thing, which is the art of translation.

The Bible was originally written in languages which most people don’t understand any more: Hebrew for the Old Testament (and some Aramaic and some Greek) and Greek for the New Testament; so the Bibles that we use, and the service books, are largely translations. Services are based on services which were originally in Latin, and the Bible, as I said earlier, in Hebrew and Greek.

What is a ‘good translation’? What is good language for worship? There’s one school of thought which says that it’s appropriate that you use a rather special language, a rather special version of English (or whatever it is that you normally speak), when you are engaged in worship. You address God in a special ‘God-language’. So, until recently, for example, we used to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when we addressed God. As recently as the New English Bible you’ll find ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ where there are prayers to God or God is otherwise directly involved. And that’s as recent as 1970. Now, in Common Worship since the millennium, we are more down to earth and we talk to God as ‘you’.

But there are theological challenges associated with giving up ‘God language’. If you talk to God as ‘you’, as though God was the man next-door – the ‘man upstairs’, perhaps – there’s a danger, some people would say, of being excessively familiar, and not recognising the awesome nature of the Divine; and I think its important that people are free to choose the best way, as they see things, to bring themselves to God in worship.

So we use, at Evensong (and at Mattins), the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible, language which, in the Prayer Book’s case, is from 1662, (although it can be traced back to 1549), and so far as the Bible is concerned, the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, dates from 1611. In effect, we use the language of Shakespeare.

Well, does that offend against what St Paul is enjoining on us? I think that we have to be careful. If we are using this beautiful language just simply because the language is beautiful, and we are just simply enjoying it aesthetically, that might not be particularly good for worship.

If on the other hand we are saying, ‘This is the best language we can think of’, the most beautiful, that we are in effect bringing some of ourselves, the best bits, to God in worship – because after all, the language of Shakespeare is at least arguably the best English you can possibly think of – then it doesn’t matter, I think, that this is language which is up to 600 years old. It is the best we have.

There’s some evidence that, when the Prayer Book came out in 1549, it already contained some archaisms, consciously so. The man in the street didn’t speak exactly the language in the Prayer Book.

At the back of the church as you go out, you will find – and please do take one – a little card bookmark which comes from the Prayer Book Society. It’s a glossary of words which you’ll find in the Prayer Book which perhaps have fallen out of use and might not be very clear to you. If, when you say your confession, you ask for God to have mercy on you as a ‘miserable offender’, it doesn’t mean that you’re sad about it. It means that you are to be pitied. ‘Miserable’ at that time meant, ‘to be pitied’. It’s yet another word which has come from Latin. And there are other words where the meaning has changed since the 1500s. It’s not only our Prime Minister who loves Latin and Greek, you know.

There is another side of this. If we use the language of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible from time to time, in order to bring the best of ourselves to God, we should also guard against bringing something substandard before Him at other times.

I confess that I am sometimes a little exercised by the banality of some modern liturgy, by the often rather dull words of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ‘Anglicised edition’, and by some of the liturgy in Common Worship. If I begin to find something banal, then it’s not good enough. What would Jesus think? Just as we say, ‘What would Jesus do?’, we can also ask, ‘What would He think?’

If somebody wants to address Him as ‘Jesus, my mate’, my boon companion, I wonder how Jesus would feel. Perhaps in fact, following the pattern of spontaneity which Paul identified in the early church, he would, actually, be very comfortable with informality, and the only question would be whether He understands the words, or whether they are addressed to Him in tongues, or even in ‘barbarian’.

So I pray that we can continue to talk to each other and to make our worship in a way that can be understood; we must avoid hocus-pocus – and at all costs, let us not be barbarians – except, of course, in Rugby.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 7th July 2019

Genesis 29:1-20 – and following; Mark 6:7-29 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=429430740)

This week’s Bible lessons are both to some extent about marrying; marrying the wrong cousin by mistake, if you can believe that, or marrying one’s brother’s wife: some rather odd-sounding stories from up to 3,000 years ago.

