Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.


Sermon for Evensong on the Nativity of John the Baptist, 24th June 2018

Malachi 4; Matthew 11:2-19

Malachi 4:5-6: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Matthew 11:11-14: I tell you this: never has there appeared on earth a mother’s son greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.

12 ‘Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men 13 For all the prophets and the Law foretold things to come until John appeared, 14 and John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it. 15 If you have ears that can hear, then hear. [Translations from the New English Bible – see]

Sometimes I’m very conscious that we have come into church, and we’re in a sort of bubble of ‘churchness’, a world away from our normal lives. I think that our celebration of John the Baptist may be a case in point. Many people, we read, flocked to hear John preaching his hellfire sermons, and queued up to be dunked in the River Jordan, to be baptised.

I don’t know how many people this was, in precise numbers. Even though there wasn’t any modern media, no radio or TV – and indeed without Facebook and Twitter – people somehow got to hear about John and flocked to hear him. But I don’t know whether this was in thousands or in hundreds of people.

However many they were, they were looking for a saviour of the Jewish, the Israelite, people, who were in subjection under the rule of the Roman Empire. They talked about a ‘messiah’, God’s anointed, chosen one, Χριστός, Christ, in Greek. When the Messiah had come, that would be the coming of the Kingdom of God. He would kick out the Romans and emancipate them.

How the Israelites got on, at more or less any stage in their history, depended on God, who had made a covenant, a contract, with them, according to which, if they kept God’s commandments and worshipped only Him, the one God, then He would look after them, and they would be safe in their Promised Land.

If you were doing badly in any way, if you were hungry, or ill, or homeless, it meant that God was punishing you for some breach of His covenant.

The prophets, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Hosea, for instance – and Malachi, which we are told is a made-up name, which just means, in Hebrew, ‘My Messenger’, all provided a channel of communication between God and his chosen people. Elijah was the greatest prophet: John the Baptist was introduced as the new Elijah. So John was the most reliable guide to the Messiah, he was the modern Elijah, according to Jesus.

Then along came Jesus, and effectively put John Baptist out of a job. John had sent two of his followers, disciples, to meet Jesus, to try to find out if he was indeed the Messiah. And Jesus answered by reeling off a list of miracles which he’d done. The idea was that, unless he was the Messiah, it wasn’t possible that he would have been able to do all the amazing things that he had done: ‘The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.’

Jesus went on to identify John as a prophet, a truly great one, a ‘messenger’, to ‘prepare the way’ for Him. Bear in mind also at this point that the word we have translated as ‘messenger’, in the original Greek is αγγελος, ‘angel’.

In some ways, although it’s stirring stuff, I think this all sounds very alien, very different from our world today. In very basic terms, what would you think of as parallels with some of the things in the story? Do we have ‘prophets’ today? What would a ‘prophet’ look like? What would he – or she – do?

Can we parallel the way the Jews in Biblical times had this direct relationship with God, this channel through one or other of the prophets? They didn’t say that things happened just because they had organised them; if something was going to work, to be successful, God had to bless it, it had to be in accordance with God’s will. Or, to put it another way, if they left God out, if they were separated from God in some way, He would punish them. Things would go wrong.

How, as John the Baptist’s disciples asked, how could they tell if someone was the real Messiah? It seems that Jesus was quite happy to point to the miracles which he performed, healing sick people, even reviving dead people – and even ‘the poor are hearing the good news’.

We tend to be cautious about hanging our faith on miracles. We are worried that these stories of miraculous healing might turn out not to be true – or we may have to face people who give us scientific explanations which seem to rule out the possibility of divine intervention. We tend to say not that the miracles straightforwardly happened, just as the Bible described, but rather that there are stories in the Bible which stand for something mysterious, beyond our capability to understand; but that something did happen; because no other episode in history has resonated down the ages and made people change their lives so comprehensively and so consistently as the story of Jesus’ three years of active ministry around 30AD.

The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, wasn’t what they expected him to be. He wasn’t a great military leader. And similarly, the prophet, who foretold his coming, who ‘prepared the way’, wasn’t a grand figure dressed in silks and satins. You will remember, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 3, we learn that ‘John’s clothing was a rough coat of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey’.

The whole thing was much more nuanced than the contemporary onlookers expected. ‘Hail to the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater son’ says the hymn. But what was it to be ‘the Lord’s anointed’? That’s the literal meaning of ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’. I was talking the other Sunday about Arius, and his theology of Christ, or Jesus, as being a ‘son’ in the normal human sense, not in the Holy Trinity sense of being one with, consubstantial, co-eternal, with, God the Father.

Perhaps John the Baptist’s prophecy foreshadowed a more Arian figure than we now think about. When John had baptised Jesus, a voice was heard saying ‘This is my Son, the beloved’. Not, ‘This is me in my human form’. Today I think we will tend not to get stuck in trying to interpret this. It is ‘God talk’, metaphor and myth, words, rather inadequate to encompass the divine mystery.

But then, and in the years that followed, right up to the fourth century, people were still arguing about what it all meant. Arius’ ideas caused huge controversy in the early church.

Is there a message for us today? John preached repentance, repentance from sin. We understand that to mean that he asked people to change their minds, radically to change their attitudes, so as to bring themselves back into that close relationship with God which had done so much for His chosen people, the Jews, the Israelites.

Are we sinful? Do we need to ‘repent’? Being sinful is being cut off, on a different wavelength, from God. Are we able to bring ourselves back into that close relationship, that ‘covenant’, with God? That is what today’s Gospel is all about. We don’t, on the whole, crowd around wild men in scruffy clothing preaching hellfire and damnation – like the sandwich-board men you used to see on the streets in London and Birmingham and the other big cities; or perhaps at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. We don’t recognise prophets much any more.

But there are still great movements of belief, of faith. In the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, in the worldwide wave of prayer called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, millions of Christians all over the world were praying together, bringing themselves closer to God. In the global South, if not currently in the cool Northern Hemisphere – the Northern sophisticates are too ‘cool’, perhaps – Christianity is growing, growing far faster than any other faith. As Jesus said, ‘The poor have the gospel preached to them’. We are part of it. We were part of it.

John said, ‘Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. Let’s leave our comfortable ‘bubble’. Let’s change, change for the better. Really reflect on what we do in our lives, what we believe in, and compare it with what we know of Jesus. Are we Good Samaritans? Bob Dylan sang, ‘You’re going to have to serve somebody’. Do we serve anybody? Do we look after the widow, the orphan, the stranger – the immigrant? Do we love our neighbour? Maybe John the Baptist still has a relevant message for us, even today.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Trinity

17th June 2018

Deuteronomy 10:12-11:1, Acts 23:12-35

Aunt Lucy, Paddington Bear’s Aunt Lucy, that is, in ‘Paddington 2’, told the little bear to ‘Be kind and polite and the world will be all right’.

It has somewhat the same flavour as

And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul,

To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?

– which is from our first lesson today, from the Book of Deuteronomy, the Second Law Book of the Jewish Law, God’s law, as it was given to Moses.

You might wonder what Paddington’s got to do with anything: certainly, what Paddington might have to do with a Sunday sermon.

Well, the reason I’m mentioning Paddington Bear is that the second Paddington film, Paddington 2, has just been shown, last Thursday, at ‘Spiritual Cinema’, which I run at St Andrew’s in Cobham – and to which everyone is welcome, not just St Andrew’s people. There are regular Spiritual Cinema-goers from all the churches round us, and certainly there are St Mary’s people in the audiences.

‘What a funny choice, ‘Paddington 2’, for a ‘spiritual’ film’, somebody said. ‘Isn’t it just a kids’ film?’ Well, it is a ‘PG’, so I think under-12s need their parents’ permission to go. But it is a jolly good film for all the family, of all ages.

The thing is, though, that, when you look at it in a certain way, ‘Paddington 2’ is more than just a nice story for kids. On Thursday the session was led, not by me, but by Mother Kathryn Twining, whom a lot of you will remember when she’s been to take services here. She has been completing an academic project, and is now looking for a parish to have her as their vicar. Meanwhile we’re very lucky to have her insight and spiritual perspective.

Mother Kathryn showed us that ‘Paddington 2’ isn’t just a story for kids. I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what happens, but suffice to say that Paddington is kind and polite: but the world isn’t all right, for him. He is wrongly accused of theft and ends up in prison!

He didn’t get out like St Paul, by invoking his Roman citizenship. Instead Paddington cleared his name – or rather, his adopted family, the Browns, and some of his fellow-convicts who had taken a shine to him, led by ‘Knuckles’ McGinty, did – they all worked together to find out who was really the thief.

Mother Kathryn asked us to reflect on Paddington’s kindly, gentle nature in the light of the ‘Beatitudes’ in Matthew 5 [1-12] – ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, are the meek, are the merciful: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, and so on. Did Paddington show any of those blessed characteristics? He did. He was meek, and pure in heart (so far as we can know what’s in a teddy bear’s heart – especially a Peruvian bear, like Paddington).

But then there was the problem of evil. Why did such a good bear get into trouble? Because he was, really, a good bear. He was wrongly convicted; someone else did it. Who was the real thief? He was someone close to Paddington and his family; they knew him. But they didn’t know his bad side.

But perhaps poor Paddington was getting his Brownie points anyway. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.’

‘Be kind and polite’. Be kind; love your neighbour. And Paddington did that. He was always doing kind things. But – just like Jesus – when Paddington was in trouble, it seemed that he had been deserted. The Brown family missed a monthly visit to him in prison, and he shed a tear: ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani’, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’, was Jesus’ lament, quoting Psalm 22.

But we need to read on a bit in the lesson from Deuteronomy, chapter 10. This is what it says.

16 So now you must circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and not be stubborn any more,…

Just pausing for a moment there; I looked for a translation without this rather ghastly image, but I couldn’t find one. The author of the book of Deuteronomy means that people should make their hearts more Jewish, more ‘circumcised’. It’s clearly a concept of its time. It doesn’t seem to occur to the author that some of the hearts which need to ‘circumcised’ will belong to women, if nothing else – so, without going into the gory details, it just means, make your hearts more faithful to God. It is what it is. The passage goes on:

17 for the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and terrible God. He is no respecter of persons and is not to be bribed;

18 he secures justice for widows and orphans, and loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing.

19 You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.

[Deut. 10: 16-19, NEB]

Paddington was an alien; indeed, he was an economic migrant. He came to London to better himself. And the Brown family looked after him. They thought about him and tried to find ways to prove his innocence. I like to think they prayed for him too.

I wonder if it might be more palatable to some people to think of teddy bears in a made-up story, when they think of immigrants. Indeed, Mother Kathryn asked the audience on Thursday, ‘Would we be as receptive to Paddington if he were not a bear, but a boy?’ What do you think?

It’s serious stuff, Spiritual Cinema! Would we be as receptive to Paddington if he were not a bear, but a boy? I wondered whether we would. But if we reflected carefully on the various themes and issues that came up in the film, it would surely be a good thing for us to recognise that in some senses the story of a little bear from Peru is a metaphor for us, for grown-up people here near London in 2018.

We should bear it in mind that, according to the prophet Moses in the lesson from Deuteronomy, [God] is no respecter of persons and is not to be bribed;

18 he secures justice for widows and orphans, and loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing.

19 You too must love the alien …

Are you OK with a teddy bear, Paddington, being ‘alien’? But what about a little boy? What if he has made it across the Mediterranean in a leaky, overloaded boat? Just a thought.

Do try coming to ‘Spiritual Cinema’. The next session will be on Monday 16th July. We will show a film called ‘On Wings of Eagles’. In the meantime, please do think about Paddington. Paddington the immigrant. Paddington the economic migrant. The alien. The alien that God says we must love.

Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28; Revelation 4

‘WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity..’

I turned to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance about Trinity Sunday. Near the beginning is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, also known by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult, which means ‘whoever wishes’ or, as it says in the Prayer Book, ‘whosoever will’; whosoever will, whosoever wishes, that he be saved, he must hold the ‘Catholick Faith’. And that faith is that we worship ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’.

We worship one God, in three persons, as the hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ says. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tonight’s lessons, from Ezekiel and Revelation, aren’t really relevant to Trinity Sunday, except insofar as they are pictures of the divine, of God and heaven – or perhaps more accurately, they are visions of the divine, as the the prophet Ezekiel and as St John the Divine portrayed their visions of God.

Ezekiel had a vision of fire, and of living creatures, and a throne above them upon which was seated ‘the appearance of a man’. The heavenly figures, the living creatures, had, according to Ezekiel, ‘the appearance of a man’. Some man! I’m not sure what sort of a man has four faces – including the faces of lions, oxen and eagles – or wings, or which every one had four, four wings. I was going to say that perhaps this image is one that got people thinking of God as a superhuman being living in heaven above the clouds, but actually Ezekiel’s vision isn’t tied to a particular place, up or down. The vision was of a whirlwind, and fire ‘infolding itself’ in the whirlwind, with a bright light in the middle, where God and the four creatures – his angels – were to be seen.

In St John the Divine’s vision, he was ‘in the spirit’, and saw into heaven, where there was a throne with someone sitting on it who looked like he was made of jewels – ‘to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone’; there were 24 ‘elders’, and around the throne was a sea of glass, with four ‘beasts full of eyes before and behind.’ These beasts had the look, respectively, of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle. There is clearly a reminiscence of the living creatures in Ezekiel. Here there are four creatures, looking like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle: there were also four creatures, but each one had multiple aspects, each one had four faces, looking like a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle respectively.

The other day I was talking to someone about saying our prayers. I think it may have been in the context of the recent ‘novena’, nine days of prayer, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which all the churches were encouraged to join, so as to create a worldwide wave of prayer. A sort of Mexican wave of prayer round the world.

My question to my friend was, ‘Who are you praying to?’ My friend said, ‘I’m praying to God’. Without going into too much detail, what worried me was that I wasn’t sure that the god which he was thinking about was the same as the one I thought of.

There’s a new book, by the philosopher John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, which I want to read. [John Gray, 2018, Seven Types of Atheism, London, Allen Lane] So far I’ve just learned about it from the Church Times and Guardian reviews. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that in a sense, it helps to understand better what something is, if you think about what it isn’t. We understand what it is to be good, partly by contrast with what it is to be bad. Similarly with black and white, and so on.

So when you meet an atheist, one thing that can be quite illuminating is to ask what this god is, that they don’t believe in. The atheist has to say what the putative god, say, the god he wants to rubbish, looks like, or acts like. That’s what John Gray is setting out to do in his book, identifying seven types of atheists. He doesn’t, according to the reports, end up saying who is right, atheists or believers. But he does ask pertinent questions of the atheists, which, he suggests, leave them looking either like believers in disguise or else they are very simplistic in a way in which believers aren’t.

I won’t spoil your anticipation, but we’re going to sing ‘Immortal, Invisible,’ as our last hymn. When we sing that hymn, we are, I think, being properly cautious about what God is. He is ‘hid from our eyes’. This is not a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, who is somehow ‘my God’, in the sense of being my boon companion. It is still a matter of awe and ultimate respect, I would suggest, for us to come before the Almighty.

One atheistic understanding, Richard Dawkins’, puts up a god who is a ‘blind watchmaker’, a creator who may indeed have made the world, but has just set it ticking and left it to its own devices. That kind of god has no continuing interest in what, or whom, he has created. Strictly speaking, that’s not atheism so much as ‘deism’ – a belief in a sort of god which might as well not be there, or who has, as some philosophers have argued, died, or simply disappeared. God is dead, they say. Just like children who have lost a parent, we have to do without the absent god.

I could see the force of that, see the attraction of it, if we had not come to know about Jesus. God has another aspect, another face. If we believe that Jesus was both human and divine, then we believe in the second part of the Trinity. ‘The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate’; uncreate, which means, not created. Because if the Son were created, were one of God’s creatures, then He could not be an ultimate creator, creator ex nihilo, from nothing – which is the most basic, stripped-down understanding of what it is to be God.

The Nicene Creed was adopted in order to nail down the controversy that Arius, who was a theologian in Alexandria in the fourth century, who, perhaps influenced by Plato and Aristotle, suggested that Jesus as ‘son’ of God was not ‘uncreate’, but was by his very sonship lesser than God. A great controversy broke out in the early church, and the Roman emperor Constantine convened a great conference at Nicaea in the year 325, at which it was decided that Father and Son were ‘of one substance’. The theological opponent of Arius was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius: and the Creed which is called ‘Quicunque Vult’ is also known as the Creed of Athanasius. In Athanasius’ creed, ‘The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.’ We say the Nicene Creed in the Communion service, which reflects Athanasius’ interpretation:

I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…’,

and when it gets to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed says:

‘And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

‘… who proceedeth from the Father and the Son’. Now even today, in the Common Worship service book – at page 140, there is an alternative text of the Nicene Creed, which, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, says,

‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father,..’

Not, ‘from the Father and the Son’. This is so that it may be said ‘on suitable ecumenical occasions’, that is, when you are holding a service with other Christians who don’t accept the outcome of the Council of Nicaea – as for instance the Orthodox churches don’t.

At Evensong we use the Apostles’ Creed, which is simpler, and doesn’t get into whether Jesus was created or not:

‘I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,… ‘

The Apostles’ Creed really emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, as god and as man. God: ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’; man: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.

Now, you may think that this is all impossibly complicated. It is surely part of our understanding of theology that we don’t fully understand: that the nature of God is beyond human understanding. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, from trying to get a better understanding.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what Christians believe in. The father, the creator, the heart of being: the creator in person, Jesus: and the creative force, the love force, the Comforter, as the Holy Spirit is called in John 15:26, for instance. Three ways of seeing God.

That’s all quite difficult to deny, actually. As a lawyer, I knew that one of the most difficult things is to prove the absence of something. Relatively easy to show that something happened, but not the other way round. So I would say that you needn’t be coy about saying you believe in God, even ‘God in three persons’. It’s perfectly respectable philosophically – indeed, if John Gray is right, the ‘new atheists’ are intellectual lightweights by comparison. So you could say, ‘ What is this god you don’t believe in? Bring it on!


Here is the text of the Creed of St Athanasius.

Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.


WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Text from The Book of Common Prayer, the rights in which are vested in the Crown,

is reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.

Sermon for Pentecost 2018

Acts 2:1-21

The disciples were all gathered together with the mother of Jesus and his brothers. Then all these people from places with odd names came and joined them: Phrygia, Pamphylia and Cappadocia. And then after the rushing wind and the tongues of fire that came and settled on their heads, the disciples started to talk in ways that could be understood by all the different people who were present there, who spoke a variety of languages, so that the disciples seemed to each person to be speaking to them in their own language.

Once upon a time I went to Brussels to watch a select committee of the EU Parliament at work. They were discussing something about the insurance of oil rigs and tankers. As some of you will know I used to be a marine underwriter and then a maritime lawyer, so I could appreciate the finer points. It was in a room which was a bit like a theatre, with a big table on a raised dais for the committee members to sit at, surrounded by rows of seats for the audience, each one with a small table fitted to the chair with a set of headphones and buttons to control them.

You were invited to put the headphones on and select the language in which you wanted to listen to the discussion. The MEPs were pretty good at speaking in a variety of languages; even the British ones managed pretty good French and German from time to time. But I had the headphones on, and I was listening in English. I was plugged into the simultaneous translation into English which was provided by the translators sitting in glass booths around the outside of the room. So far as I know, all the languages in the EU used by the 27 member nations – sorry, I mean 28 – were being translated, one into another, simultaneously. It’s an incredible piece of work. The translators are really good.

We are told, in the story in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples spoke in such a way that those who heard them could understand them without the need for translation. They spoke in everyone’s language, whatever their native language was. I have absolutely no idea how that could possibly have been done. It was miraculous.

It’s a very familiar story, although it is still a hugely remarkable one. Those events at Pentecost are said to be the birthday of the church. These apparently supernatural powers appeared, and the gospel started to spread throughout the world.

Thinking about the gospel spreading round the world, I had a rather unworthy thought that the Pentecost narrative might actually be not very British. You know that there is a very strong thread in British Christianity which likes to think that the Holy Land is somehow transposed over here. ‘And did those feet in ancient time | walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

Englishmen, notoriously, can’t speak other languages. It may be that our children are doing it better than we did, but there is still a feeling that, if foreigners don’t understand us, all we need to do is to speak English a little bit louder. We certainly do benefit from simultaneous translation but we are not that good at doing it. I have got away with using my O-level French and German for the last 50-odd years, but when it comes to the crunch, If there is anything serious, then I gratefully accept that my German or French colleagues speak English much better than I speak German or French.

I know that there are some people who reckon to ‘speak in tongues’. They go into some kind of trance when they attend certain types of church service. Indeed those churches are often called ‘Pentecostal’ churches. But still, in the back of my mind, I do have a little doubt whether the full Pentecostal ‘Monty’, speaking in tongues and waving your arms about, really chimes with that many people in England.

I’m tempted to say that a lot of those mass Pentecostal events, congregations in industrial warehouses shouting ‘amen’ and raising their arms in unison, reflect not so much the worship of the divine but some collective hysteria, perhaps whipped up by some Billy Graham-like figure. Who knows? But I do wonder whether it’s really British.

When I wrote that, I hadn’t watched the royal wedding, as I did yesterday. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon was wonderful – but it certainly wasn’t the ten minutes of fairly cerebral disquisition on the theology of marriage that you might have expected from a Primate in the Anglican church. Bishop Michael just went in straight to the heart of it. Princess Di’s sister had read a lesson from the Song of Solomon – ‘set a seal upon my heart.’ It was all about love, the power of love. Then the preaching started. Bishop Michael showed passion: he used repetition, repetition for emphasis: economy of style: his message was in your face. And then it was followed by a black church gospel choir. There’s nothing for it; it was truly Pentecostal, even if the royal party didn’t quite wave their arms about.

Perhaps another way of looking at this, though, is to ask what Pentecost is for. How are we supposed to react now to those events 2000 years ago, to what happened to the disciples and to the people from Phrygia and Pamphylia? What would you feel if, suddenly as we sat here, in St Mary’s, our hair caught fire and, instead of one or two select classical allusions, I was speaking to you simultaneously in Yoruba, Serbo-Croat and Welsh, of course as well as in English?

What would you make of it? What if, having seen the extraordinary firework display, the most you could say was, ‘Cor, fancy that!’, just expressing some vague astonishment? If that’s all it meant, it’s surely highly unlikely that we would still be celebrating Pentecost 2000 years later, as Christians, all around the world.

But we are still celebrating Pentecost. So why? What has given the story such long legs? When you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry yesterday, (although of course his sermon was addressed to the Prince and his new Princess), he could have been giving the answers that we’re looking for here as well. Power: love: fire. Those were his key words to Harry and Meghan. And they are also the hallmarks of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Power. The force of the rushing wind. Fire. The tongues of fire. And love. Jesus’ great commandment. Love, love one another. But look what the power of the Holy Spirit did. It gave the disciples power, capability to speak so that their message could be understood by all people. How important in promoting love that was.

Look at how we notice, today, in various contexts, how people are different from us, not like us, and how that sense of difference can make life difficult. For instance, why are we so uneasy about immigrants? All the rational considerations show that they are really beneficial and useful to us. But – but they are different. They look different, perhaps, as well. Speak a different language.

The Greeks of Jesus’ time called strangers βάρβαροι, barbarians – and one version of the etymology of that word was that strangers would speak in a funny way: they sounded as though they were saying ‘ba, ba, ba,’ a sort of animal grunting. That’s it. That might be the problem with immigrants. You know, you might not want animal grunters living next door to you.

But what if you could understand them, and they could understand you, perfectly, as if both of you had grown up in the same street? You wouldn’t have any prejudices against them. They wouldn’t be barbarians, barbarians at the gate. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch even to love them. Certainly you could love them, if to love them means not to fall in love with them and get married, but simply to care for them, to look out for them and be generous to them. If you speak the same language, you’re half-way there.

If you speak the same language, literally or metaphorically, it’s much more difficult to think of other people as being different, not like us. If we’re not different, we can see all the things we have in common. We won’t want some people, (who are just like us underneath), to starve while others, who also are just like us underneath, are homeless or refugees, risking their lives in overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, say. They’re just like us. That ability, for the disciples to speak in everyone’s language, was the power of love.

So what is Pentecost about, for us, today? It is, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, all about the power of love. I can’t resist reading you some of his words from yesterday.

He said:

‘Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

When love is the way, poverty will become history.

When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. ‘Cos when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.

When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.

And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that’s fire.’  [Michael B. Curry, found at ]

Power, love, fire. Pentecost.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after the Ascension, 13th May 2018
Isaiah 61, Luke 4:14-21

‘ … the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…’

I love this lesson; it’s a bit of the Bible that I find really inspiring. ‘.. to preach good tidings unto the meek; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound’. Taking these words from the book the prophet Isaiah and seeing them again in our second lesson, where Jesus is teaching in the Temple, reading from the scroll which contained the Jewish Bible, in our terms, the Old Testament.

Jesus turned the tables completely on everybody present by saying first, ‘Well, you know all about what the great prophet Isaiah has prophesied; clearly God has spoken to him directly in some way, and he spells out what the kingdom of Heaven will involve: binding up the broken-hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives.

Jesus then turned round to everybody that he was teaching, saying, ‘And now, I have to tell you that it is fulfilled.’ All the things that Isaiah put into the prophecies are now coming to pass.

But what was it that Isaiah prophesied and that Jesus said had now come to pass? Good tidings to the meek, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, opening the prison. You heard the lessons being read, and then perhaps somebody saying prayers after, which referred back to these lessons. You could feel the power of the Holy Spirit at work. But how did it really work in practice?

The thing about the good tidings to the meek and the binding up the brokenhearted, and especially proclaiming liberty to the captives, is that , with the possible exception of the meek, the Lord hasn’t really told us how it all works. What are the good tidings that I should give to the meek? I can understand binding up the brokenhearted, comforting them; but what about proclaiming liberty to the captives? Which captives? Obviously there’s an echo of the story of St Paul and Silas being broken out of jail by an angel [Acts 16:16-40].

In one way, this story is completely uncontroversial. Why wouldn’t you want to bind up the brokenhearted? Why wouldn’t you want to proclaim liberty to the captives? I’m not quite sure how you manage to ‘preach good tidings unto the meek’. I have this vision of a rather gloriously over-the-top actor, like Brian Blessed, jumping into the pulpit in a country church, bellowing out an invitation to Evensong.

I think that we, the faithful, may need to have a more nuanced look at this prophecy, before anyone goes blundering into the Day Centre ‘preaching good tidings to the meek’. Why is the person brokenhearted? