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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reason is, that it’s irrelevant. He is trying to give effect to the result of the 2016 referendum, in a way which does least harm to our economy; at the same time he is recognizing that only another referendum can affirm or change the original Brexit referendum result. Politicians can only serve to carry out the decisions of the people when a referendum has been held.

The last three years have shown, among other things, that there is no generally-agreed interpretation of what Brexit involves In detail; that there is no achievable Brexit which does not involve economic self-harm, leaving us to a greater or lesser extent worse off, economically and in terms of international influence, than we are as members of the EU; and that there is no reliable parliamentary majority for Brexit (pace one recent vote supporting it in principle).

The Labour policy, in the light of these difficulties, is to seek to negotiate a treaty to leave the EU with as little economic self-harm as possible, and then to offer the electorate a referendum choice between that real, achievable, Brexit deal – or to recognise the benefits of what we currently have, and to remain in the EU.

It follows from the above that the party leaders’ views concerning the relative merits of the two possible outcomes are strictly irrelevant; moreover, in order for the least harmful Brexit deal to be achieved, it is necessary that our negotiators should do their best irrespective of their personal views, like the civil servants supporting them.

Nothing should prejudice the free choice of the people: but unlike in 2016, they will choose between actual, feasible Brexit or actually remaining as we are. There will no longer be future unknowns which can be called ‘Project Fear’. Perhaps once the Labour Brexit deal is on the table, and not before, leaders may declare whether they prefer it to staying in the EU – or they may not. It will not matter, as it will be the people’s choice.

Hugh Bryant

19th November 2019

Sermon for Evensong with the Prayer Book Society on Saturday 16th November 2019

Daniel 7:15-28; Revelation 9:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=440816069

Earlier this week, some of us were here in this Founder’s Chapel at Charterhouse, also under the auspices of the PBS, for the competition to select candidates to go forward to the finals of the Cranmer Awards in February next year at the Bishop’s Palace in Worcester. Thanks to Revd Chris Hancock’s excellent organising efforts and Fr Tom Pote of Holy Trinity, Guildford encouraging four good students to enter, we had a very good selection of six candidates, four juniors and two seniors, who had to read passages from the Prayer Book and from the Authorised Version of the Bible, which in the final they have to memorise and deliver by heart.

Everybody did really well and we are putting forward from the Guildford Branch two very strong candidates. Competitors in the competition can choose the passages which they use, and because the competition aims to look for people who can bring out the richness of the language in the Prayer Book and the excitement of it, it’s a good idea to find passages which are in themselves dramatic and colourful. So, for example, the conversion of St Paul (Acts 9:1-19) was one passage used and another was the reluctant wedding guests, where one who turned up improperly dressed was cast out into the outer darkness where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. (Matt. 22:1-14)

We all love the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible for many things but especially for the spiky and memorable words. I don’t know how young I was when I first registered the idea of weeping and gnashing of teeth – possibly at the time when my milk teeth were falling out, the whole idea of gnashing them was even more exciting.

Today’s lessons are cases in point. They are fanciful, metaphorical, colourful evocations of things which no one could literally experience. Prof. John Barton, in his splendid book ‘A History of the Bible’, [J. Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, at p 369], has pointed out that the mythical animals which you meet in Daniel chapter 7 (just before the passage which was our lesson this afternoon), a lion with eagle’s wings, and a leopard with ‘wings of a fowl’ and four heads, are not animals which anyone could meet in a zoo.

Fr Etienne Charpentier, in his commentary on Daniel ch 7, [E. Charpentier, translated by John Bowden, 1982, How to Read the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, at pp 90-91] has observed that the second half of the Book of Daniel, from chapter 6 onwards, and the whole of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine at the end of the New Testament are what is known as apocalypses; uncoverings, literally, from the Greek ὰποκαλυπτειν, ‘taking the cover off’, literally; the Latin translation of that Greek word being ‘revelare,’ taking the veil off, revealing, so, Revelation. 

We have come to use the word apocalypse to connote a catastrophic end, possibly the end of the world. But this is not the whole story. Certainly in the Bible, in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the intention is to give a glimpse into heaven, a glimpse of the Divine at work. But this glimpse is not in the sense of a learned work of history or a Panorama documentary, but rather a metaphor, a myth, a picture of something which we cannot see. Charpentier writes, ‘History is thought to unfold in a straight line, the end of which is hidden in God’s secret.’

Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, speaks of seeing through a glass, darkly [v12], and contrasts that with the clear vision which will come with the coming of the Kingdom. We are not intended to take these things literally. We shouldn’t have nightmares about lions with wings or a beast with iron teeth. Remember that Daniel is supposed to be having his dreams and encountering the powers of evil at the time of the Persian Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Darius, who cast him into the den of the lions, at the time of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, whereas in fact he was writing about 165BC, at the time of the Maccabees, the great Jewish revolt against king Antiochus IV’s attempt to impose Greek religion on the Jews by force. 

The historical context when these books were written is very interesting. It gives us a clue why we should still consider them as relevant to our life today. They were written at times of danger, strife, when people were worried about the future, threatened by external forces, not sure what the right thing to do should be, and in particular how to deal with earthly powers opposed to the ways of God. 

Who are these four kings in Daniel, and who are the forces, a third of whom are wiped out in the vision in Revelation? They are mythical forces; but perhaps we can identify them down the ages with particular cases where faithful people have turned to the Bible for guidance and inspiration in their own times of trouble. As one scholar has written, ‘To uphold his people’s hope in dramatic times, God lifts the veil which hides the end, revealing the happy outcome to history as a result of God’s victory.’ This is the theology of apocalypse.

If we are looking for signs of the apocalypse today, you will not need me to add to the chorus of voices shouting the odds about our contemporary situation, with our general election, all the problems of the NHS, the need for food banks and the continuing consequences of the Brexit referendum. If we are looking for signs of an apocalypse, we might class the signs of climate change as ‘apocalyptic’ more than anything else.

What to do in the face of all this? The spiky words of the Prayer Book are very helpful. We pray the Collects; and as we use some of the wonderful prayers, ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’, the Book helps us to bring all those men – and women – before the Lord in humility. Let us reflect on how those apocalypses that we have read about, those revelations, visions of heaven, can tell us the true way to that place where true joys may be found. 

In the words of the psalmist, in today’s psalms,

‘Defend the poor and fatherless: see that such as are in need and necessity have right.

Deliver the outcast and poor; save them from the hand of the ungodly.’  [Psalm 82] or 

‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. 

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water.

They will go from strength to strength …’ [Psalm 84]

I wish you all a blessed Advent time, not too much Election or Brexit stuff, and a very happy Christmas. ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts!’

Sermon for Evensong on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, 27th October 2019

Ecclesiastes 11,12; 2 Timothy 2:1-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=439196125)

I don’t know what reading matter you have in your downstairs loo, or, I suppose, whether that loo does contain a library: but on the assumption that you read, rather than playing video games, in there, I wanted to mention that when I looked at our Bible readings for this evening – or at least at one of them – I got a strong Reader’s Digest feeling. You know, those wholesome little paragraphs at the end of the main articles and stories in the Reader’s Digest – possibly one-liners, suggesting that it might be a good thing to ‘cast thy bread upon the waters’ or something like that.

Both the piece from the second Letter to Timothy and the two chapters from Ecclesiastes could fall into this category of old saws and ancient wisdom. But if you look a bit more closely and compare these two bits of wisdom, you’ll see straightway that the piece from Ecclesiastes is actually rather bleak and nihilistic. You find the word which perhaps everyone associates with Ecclesiastes, ‘vanity’. It is, according to the learned commentators on this passage, a Hebrew word, hebel, which is ‘conventionally translated ‘vanity’, [but] the literal sense of this term is more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness or deceptiveness’. (Stuart Weekes in John Barton and John Muddiman, eds, (2001) The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford, OUP, p. 423).

‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity’. Whether you ‘cast your bread on the waters’, meaning if you speculate in different markets, possibly with seven different products and seven different opportunities – or perhaps even eight – you can’t know what’s going to happen. Whether it’s going to rain; whether a tree will fall in one direction rather than another, and so on. You can’t know. You’d better make hay while the sun shines.

‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.’

The Preacher, so-called – Ecclesiastes is a translation into Greek of a Hebrew word, Qoheleth, and it could also mean the Speaker or the Teacher – whoever he is, after these bleak beginnings, he says,

‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.’

That ending is rather incongruous with what has gone before, which is sceptical, cynical – with no thought of God, until all of a sudden He appears as the Judge eternal. Some scholars think that this bit was added on by a later scribe to make this ‘wisdom literature’ seem more scriptural.

But what about the God that Ecclesiastes talks about, albeit that He appears only rarely? Ecclesiastes says, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments.’ The other day I was asked, ‘Why is it that we should fear God, if God is good and loving, as we say He is?’ It’s a good question. I’ll come back to it in a minute.

In Ecclesiastes, on the face of things it doesn’t much matter what we do, whether it will make our lives flourish or not. It is beyond our control, and the only certainty is that at the end of our lives we will come before the Judge Eternal.

The advice to Timothy, in our second reading, is rather different. God doesn’t just appear at random, on rare occasions. Everything is affected by the phenomenon of Jesus Christ, by the things that we learn about Him and receive from Him. So in the letter, Timothy needs to be strengthened by the grace, by the free gift, of Christ Jesus. He needs to be tough – ‘as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’

God himself is asked to help Timothy to understand what he ought to do. There is no ultimate hopelessness, as there is in the Ecclesiastes world; there are challenges, but at the end, Timothy can enjoy the fruits of grace:

‘The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.’

What a difference it makes to know about Jesus! The Speaker, Ecclesiastes, has such a bleak outlook. It doesn’t matter what you do in life: God doesn’t take any notice of you, except perhaps until the very end on the day of Judgement. You might as well make hay while the sun shines. God, as Ecclesiastes sees Him, really doesn’t take much notice of us. This isn’t what we are told about the God of Moses, who made a covenant, a solemn agreement, with his people, taking a very serious interest in them. ‘I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.’

For Ecclesiastes God is the ultimate creator and judge eternal: so enjoy life while you can. As well as ‘vanity of vanities, everything is vanity’, Ecclesiastes is where you find that passage which some people like to have read at funerals, ‘a time to live, a time to die. .. Everything in its season,’ and so on [3:1-9]. As Professor John Barton has pointed out, no-one usually quotes the last line of the passage, which simply asks, What’s the point of all that work? (See John Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, p68)

But it’s at least arguable that Ecclesiastes doesn’t reflect the way we understand how God works now. Compare and contrast how the writer of the letter to Timothy understands it. Your life is better, you are more able to withstand trials and tribulations, you will have inner strength if you are a believer, if you are ‘in Christ.’ ‘In Christ’ is actually an expression which doesn’t appear in the letters to Timothy, but it is quintessentially how St Paul puts it in many of his letters.

People who are in Christ have Christ in them; so their relationship with God is even more intimate than the covenant relationship that Moses and the prophets proclaimed. The chosen people of God are no longer just one nation on earth, but anyone, anyone can be saved, if they are open to the gospel of Jesus Christ and let Jesus into their hearts. There is no question of eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The Christian understanding is that we no longer have that threat hanging over us. Jesus has conquered death and we have nothing to fear because we are destined for eternal life.

So why should we fear God? It’s a good question. If we are in Ecclesiastes’ world, where God is the ultimate creator, the all-powerful, the almighty, all-knowing, and our judge at the end of time but not interfering with us much before then, with power to cast us out into the eternal darkness, then perhaps the way we should approach Him is the same way we would approach anything which is overwhelmingly big, disproportionately powerful, for whom we are a mere fleabite.

Think what happens in confrontations with things which are infinitely powerful. In biblical times kings could demonstrate their power by putting people together with wild animals. Think of Daniel in the lions’ den. The strength of the lions reflected the power of the king. The king could not avoid demonstrating his power by putting Daniel in with the lions. He didn’t expect him to survive. But what do you think Daniel was feeling? Granted that he had a very strong faith, but I can’t believe that he was not afraid. Confronted with overwhelming force, he was afraid of that force.

I think that one of the wonderful things which we can take from the revelation which is the life of Jesus and his teaching, is that God is a loving God. He isn’t somebody who would throw us to the lions. He isn’t a lion himself. He might be the lion of Judah, according to the early Christians in Ethiopia, but If so he is a very kindly and well behaved lion, more like Aslan in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I think it is intelligible for us to fear God in the sense that we respect the infinite power of the divine, but now that we have had the revelation of Jesus, because, as he says in St John’s Gospel, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’, we know that the first great commandment is a commandment of love rather than of fear. We should trust in the Lord and love the Lord our God. It is precisely that love which drives out fear.

The point of the Christian revelation, the key difference from the pointlessness that Ecclesiastes laments, is that we should never despair of being able to do some good. It means that Christians must be engaged, involved in practical things – dare I say, even political things.

If you say that preachers should stay away from politics, look at today’s headlines. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported in today’s Sunday Times as saying that the Prime Minister is ‘pouring petrol on divided Britain’. The Archbishop of York has written in today’s Observer about the poor migrants who died sealed in a refrigerated lorry. His article is headed ‘Grief is not enough. We must open our doors as well as our hearts’. And also in the Times, this time on Saturday, Revd Rosemary Durward, from our neighbours St Martin’s East Horsley, wrote an enlightened piece about under the title ‘Faith-led citizens’ forum can heal our disunited kingdom’. Christianity and politics can mix: indeed they must mix.

I think we should leave Ecclesiastes and his old saws metaphorically in an old copy of the Reader’s Digest and instead, as the writer of the letters to Timothy says, we should get out there on parade with the inner strength which comes from Jesus at the heart of our being. I’ll leave it to you to think what trials and tribulations we can confront in today’s world, but as we confront them we needn’t be cynical. It’s not vanity of vanities. It’s more ‘Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on’.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

Sermon for Evensong on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 6th October 2019 Nehemiah 5.1-13; John 9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=437270702

‘By the waters of Babylon’, as we know from Psalm 137, the people of Israel were in exile and were not happy: ‘.. we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’

But then King Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their ancestral land and to rebuild the Temple. If you look at the Book of Ezra, chapter 1, you will read the text of Cyrus’ proclamation:

The LORD the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. To every man of his people now among you I say, God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD the God of Israel, the God whose city is Jerusalem. And every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem. [Ezra 1. All Bible translations in this sermon are from the New English Bible – see, for this passage, http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/master.html?http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/IntroContents.php and mutatis mutandis for the other passages quoted]

Well, that’s the background to our Old Testament lesson, from the Book of Nehemiah. The Old Testament books 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are all reckoned to have been written by the same person, known as the ‘Chronicler’, and in the Hebrew Bible Ezra and Nehemiah are all one book. Nehemiah was the Persian king’s ‘cup-bearer’, in other words a senior official of the royal household, a Jew, who led a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem with a view to rebuilding the city and the Temple. Clearly his entourage looked to the local population, under the terms of Cyrus’ edict, to supply them with the wherewithal to get the job done and get fed and watered.

Note that: ‘… every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem’.

It didn’t go well initially.

THERE CAME A TIME when the common people, both men and women, raised a great outcry against their fellow-Jews. Some complained that they were giving their sons and daughters as pledges for food to keep themselves alive; others that they were mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and houses to buy corn in the famine; others again that they were borrowing money on their fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.

You might perhaps expect at this point that Nehemiah, perhaps with an additional edict from King Cyrus, would have said that, for the greater good of the enterprise, they had to make sacrifices. ‘Blood, tears, toil and sweat’, in Churchillian terms, or something more prosaic but equally tough, like that which came out under Margaret Thatcher or George Osborne; you might expect to have heard an austerity message, but from 500 BCE. ‘Just make do and put up with less: there is no alternative.’

But no: look at the fascinating exchange which actually did come next.

‘But’, they said, ‘our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, and there is nothing we can do, because our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’

It’s an explicit appeal to the principles of human rights, that people have worth and enjoy rights, simply by virtue of their being human. It’s the sort of language which William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect used 150 years ago. Now Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, prohibits slavery and forced labour.

In Nehemiah’s world, slavery was normal. Some people were free, and some people were slaves. But of course slavery is not consistent with the idea of human rights – and those rights, for Christians, Jews and Moslems at least, come from God. We believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God: all are created in the image of God. Nehemiah understood and accepted that. This is what he wrote.

‘I was very angry when I heard their outcry and the story they told. I mastered my feelings and reasoned with the nobles and the magistrates. I said to them, ‘You are holding your fellow-Jews as pledges for debt.’ I rebuked them severely and said, ‘As far as we have been able, we have bought back our fellow-Jews who had been sold to other nations; but you are now selling your own fellow-countrymen, and they will have to be bought back by us!’ They were silent and had not a word to say. I went on, ‘What you are doing is wrong. You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

And he, Nehemiah, the governor, and his entourage, gave up their right to extract tribute from the local population, and indeed, in the next bit of the story you’ll see that Nehemiah and his colleagues even gave up their salaries, so that he didn’t put a burden on the local people.

Let us give up this taking of persons as pledges for debt. Give back today to your debtors their fields and vineyards, their olive-groves and houses, as well as the income in money, and in corn, new wine, and oil.’ ‘We will give them back’, they promised, ‘and exact nothing more. We will do what you say.’ So, summoning the priests, I put the offenders on oath to do as they had promised. Then I shook out the fold of my robe and said, ‘So may God shake out from his house and from his property every man who does not fulfil this promise. May he be shaken out like this and emptied!’

Who says that our religion and our sacred texts are not political? Nehemiah was a minister in the government of the king of Persia. He was for 12 years the governor of the land of Judah, and he made very important decisions, as we saw, affecting the personal taxation of the population. He abolished slavery in Judah. In Judah under Nehemiah, people had intrinsic worth, and they were not a commodity which could be bought and sold. But the reason for this, the justification for it, in Nehemiah’s eyes, was his ‘fear of God’.

‘You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

It wasn’t the case that religion was on one side, in a separate compartment, if you like, and practical matters such as politics were on the other. When I read this passage again the other day I was struck by its contemporary resonances: if some people are so poor that they are sold into slavery; if they lose their homes; have to borrow money to pay for food to eat.

‘Our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves.’

That could be a criticism of quite a lot of the Anglo-Saxon world today. In the USA we read that there are 13m people living below the poverty line. In this country, as I’m sure you’ll be fed up of hearing me tell you how many people have to resort to food banks. In this really prosperous area, in the borough of Elmbridge, there are three food banks, and in the Cobham one we are distributing an average of ¾ tonne of food every week.

And yet, by contrast, here we are, blessed with lovely houses, nice clothes, enough to eat, decent cars and all the good things of life. What are we supposed to do?

I went to a very interesting breakfast lecture given by a new recruit to the Diocesan staff, who is a very interesting minister, a newly-ordained Deacon called Jens Mankel, who has come to live and work in Guildford Diocese from a church in Frankfurt. It was all about making Christian faith a living reality, a compelling reality, in today’s world, here in Surrey.

We find it easy to have mother-and-toddler groups, women’s breakfasts, men’s breakfasts, parish lunches – what used to be called Agapés – ‘faith suppers’: good fellowship, love for our fellow men and women – but, perhaps we have to be honest – only up to a point. Very few of the people who come to the mother-and-toddler group actually come into church, or do anything that is a church activity. Some do: we have had some baptisms, and confirmations, which began at ‘Mothers and Others’: we have a number of volunteers working for the Foodbank who are active members of the various churches around here. Three of the trustees of the Foodbank are from St Mary’s, for example. But they’re only a minority.

But what are we doing about refugees? We now have seven refugee families in this area, and one Kurdish couple staying with me. Until people have obtained confirmation that they have been granted asylum here, they are not allowed to work, and they receive a hand-out of £35 a week. That makes it very hard to get by.

I would suggest that we ought, as a church, to adopt some outward giving charitable targets. Maybe one domestic focus and one overseas.

What do you think? If those aren’t the sort of things we should be involved in as a church, what else could we do, if we wish to follow Jesus? Do we feel compelled, do we feel that, like Martin Luther, we ‘can do no other’, because of the very fact of God and Jesus in our lives?

Or are we still to some extent tentative? Well, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. He who is not against us is for us. Perhaps I can call this ‘Nehemiah’s Challenge’. Put yourself in Nehemiah the governor’s shoes, but here in Cobham, in Stoke D’Abernon in 2019. What would you say, what would you do, if you were the Chief Executive? Who is your king?

For Nehemiah, Cyrus was his king. But more than any earthly king, Nehemiah feared – revered, respected, even loved – his Lord. I pray that it may be so for us too.

Michaelmas

Lessons at Mattins: Daniel 12.1-4, Acts 12.1-11, Psalm 150

Lessons at Evensong: Daniel 10.4-21, Revelation 5, Psalm 148

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=436417887

Against the background of the continuing wrangling over ‘Brexit’, I expect you might feel that it’s rather good that we are, today with all the Western church, celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Where are those angels, when we surely do need them?

First, let’ s define our terms. “Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are the three named biblical angels, depicted as the beloved messengers of God.” Αγγελος, in Greek, means, a messenger. “Michael, which means ‘who is like God?’, is described as protector of Israel and leader of the armies of God and is perhaps best known for his victory over the dragon, which is told in the Revelation to John.” [Rev. 12 – quotation from Brother Tristram SSF and Simon Kershaw, eds, (2007), Exciting Holiness, Norwich, Canterbury Press, p. 412].

Angels I – sermon delivered at Mattins

This morning I want to look at ‘angels’ in the Biblical context, and this evening I want to spend more time looking at the theology behind the idea of angels. Both this morning and tonight I will look at how angels could be relevant to our lives today.

Both this morning and this evening the lessons include passages from the Book of Daniel, which is almost as spectacularly weird a book as the Book of Revelation; indeed tonight, if you like apocalyptic stuff, you will get a double treat, because you will get passage from Daniel and a passage from Revelation. Definitely you are in the heavenly realm. As you read both of those passages, I think that merely earthly concerns will tend to fall away. Come tonight as well, and I’ll tell you about a very special guardian angel.

This morning we have heard a little passage from the twelfth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Daniel purports to be all about the people of Israel in exile in Babylon and then under the Persians, Syrians and Greeks, in such a way that Daniel, who was supposed to be along for the ride at all stages, would have had to have been alive for more than 400 years.

Scholars believe that the book wasn’t written at the time of the exile in Babylon, but 400 years later, about 200 BCE, after the Seleucid overthrow of the Ptolemies in Syria: the Syrians, the ‘Chaldeans’, and the resistance of the Jews led by the Maccabees. In this little vignette from Daniel’s visions we have actually what is the only explicit mention in the Old Testament of life after death. ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake.’ We know that the Pharisees did believe in life after death, but this is the only place in the Old Testament that you’ll actually see it spelt out. It’s pretty vague. The only thing to observe is that, if you read on beyond our passage, not everyone rises from the dead, but only the virtuous believers, the good and pious.

And the one who will lead the people of Israel against the evil Persian king in Daniel’s vision is Michael, ‘the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.’ Michael, whose name means, ‘Who is like God’.

And then we come to the adventures of the Acts of the Apostles: this one not one of St Paul’s adventures, but involving St Peter himself, being put in prison and being guarded by four ‘quaternions’ of soldiers.

If you look up what a ‘quaternion’ is, the most common usage today connotes a complicated piece of mathematics. But under ‘rare’ meanings, the dictionary lists the meaning we would expect, which is that a quaternion is a group of four, so we have 16 soldiers guarding Peter in prison. Nevertheless, when everybody was asleep, somebody came along and let him out. He thought he was dreaming, but he went through the city gates – which opened by themselves – and then found that he was on his own, that the man had disappeared – or rather, the angel had disappeared. St Peter woke up and said that it had been a messenger from God. It had been an angel.

The ‘Herod’ who had put him in prison was the grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I. Of course there is another miraculous escape from prison that Paul and Silas went through, in chapter 16 of the Acts. There they didn’t in fact run away, though there had been an earthquake and the doors of the gaol had been opened; ‘We are all here’, they said, and the grateful gaoler became baptised and was converted.

What are we to make of these angels? Later on in the chapter in Acts, St Peter went, after he’d been freed by the angel, to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. Initially he couldn’t get in. The maid, Rhoda, didn’t open the gate to let him in, but instead she went inside to tell everyone that Peter was outside, standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are nuts; you’re out of your mind’, but she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel’, meaning that it wasn’t really him.The idea was that a person’s spirit – their ghost – could somehow separate itself from their body and roam around on its own. It could be mistaken for that person. They did let him in eventually.

There’s that lovely passage in the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.

There is Michael, who is like God: so maybe in some senses an angel is God. In various places in the Bible there are hierarchies in heaven; in the Letter to the Hebrews, Psalm 8 is quoted:

‘What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?

You have made them little lower than the angels.’

Messengers of God. Maybe in future people will not really understand what a messenger was. The idea of having ‘brought the news from Ghent to Aix’, or that image from all those war films of the dusty dispatch rider on his Matchless 500 miraculously getting through a bombardment in order to give the news to the colonel in charge, just won’t make sense in an era of instant communication. Why do you need a messenger when you can use Skype?

When Peter was released from prison by the angel and went to the house where the faithful were praying for him, on the face of things we could say that their prayers had been answered. They were praying for him to be released, for sure. But perhaps we should be a little bit cautious about this. If we always pray for a guardian angel to come along and save us, or fix our problems, it’s like any other prayer. We can’t boss God about, even if we want to. We’re not addressing God as some kind of superhero boss, you know; ‘Please will you send your superman down to fix things for us.’ The most we can do is to pray, ‘Thy will be done’, and that God will do whatever is in accordance with his divine will.

I think we can infer from all this that what angels do, above all, their function in the divine economy, if you like, is that they are part of God’s revelation. They are one way that God makes Himself known to us. So if indeed something good happens, and an angel seems to be involved, then perhaps we can infer that we have had a glimpse of what God really intends. And given that it does look from time to time that there are guardian angels at work, that things happen, that things turn out, better than we could reasonably expect, for no apparent good reason, then we are tempted to say that it must be a guardian angel looking out for us. Why not? Why not let us give thanks to God for showing His love for us through an angel?

So let us in all humility give thanks to God for saints and angels, and for all the company of heaven.

Angels II – sermon delivered at Evensong

Tonight’s lessons are visions of heaven, or at least of heavenly beings. Daniel’s vision was of the ‘man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz’, and all the other amazing jewellery and other finery, whom no-one except Daniel could see, who told him about being ‘sent to him’, but being delayed, by being caught up in a battle involving ‘one of the chief princes, Michael’, against ‘the prince of Persia’.

It looks as though the angel, the messenger from God, is the man clothed in linen, rather than Michael, who is a leader of the Jewish army. But as I pointed out this morning, the Book of Daniel purports to cover a 400-year swathe of history, personally witnessed throughout by Daniel himself. Of course it isn’t that: scholars agree that it is a book written about 200 BCE, in the context of the people of Israel’s subjection to the Greeks – Alexander having conquered the Persians, who previously ruled Judah – and the history that Daniel claims to have witnessed from the exile in Babylon and Babylon’s conquest by Syria, and so on, is not accurate at all.

The book falls into two halves, the first six chapters being this quasi-history, or rather a series of stories, like the fiery furnace and the escape of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from it in the face of the anger of king Nebuchadnezzar; King Belshazzar’s feast, the writing on the wall, and the interpretation of it by Daniel; and Daniel’s escape from the lions in their den, having been saved by the Lord – and by his angel. That’s what it says.

The second part consists in Daniel’s visions. The one we have here, of the spectacular man in linen clothing, comes in a dream where Daniel hears from Gabriel – described as ‘the man Gabriel, whom I had already seen in the vision’ – because indeed, when he had a vision of a ram being attacked by a flying he-goat, he heard a human voice asking someone ‘with the semblance of a man’ standing in front of him by the river Ulai, ‘Gabriel, explain the vision to this man.’ The name Gabriel, we are told, means ‘the strength of God’. He appears in other parts of the Bible where he is clearly identified as an angel – most famously in the Annunciation to Mary, that she will become the mother of the Messiah.

Then we have the chapter from Revelation, where there is a ‘strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice’, asking who is worthy to open the Book of Life with its seven seals, the answer being the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain, the embodiment of the humility, and at the same time the power, of God.

These visions of ‘saints and angels, and the whole company of heaven’ are clearly not meant to be literally interpreted. ‘Heaven’ isn’t a place; it isn’t, as indeed Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, is supposed to have reported, a glittering mountain above the clouds. It’s more of an idea, a concept. God and the realm of God is beyond our comprehension – indeed the idea of a ‘realm’, in the sense of a particular place, also doesn’t make sense. God is, more or less by definition, everywhere.

In most of the angel stories in the Bible, the angel appears to someone in a dream. For instance you will recall the stories of Jacob’s Ladder; of Jacob seeing a vision, in a dream, of angels ascending and descending into heaven; and the warning to Mary and Joseph in a dream not to take the baby Jesus back home to Nazareth, which saved him from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; and so on.

I think that angels are more personal, more targeted in their message towards a particular individual than the prophets. Prophets, on the other hand, proclaim to the world at large the word which they receive from God.

But why do people believe in, or at least feel so positive towards, the idea of angels? Why do people talk about having ‘guardian angels’? I myself talked that way last autumn, almost exactly a year ago. I’ll tell you the story.

I had gone to bed as usual at about 11 o’clock, and after reading three lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I was sleeping the sleep of the just. But at about 3am I suddenly woke up, shivering violently in a way I had never experienced before. It was very worrying. I decided that I needed a Beecham’s Powder. I took one, and the shivering gradually subsided. Then I realised that I was feverish, and that my right ankle and shin were sore and swollen.

I went back to bed, thinking that I’d caught some fluey bug – the sort of thing that some people call ‘man flu’ (which is a misconception, of course) – and that if I stayed in bed for a day or so, took more Beecham’s Powders and possibly had a snort or two of Scotch, I would be fine. At 9 o’clock I woke up again, phoned all the people that I was going to see that day, and cancelled my appointments. I relaxed, took another Beecham’s Powder, and went back to bed.

About an hour later, my daughter Emma rang me, completely out of the blue. She is a head-and-neck surgeon, and last year she was a surgical registrar in a hospital in Bristol. She was between operations on her morning list. In the post that morning, her new iPhone X had arrived. In between operations, she was trying it out.

‘I know’, she said to herself, ‘I’ll ring Dad and see how he is’. And that’s what she did. I told her how I was. She said she didn’t like the sound of it, and would come and see me. I told her not to worry. I’d taken the Beecham’s Powders and I would be absolutely fine in the morning.

Actually, in the morning, I wasn’t fine. My leg had really swollen up, and I felt pretty ghastly. But before I had had time to worry much about it, Emma was there. She’d scooped up my little grandson Jim, who’s now nearly three, and driven from Bristol first thing. An hour later I was admitted to Epsom Hospital with what she had correctly diagnosed, over the phone, as sepsis.

Those of you who follow the Archers will know that sepsis will see you off in 48 hours, or at the very least cause you to have limbs amputated, if it’s not treated very quickly. I had about 24 hours to live when I was admitted. Emma had saved her Dad’s life.

Emma had no good reason to ring me. It wasn’t a regular phone call spot. We didn’t have any special news to tell each other – or rather, she didn’t have any special news to tell me. What gave her the idea to call me? We’ll never know – but I know that she saved me, and that it felt as though she was really my guardian angel.

Who knows whether that makes coherent theological sense? All I do know, is that I did feel very blessed. God had cared for me, and had sent Emma as His angel. How wonderful thou art!

I don’t know whether it is more than just a nice heartening story. A sceptic would surely say that. Even comparing it with the Biblical angel stories, Emma certainly didn’t remember any dreams, with angels telling her to ring home in them.

We like to experience visions, or to use our imagination to create worlds. Think of the popularity of those epic TV sagas like Game of Thrones – or indeed the upstairs-downstairs world of Downton Abbey. For most people that world, that world of the landed aristocracy in a bygone age, could be just as much a figment of the imagination as Game of Thrones. Maybe indeed the visions in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the pictures in glorious Technicolor of the heavenly realms, the images of God on his throne surrounded by his angels and with the Lamb at his right hand, sitting on golden thrones; maybe those visions are just that, dream sequences, myths which our own minds have produced.

We are attracted – perhaps in the way that we feel a pull to look over the edge of a precipice – to the idea of the end time, to the Apocalypse, the great revealing, the great Revelation, and the final judgement, the separation of the sheep from the goats.

Poor old goats – they’re always the baddies. Just as in Daniel’s vision of the Lamb and the he-goat, and again at the end of time. The Jews had their idea of the Scapegoat, another poor goat on to whose horns all the sins were metaphorically, sacramentally tied in a red cloth by the priests, who drove the poor animal out to starve in the desert. He died for their sins. He took upon himself the burden of their sin. Just as we say Jesus did for us.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856)

Liberal theologians like John Robinson, in Honest to God, and Don Cupitt, in The Sea of Faith, or Paul Tillich,have argued that God isn’t a thing, defined in time and space, but rather is the heart of our being, or that God goes beyond, transcends, all existence; so perhaps in a similar way angels, angels appearing to us in dreams, may not exist in the same way that tables and chairs exist: but it is perfectly in order for us to fantasise about them, to make pictures in our minds of them, in our semi-conscious moments. And I still think that my daughter Emma has an angel behind her. I hope and pray that you, when you are in need, are as fortunate as I was. I really think that God sent me an angel.

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

‘How is the food bank doing?’ Everyone asks me. The short answer, of course, is, ‘Much better, since Daisy Bates took over from me as manager’!

Seriously though, you have to give a rather different answer about how a food bank is ‘doing’ than you would if you were being asked about your hedge fund, or your property company, or whatever else you work for: because in one sense you might say that a food bank was successful when it’s no longer needed, and so it’s closing – but, whichever party wins the next election, I think that, sadly, nothing much is likely to change, at least so far as the people who haven’t enough to buy food are concerned.

What would really help our clients – and might indeed probably put us out of business – would be legislation to raise the minimum wage to the ‘Living Wage’: to stamp out the ways that people get round paying people properly, like zero-hours contracts and the use of employment contractors in Eastern Europe. And of course, if there was a proper council house building programme and the bedroom tax was abolished until it was completed. That would all help.

But as things are, we have found out that, even in the second most prosperous borough in England, Elmbridge – which is where Cobham is – there are significant numbers of people who need to obtain vouchers for the food bank.

We’ve also found out that the Trussell Trust standard model, of food to cover emergencies, lasting at most three or four weeks, is not really adequate for a number of our clients. We keep full statistics of all the reasons for needing a food voucher, and by far the biggest causes of hunger here are low income and unemployment, 49.8% and 23.3% of all the people fed since we started. Although we hear that unemployment has gone down, our figures suggest that unfortunately some of the new jobs don’t pay enough for people to live on. As I said earlier, whichever party or parties form the next government, it would be good if they raised the minimum wage. Changes in the State benefit system and delays in paying benefits were relatively minor causes of need – 5.2% and 5.8% respectively.

People just not earning enough to live on is a cause of food poverty which isn’t capable of being fixed in three or four weeks. We therefore have some clients who have come to the Foodbank over a longer period. The procedure in such cases is that the Foodbank manager checks with the agency which issues the vouchers in question, to verify that there is a genuine continuing urgent need. It has been very unusual – only a couple of cases since we started – for me to find a case where I believe that someone is exploiting the Foodbank wrongly.

To go back briefly to the beginning, I should report that the Foodbank was set up by a working group from Churches Together. Most of the working group then became trustees. I want to thank my fellow trustees for all their hard work and support in setting up and administering the Foodbank.

We took two key strategic decisions at the outset, to become affiliated to the biggest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust network, and to establish the Foodbank as an independent charity, registered as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. St Andrew’s Church, here, lent us the £1,500 joining fee for our Trussell Trust subscription, which gave us a comprehensive operating manual – in detail, how to run your food bank – computer software and their national data system, training for our volunteers, and important publicity materials and support.

We leased a 400 sq.ft. warehouse at Brook Willow Farm just outside Leatherhead, and Waitrose kindly fitted it out with shelving. We use Waitrose crates too – they haven’t charged us for any of the shelving or the crates. The crates cost about £4 each, and at any one time we have about 200 of them.

The Methodist Church offered the use of their hall in Cedar Road as a distribution centre, from which we hand out food in exchange for vouchers on Friday lunchtimes from midday to 1.30. The Methodist Church gave us exclusive use of a walk-in cupboard at the hall, which Sainsbury’s kindly fitted out for us without charge. Sainsbury’s have also been great supporters. They allow us to get food up to a certain value each month, to fill gaps in what we have been given.

Trussell Trust provides special training for anyone who is going to work at the sharp end, dealing with clients in the distribution centre. It can be very tough for some people to be brave enough to go to the Foodbank, and those of you who work in the ‘DC’, as we call it, have created a really welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere. Well done and thanks for that.

Cargill’s generosity enabled us to lease the best van in the world, a Mercedes Sprinter, and we were able to have it wrapped in its distinctive green livery through generous donations.

We have been wonderfully supported financially. We have had major support from Cargill (both as a company and from staff collections), from the Community Foundation for Surrey (who awarded grants from funds contributed by various local organisations); from Cobham Combined Charities, Tearfund, Elmbridge Borough Council, this church St Andrew’s in Cobham, and from St Mary’s, and from many individuals.

We now need to encourage as many people as possible to give us a modest amount regularly, with a Gift Aid declaration if possible. There are forms here for you to fill in!

We have 132 volunteers on the books – it’s great to see so many of you here today. Some of you are DC specialists, some work in the warehouse, receiving, logging and storing the food donated each week; and some work with the van, as drivers or driver’s mates. We need more drivers and mates. The van can be driven by anyone who has a clean car licence. I will give you a little training run, which you will find pretty easy. She has a manual gearbox – 6 speeds – and she doesn’t have parking sensors, I’m afraid. But as the van dealers said when I collected her, ‘She does have a step!’ Just remember that if you park behind our van in future.

Every week, the congregations of our seven churches fill their green Foodbank bins and we collect it all up in the van. We’ve had generous helpful so from several of our schools – Parkside, St Matthew’s, ACS, Notre Dame, Feltonfleet and Danes Hill. We have bins in Waitrose, Starbucks and Sainsbury’s Metro on the High Street.

As well as their generous financial help, Cargill have provided volunteers to tackle busy periods in the warehouse, typically after we’ve had a collection day outside Waitrose or the big Sainsbury’s; those collections produce a van-ful of food, usually around one metric ton. It fills about 100 supermarket crates, the contents of which all have to be unloaded, weighed and tallied.

We have signed up over 20 voucher issuers – various agencies and people who are in a position to verify that a person is in genuine need, such as the CAB, Jobcentre, Oasis Childcare Trust, various arms of Elmbridge Borough Council such as the Housing Benefit department and Cobham Centre for the Community, and all the ministers of religion. The voucher system means that there is never any awkwardness at the ‘point of sale’ – anyone who presents a voucher is entitled to get some food: no ifs, no buts. They are entitled.

Finally in the roll of honour of supporters, I should mention the press, especially the Surrey Advertiser, who have given us really good coverage, and our MP, Dominic Raab, who came and officially opened the Foodbank in December 2013.

So, largely thanks to you, we are up and running. We are the fourth food bank in the borough of Elmbridge, and one of over 400 in the Trussell Trust network. I originally offered to be the manager for one year, and so I was very pleased when Daisy offered to take over. You have been finding out – and fixing – all the various things I hadn’t quite got round to, and already I think the Foodbank is looking more dynamic and go-ahead. I hope you’ll all follow us on Twitter – that’s where you’ll see all the news about the Foodbank, and especially, what we’re short of, every week.

I can honestly say that my year as Foodbank manager has been really fulfilling, and I hope that, with all your help, we’ve laid good foundations for long service for needy people in Cobham. I am planning to move nearer my family in Bristol later this year. Meanwhile I will be very happy to continue to work as a trustee, and my special area will be transport, looking after our lovely van!

Hugh Bryant

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 11th August 2019 – Foreboding and Consolation

Isaiah 11:10 – 12:6; 2 Corinthians 1:1-22 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=432463430)

This morning Godfrey told us, in his sermon, how he had a feeling of foreboding; that he felt that many things were not going well in the world. There is already too much suffering in the world, and he is afraid that things are going to get much worse. Climate change. Wars, and millions of refugees. Inequality. Desperate poverty in the midst of riches. And yes, Brexit too. How can we be consoled? What is God’s plan? Is there any hope?

Let’s start with some old stuff. About 500 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, were in exile, in captivity in Babylon, or spread out, a diaspora throughout the ancient Middle East. But Isaiah prophesied that salvation would come.

‘On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations,

   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,

and gather the dispersed of Judah

   from the four corners of the earth.’

This is a reference to the early history of Israel. Following the death of King Solomon in 933BCE, the kingdom broke into two, the south, that of Judah of which is the capital was Jerusalem, and the north, called Israel, of which the capital was Samaria. 200 years later, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and, just over a century later, the Babylonians seized Judah, and deported the people to Babylon. ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept’ (Psalm 137).

In fact, the exile in Babylon only lasted 50 years, because in 538BCE King Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews.

Some scholars have suggested that this section in the first part of Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to the coming of the Messiah; and indeed our lesson is just after a famous passage which is usually taken to be a prophecy about the Messiah.

‘…[T]here shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, … with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth … and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:1-9)

There are aspects of the history of Israel which I think we have to be careful about. That one people, one racial group, can be regarded as uniquely chosen by God, as clearly was the understanding in Old Testament times and indeed much later, is now an idea which is perhaps somewhat problematical. Now we think of God as a universal god, as loving everyone in His creation; that God has no favourites.

But let us take it for now that this prophecy is not nationalistic, but it is a vision of God’s Kingdom, a vision of the ideal world. Just as Moses had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, so there would be a second gathering, to bring them together out of subjection. Maybe indeed it isn’t partial; maybe Isaiah does not exclude the non-Jewish people from his vision of the Kingdom of God. He says,

‘And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.’ (Isaiah 11:12)

An ‘ensign for the nations’, a sign for the nations. ‘Nations’ are the non-Jewish people, the ‘Gentiles’. The Messiah would come, the rod of Jesse. He would bring salvation, and bring the exiles home.

But as well as that ancient prophecy, which brought consolation and hope for the people of Israel in their exile, I want to talk about St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, to the people living in the important city that joins Achaia, the mainland of Greece which has Athens in it and extends up to Salonica, and the Peloponnese, the bit with the three prongs on the map, that stick down from the southern part of the mainland of Greece. They were living in the time when Isaiah’s prophesies had been fulfilled. The Kingdom, the Messiah, had arrived.

When St Paul was visiting Corinth, Corinth was the administrative centre of the Roman province of Achaia. It is interesting, as it always is with St Paul’s letters, to try to work out what he was in effect answering: what the other side of the picture was. What were the Corinthians doing – the Corinthian Christians, that is – that prompted St Paul to write to them and give them his advice on how to be better Christians? We don’t know. But the advice, which St Paul gave in this first part of his letter, was about sympathy, about consolation in times of distress. It was a message which is very relevant today.

Sympathy is saying, ’I feel your pain’, and it might extend, to some extent, to vicarious suffering; volunteering to accept punishment or suffer pain which would otherwise be inflicted on someone else. Paul’s argument is that God comforts us in all our troubles. In following God in Jesus Christ and being comforted ourselves, we in turn are able to comfort other people in their troubles.

If we have to endure suffering, we are like Christ in that suffering. ‘As the sufferings of Christ abound in us’, said St Paul – but even so, we are consoled, we are comforted, by the way that Jesus triumphed over suffering and death, in his Resurrection. The idea is that that resurrection power, that resurrection consolation, is shared with us as Christians, and so we are able to deal with and withstand any suffering we may undergo.

On the face of it, St Paul has laid out a very neat logical scheme, to show how Christianity ‘works’ to the good of all who believe. Think of Mrs C.F. Alexander’s Christmas carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

For he is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness.’

‘And he feeleth for our sadness; And he shareth in our gladness.’ We sometimes say, about somebody, that we ‘feel for them’; or you might say to somebody, ‘I share your pain’. But in a real sense we don’t.

We can’t literally feel what another person feels. We can’t even be sure that what the other person’s senses perceive is the same as what we perceive. On a rather basic level, we sometimes can’t even agree what colour something is. Some people see yellows as greens, or greens as yellows, for example.

One of the most intriguing questions, that always challenges us, is ‘What does it feel like?’ What does it feel like to fly on Concorde? What does it feel like to drive a Ferrari?

The thing is that somebody who’d done those things could tell you all about them; but really you still wouldn’t know what it felt like. And again, in relation to the idea of suffering in somebody else’s place, that somehow or other you can transfer the suffering, there can’t be a literal way of doing that; but where diseases are concerned, there is of course the mechanism of infection; so to some extent that kind of suffering can be transferred – but that’s not what we are thinking about here.

What if we are on the wrong end of some of the things that the ‘Rod of Jesse’ puts right: if we are poor, if we are humble, if we suffer from someone’s wickedness; if the rich and powerful exploit their position to become richer and more powerful, and make us weaker and poorer. Is there some mechanism for passing on, taking away, those things – those ‘tribulations’?

Suppose somebody sidled up to you and said, ‘Look: you’re poor, and I am rich. Let’s swap places.’ That might be what St Paul had in mind. It’s a bit far-fetched. But let’s explore the idea nevertheless.

It might well help my understanding, my sympathy, to swap places with one of the Foodbank’s clients for a period. They might enjoy living in my nice house and driving my nice car – and of course, feeding my nice cats. Is that what St Paul, effectively, is talking about? That we should be willing to do what Jesus did, to humble ourselves and become servants? I don’t feel your pain. I can’t feel your pain. But is there anything which I can do, to take some of that pain away? I can still ‘put myself in your place’, at least figuratively.

Still thinking about the food bank clients, what types of food do food bank clients eat? Pasta? Or baked beans? But put yourself in their position. What would you like to eat? Surely not just pasta and beans. Actually, poor people like to eat the same stuff that you and I like.

That’s our challenge. I think that’s what St Paul is saying. To the extent that Jesus took upon himself, in some way, the sins of the world, and symbolically, sacramentally, accepted punishment for them, so we should take contemporary ills upon ourselves: the shortages, the injustices, the things that make people hungry.

We should reach out to people who are suffering, and try to take some of that suffering away from them. We can put it alongside what we know of Christ’s suffering, and by sharing it in that way, ‘A trouble shared …’ is at least a trouble halved.