First of all Jacob – you remember, Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, or cheated him out of it, in return for a bowl of soup, a ‘mess of pottage’; well, Jacob got duped into marrying his girlfriend’s sister by mistake: then Herod, who had somehow managed to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, and Herodias had taken against John the Baptist because John had pointed out that what Herod had done was immoral if not illegal. But he did it because he could, because he was a king.

Jacob was looking for a wife, and somehow the daughters of Laban, his uncle, got mixed up and he accidentally went to bed with the wrong cousin. He had wanted to marry Rachel, but for some reason the girls’ father, Laban, brought along Leah, Rachel’s elder sister, and Jacob slept with her by mistake.

Perhaps it was an elaborate way in which Laban, the father, could force Jacob to work for him for a long time, in order finally to be able to marry the girl whom he loved, that is, Rachel.

The contrast between these stories and how we ‘do’ marriages today could not be more striking. As some of you will know, three weeks ago my younger daughter Alice was married to her beloved, Nick, in a beautiful church in Devon, just outside Axminster. So marriage and the mechanism of marriage is pretty fresh in my mind at the moment.

So far as I know, although Nick may have espied Alice across a crowded room and been attracted to her – which I think is very likely, knowing how beautiful she is – he didn’t immediately come to see me with a request that I should in some way arrange for him to consummate a marriage with Alice without in any way consulting her first. But that’s apparently what Jacob did with Laban.

In the case of Jacob, poor Leah ended up in bed with him, in such a way that it looks as though neither she nor her sister Rachel had much say in what was going on. It almost looks as though what was happening might even, in certain circumstances, if it had happened these days, have been regarded as rape.

Where Herod and Herodias were concerned, it seems that Herodias was quite happy to be married to Herod, and she resented anyone pointing out that her second marriage was, in effect, adulterous or bigamous.

Herod is portrayed as being caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to honour his rash promise to Herodias’ daughter Salome, to give her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, as a reward for her wonderful dancing, the rash promise on the one side, and his own affection for, and respect for, John the Baptist on the other.

He had nothing against John the Baptist. Indeed we are told that Herod liked to listen to him; but when Herodias put Salome up to demanding John the Baptist’s head, as her reward for winning the Old Testament equivalent of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, Herod was too weak to say that that was not one of the things which he had intended when he made her the prize offer.

As a lawyer, it occurs to me that surely he could have argued that there was an implied term in his offer, namely that she could have whatever she wanted – so long as it was lawful. And surely, gratuitously killing John the Baptist was not lawful. It was murder.

Herod showed the same kind of weakness when Jesus was on trial. (See Luke 23:6-12). Pilate had found nothing wrong in what Jesus had done, but Herod was not prepared to say that the Jews were wrong. And so, in both John the Baptist and Jesus himself’s cases, partly through Herod’s weakness, good and innocent men lost their lives.

I’m not sure that either of these stories, of Jacob with Rachel and Leah, Herodias with Herod and his brother, are actually there to instruct or enlighten us in any way. They are really just background. So far as the story of Jacob is concerned, of course it goes on to show that perhaps there was a divine retribution for Jacob’s having spurned Leah, because Leah conceived and had a son, whereas Rachel was childless, (at least initially). There were some dubious manoeuvres involving slave girls, and it becomes apparent that Jacob was actually treating both sisters as his wives, and having sex with both of them. The whole thing is very wooden, very mechanical. There is a mention of love, but the love seems to be equated with whether or not children have resulted from the various couplings.

It’s a world away from the romantic love that we hope our children, and indeed that we can enjoy or have enjoyed in our marriages.

We know that Jesus’ teaching on marriage is still quite a long way away from our current practice. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that if a man ‘looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:27-28).

In St Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus was teaching about the Jewish law relating to divorce, that, according to the law of Moses, a man could just send his wife away and it was enough in order to divorce her just to give her a note of dismissal, to confirm that she was divorced. But Jesus says that marriage is for life; that when a man and a woman come together in marriage, they become ‘one flesh’. They are no longer two individuals, they are one: ‘what God has joined together, man must not separate’.

Those of course are the words that we hear in the marriage service today; but sadly of course, just as with other commandments of Jesus, as we are human beings, we find that sometimes we are just not able to keep to his commandments. Divorces do happen, with all the sadness that they bring.

But I would also suggest that perhaps one lesson that we can learn from the story of Jacob and the story of the death of John the Baptist is that, in both cases, they involve people trespassing against Jesus’ great ‘new commandment’, to love your neighbour as yourself. What did poor Leah feel like, when she was rudely dumped on Jacob – and then spurned? What did either of the girls feel when they were being treated just as things, just as child-producing machines, property, property of men, who could deal with them without any regard for their feelings or desires?

We are told that Jacob didn’t love Leah: but did Rachel love Jacob? Was she happy that Jacob chased her when he was already married to her sister? In those days it didn’t matter. Nobody bothered to ask.

Similarly with Herod and his brother, what did Herod’s brother feel about Herod taking his wife away? We are told that Herodias loved Herod: but even so, it had all the things wrong with it that any divorce caused by infidelity has.

Looking around at everyone here tonight, I can imagine, in the nicest way, that for most of us this sermon and these Bible stories are pretty much archive material in our lives. Not current, burning issues. But many of us are parents, and for many of our children keeping their marriages together and, indeed, getting married in a loving way, are real, live issues. We need to support our children.

Let us pray that whatever we and our children do, we do it not like Jacob or Herodias, because of lust or jealousy, but because of real love: the sort of love that we often have in the marriage service, from St Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 – ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love (or as the AV puts it, charity)…’

Let us remember, ‘Faith, hope and love… But the greatest of these is love.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 30th June 2019

Genesis 27:1-40, Mark 6:1-6 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=428750231

‘A mess of pottage’. A mess of pottage. No, we’re not playing ‘Twenty Questions’, if that brings back any memories. It’s not ‘animal, vegetable or mineral’, but I am thinking of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, who was himself the son of Abraham.

Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twin boys after they had been married for twenty years, when Isaac was 60 years old (Gen. 25:26). The boys were called, one, ‘Esau’, which means ‘covering’ – because he was hairy all over, and a redhead – and his twin brother, who was born immediately afterwards, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel, was called ‘Jacob’, which means, ‘he caught him by the heel’.

The story that you will have thought of, when I used the words ‘mess of pottage’, is what comes next in the Book of Genesis. We hear that the boys have grown up; that Esau had become an outdoorsman, skilful in hunting, whereas Jacob has led a sedentary life and ‘stayed among the tents,’ or, stayed at home.

Isaac preferred Esau, because he kept him supplied with his favourite venison; but Rebecca, the Mum, favoured Jacob. The famous story is that one day, Jacob had prepared a pot of soup, red lentil soup, when Esau came in from the country, tired out. He asked whether he could have some of the soup which Jacob had made. Jacob said that he wouldn’t give him any until Esau swore to sell him his rights as the first-born, his birthright. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and the lentil soup, which he ate and drank: and then, off he went. Jacob had got him to give away his birthright for a ‘mess of pottage’, which is what, in 1600, stood for a bowl of soup.

A mess of pottage. Actually, you won’t find the phrase ‘mess of pottage’ in any Bible: not even in the Authorised Version – at least, not in the text itself. But you will find it at the end of the introduction, from ‘The Translators to the Reader’, at the beginning of the Authorised Version of the Bible, (but not in every edition, just the fully annotated ones).

But that’s not the story we had in our lesson tonight. That was the second story about Jacob and Esau, about how Jacob disguised himself as Esau by putting on a furry cloak and making himself appear to be ‘an hairy man’ like his brother Esau, so duping their father, who by that stage was very old. He was 60 when they were born, so now that they were grown up, he must have been at least 85, I would have thought. Isaac had gone blind, so he couldn’t be sure, by looking, which twin was which. He relied on feeling them, knowing that one of them was hairy and the other was a smooth townie.

So Jacob ended up having Esau’s birthright, as the older child, and he got their father to give him his blessing as well. Obviously that didn’t make for the best relations between the brothers.

Well, I don’t propose to go into more and more detail about the ins and outs of the story in Genesis, but to take it instead as a cue to look at the whole idea of a birthright.

The world of the Bible into which Jesus came, 2,500 years ago, had a social order which is very alien from the one which we have today. Society was patriarchal. Men were in charge. There were free men and slaves. In families, the first-born inherited much the greater part of their father’s wealth. It was his ‘birthright’. (And it was he rather than she, because inheritance was by male heirs only).

Jesus came into that world and indeed there’s no criticism, either in the Old Testament or in the New, of that setup, on the basis that slavery, for example, is wrong, or that a male-dominated society is not fair; or that the eldest son should inherit the lion’s share of his father’s fortune.

You will remember the old system among the English aristocracy, according to which the eldest son inherited the father’s title and estates; the second son went into the army and the third son, into the Church. Never mind whether anybody was particularly suited for these rôles, or, in the case of the third son, whether he even believed in God. It was just the way things were. It depended on how you were born, on accidents of birth. Birthright.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was the younger son who took his share of the property – obviously it was an early instance of inheritance tax planning. The father made it a lifetime gift rather than making the Prodigal Son wait for his father to die off and then have him inherit his share after tax.

We aren’t told whether the younger son got as much as the older son, or would have got as much as the elder son, because the elder son didn’t take his share at that point. He was happy to wait. But that was, in general terms, the way things worked under the Roman Empire and much earlier indeed, in early Israel (Luke 15:11).

When we get to St Paul’s letters, being a Christian doesn’t seem to have made him change his attitude towards the social order of the time. So in Ephesians chapter 6, after saying that children should obey their parents, St Paul goes on to exhort slaves to ‘obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, single-mindedly as serving Christ’.

He does say that masters must treat their slaves decently as well. But there’s nothing about slavery being wrong in itself. But today we do acknowledge that slavery is wrong. We are shocked to learn that slavery still exists.

The Church of England has launched the Good Car Wash app, so you can check your favourite place, to see whether it is a place where modern slavery is taking place. Is it just too cheap? And there are various other things to look out for. I’ve tested our favourite car wash in Leatherhead against the criteria in the Good Car Wash app, and I can tell you that they emerge with flying colours.

But, apparently, hand car washes are a type of business where the poor and vulnerable can be terribly exploited; so much so, as to amount actually to slavery.

We don’t have much time for primogeniture, the birthright of the eldest son, these days. Our society has changed. I can remember when I was little that I had an uncle who, unknown to me, used to give my younger brother and me different presents at Christmas. I got five bob and my poor brother got half a crown. (That’s 25p and 12.5p, for those of you who are not familiar with real money). But I never knew, because my folks always surreptitiously opened the envelopes and evened things up.) My old-fashioned uncle still believed that there was a birthright belonging to the eldest son.

I think we would all agree that nowadays the right of primogeniture is completely passé, and nobody would support it any more in a civilised society. On the face of things, the idea of primogeniture isn’t compatible with the ideas that we are made in the image of God and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves; in other words, we don’t love ourselves in different ways, unequally, so we should love our neighbours equally.

So actually, in the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are already the reasons why primogeniture is not consistent with our religious belief. But I want to suggest to you, for discussion at least, that although we would all agree that the right of the first-born, that Esau was diddled out of twice, effectively, by Jacob, is no real right, and shouldn’t stand, because we are all equal in the sight of God, another way of looking at Esau’s birthright – or anyone’s birthright – is that it is an accident of birth. Esau had his birthright, by virtue of the fact that he was the first-born. It was a complete accident from his point of view. He just happened to be the elder son, by a few minutes – indeed, in the process of being born, he dragged his brother out after him, as they were twins.

But look – although quaint stories about Jacob and Esau and ‘messes of pottage’ are really just that, these days, quaint stories, accidents of birth actually seem to be capable of doing a lot of mischief.

Just because I was born in England in 1951, that puts me in a much better position than somebody who was born in Syria in, say, 1987. Or, the comparison could be with someone who was born in Afghanistan five years ago;

Or someone who was born 23 months ago, in El Salvador: who ended up drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande, with her father, trying to cross into the United States.

What is the difference between someone on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and someone on the Texan side? What difference should it make where you are born?

In one sense it is enormously important if you were born in Syria, or Afghanistan, and people were threatening to ‘blow your house up’ unless you signed up with Daesh or the Taliban: you will take enormous risks in order to find a safe place. But does that make you worth any less, in the eyes of God, than somebody who was born in Cobham?

Why are we inclined to think of people who have escaped such terrible suffering as ‘migrants’, immigrants, economic refugees, rather than our neighbours; poor people, who need us to be Good Samaritans. I wonder if, just as primogeniture has fallen out of favour, eventually the nationalism and racism in our society, which have grown so much since the Brexit vote, will wither away in the face of our Christian belief, once we have properly focussed.

We may see the truth about our birthright, or lack of it, ‘through a glass, darkly’. But let us pray that it will be very soon in plain sight, and that we will recognise our neighbours, and love them, wherever they were born.

For Marcus Walker

I see that Revd Marcus Walker, vicar of Great St Bartholomew in the City of London, has written in the ‘Spectator’ about the way that people can be estranged from the church if the Lord’s Prayer is said using unfamiliar modern words, rather than the traditional words which ‘everyone knows’. If you suddenly find that you don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, you might feel, as one of his friends did, that the church didn’t want you any more. [https://twitter.com/walkermarcus/status/1142118213012140032?s=21]

I had a similar feeling of being made strange this morning, when 1 Kings 19 was the Old Testament lesson, about how God made himself known to the prophet Elijah. This is the passage, in the words which I am familiar with.

‘And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

12And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?’ [AV]

A ‘still small voice’. A ‘still, small voice of calm’, even, as John Greenleaf Whittier’s great hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, has it:

‘Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and Thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.’

But I didn’t hear the ‘still small voice’ in the lesson as it was read today. In the modern translation used, it became this:

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ [NRSV]

A ‘sound of sheer silence’. Why? That is a contradiction in terms. I know there is a song by Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Sound of Silence’, but that’s not the image that the words ‘still, small voice’ evoke.

Another, better, modern translation puts it this way.

‘For the LORD was passing by: a great and strong wind came rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a low murmuring sound.’ [NEB]

A ‘low murmuring sound’. That’s closer to the ‘still small voice’ logically, if not poetically. There can’t be both silence and a voice at the same time. It’s not meant to connote an intrusion of the one into the other.

Marcus Walker’s point about the Lord’s Prayer, however, which I think this passage also illustrates, is that there is value in familiar words. They are homely, comforting, inviting. It’s part of our DNA as Englishmen that Elijah heard God in a ‘still, small voice’. It wasn’t the nonsense of ‘sheer silence’ – else why would he have been able to hear it? And it wasn’t a ‘murmuring sound’. How likely would we be to remember those words hundreds of years later – as we do, when they are a still, small voice, and not some banal modernity?

Does it matter? Against my instinct is the fact that this isn’t actually in the ‘DNA of us Englishmen’ any more, if it ever was. Children who have learned only ‘worship songs’ don’t know about the still small voice. And of course it’s not just Englishmen that speak, or sing, or read, from this passage in the English language. Whittier was an American. And if the ‘medium is the message’ (or ‘massage’, v.l.,) perhaps in the abbreviated language of text messages these niceties will just disappear. We will be left with sheer silence. And, no doubt, move on.

Hugh Bryant

1st Sunday after Trinity, 23rd June 2019

Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension Day, 2nd June 2019

Psalm 68; Isaiah 44:1-8, Ephesians 4:7-16 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=426327011

‘I believe in God’ – we believe in God – ‘the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was: …. conceived …. born … crucified … buried …. descended …. rose again … ascended,… and sitteth on the right hand of God the father almighty’.

On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples were all together and Jesus appeared to them, after he had been resurrected from the dead, he said to them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. When he had said this, ‘as they watched, he was lifted up and a cloud removed him from their sight’. (Acts 1:9)

The first bit points to what we’re going to remember and celebrate next Sunday, that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit, Whit Sunday, Pentecost. But this is the Sunday after the Ascension, and we are still thinking about Jesus’ Ascension: up, down, ascending, descending – disappearing.

It’s quite interesting that the Ascension is only described twice in the Bible, in Acts and in Luke chapter 24, which some scholars think may be a late addition. So possibly it is only the second book of Luke’s gospel, the book of Acts, that tells you anything about the Ascension.

Prof. John Barton, in his new and very good book, A History of the Bible, [2019, London, Allen Lane], makes the point that our creeds date from the second and third centuries AD and reflect the concerns of the church at that time. (Barton pp 326-330). The things that they thought were important then, creation, the Virgin Birth, suffering under Pontius Pilate, being crucified, dead and buried, being resurrected from the dead, ascending into heaven and then sitting in judgement at the end of time, have been emphasised and at the same time have cut out Jesus’ healing miracles and his teaching – there’s nothing in the creeds about them. Raising Jairus’ daughter, bringing Lazarus back to life, turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000: nothing: turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, the Sermon on the Mount: not mentioned. Not even Jesus’ New Commandment, that ye love one another, even as He has loved you: not mentioned.

This sifting out of what the church considered to be important, what Prof Barton calls its ‘rule of faith’, is quite challenging for us. It’s not obvious to us why the Ascension should be given such prominence, should be in the creeds, whereas loving one’s enemies and being a Good Samaritan aren’t.

I think that we would all say quite categorically that, although we believe the things in the Creed, we also believe in the other things as being very important in our Christian witness. Those important things should include trying to carry out the teaching of Jesus, trying to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It’s very clear that, when we try to understand the divine, to understand how God works, what God is, that we can only grasp things in a very partial way. It may be that, although the Ascension doesn’t get mentioned very much in the Bible, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a key belief. Our lessons today and our psalm emphasise the power and might of God – and the Ascension is one aspect of that power, an illustration of it.

There is a children’s hymn which has always made me smile, ‘Our God is a great big God’. I suppose it makes me smile partly because that sort of language, a great big God, encourages you to think of a mighty figure high above the clouds, up to whom you would go, and up to him, as his father, Jesus went.

In our Psalm, 68, we see this ‘great big God’: there are some wonderful images in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again. [Page numbering from the Cambridge edition]

‘O sing unto God, and sing praises unto his Name 

 magnify him that rideth upon the heavens, as it were upon an horse; praise him in his Name JAH, and rejoice before him.

  He is a Father of the fatherless, and defendeth the cause of the widows 

 even God in his holy habitation.

  He is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house’ – he makes people agree together – ‘and bringeth the prisoners out of captivity’… And then there’s a splendid line, ‘…  but [God] letteth the runagates continue in scarceness.’

I wondered what ‘runagates’ were. If you just turn that word over in your mind, listening to it, you suddenly realise that it is the same word as ‘renegades’. And indeed the dictionary confirms that. Renegades, the bad people, ‘continue in scarceness’. They have short commons.

It’s the same kind of god that Isaiah, as well, is proclaiming in our first lesson.

‘I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring’.

This is the God of creation, but also the God who sustains as well as creates. Pouring spirit upon seed; only God can make things live. Think of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, where he talks about how resurrection to eternal life works, with a seed, being fertilised again.

St Paul again, in his Letter to the Ephesians, has this wonderful sentence, quoting Psalm 68,

‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’

It has two examples of what I’m sure you will all immediately identify as a Cognate Accusative – the example in the textbooks is usually to ‘die the death’. Here we have, to ‘capture captivity’, which is what it literally says in the Greek, and to ‘give gifts’. It’s a figure of rhetoric where the object in the sentence is the substantive of the verb. It’s sometimes called a ‘cognate object’. ‘Cognate’ means ‘known by’. He captured captivity, he led captivity captive – and he gave gifts.

There is a nod to the ‘man upstairs’: ‘He ascended up on high’. And that of course makes Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, tackle the logical implications of that. ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ A number of preachers down the ages have taken this literally, and explored whether, in this period before the Ascension, Jesus went down into Hades, into Hell.

But just a minute! I don’t think I can get much further in this sermon without someone calling me out for talking arrant nonsense. The fact is that these days, or at least since Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ in 1960, we just don’t think of God as being anywhere in particular, located anywhere either up or down. If we talk about heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, ascending up on high and so on, we must of necessity be talking figuratively. Because the minute you allow God to be defined in time and space, he can no longer be the ultimate creator. In order to be omnipotent, to be the ultimate creator, God must be outside the confines of space and time. Therefore he isn’t up there or down there or out there, or anywhere in particular.

But there would be something terribly bleak about worshipping a god whom you could not visualise. I suppose the opposite of that is the Jewish way in which no one can speak the name of God. We see this again in Psalm 68 in verse four. God is called JAH. There are no vowels in Hebrew, so JAH represents ‘Jehovah’, the name of God. We need pictures. We need images: the picture is a picture of heaven.

There are some wonderful pictures in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again.

‘The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God’

‘Thou, O God, sentest a gracious rain upon thine inheritance 

 and refreshedst it when it was weary.’

You can just see these people plodding through the desert. ‘Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go’ [Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us – James Edmeston, 1791-1867 – Common Worship hymn 496, v2].

Again in Psalm 68:

‘Kings with their armies did flee, and were discomfited’

‘Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove’.

The modern translations actually duck this. What is having a lien among the pots? I think it means, having a lien is being tied up, tied up with household chores. Having a lien among the pots – but you will have the wings of a dove! A dove with silver wings and feathers like gold.

Then there are these hills. God’s hill. You remember the second chapter of the book of Isaiah:

‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

That’s what happens on the mountain of the Lord. And here in Psalm 68,

‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills? this is God’s hill, in the which it pleaseth him to dwell.’

Again, modern translations don’t try to translate the hopping business. I have a feeling that the translators of the King James Bible have introduced a glorious and rather touching image of people in a crowd, towards the back of the crowd, jumping up and down, hopping, in order to try to see over taller people in front, to see what is going on. ‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills?’ However high you are, God’s hill is higher.

And then,

‘Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men’.

The wording which St Paul quotes from this in his letter to the Ephesians is ‘he gave gifts to men’ (ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις). I think it’s one of those reverse meanings, ‘that’ll learn you’ rather than ‘that’ll teach you’. You have given gifts, is the right sense, I think, rather than ‘received’ them.

What a wonderful picture of God this all is! But where does it leave us? We have this wonderful picture of God, which we have to admit is pretty fanciful. Have we just invented God, in fact, ourselves? That takes us back to the bare bones of our belief in the Creed. Those startling statements about Jesus, that he was born of a virgin, died, rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven.

It’s not facetious to say, ‘You couldn’t make it up!’ But whereas it is completely beyond our human capabilities to understand the nature of the divine, God, and we have to resort to figurative language about being in heaven ‘up there’, ascending and descending, even so, we can grasp what happened to Jesus, in a much more straightforward way. We know what it was for him to be born and to die. We can understand what the resurrection looked like, through the eyes of Doubting Thomas.This is God among us. But to say that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven’ brings us back to the figurative, to the divine realm which is beyond our comprehension. But we can see enough to realise that it is perfectly coherent to say that the fact, the history, of Jesus, invites us to have faith in God, in the divine nature. We didn’t make it up. And then we can progress in faith so as to become the body of Christ, not ascended, but here on earth, just as St Paul so elegantly puts it:

‘Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’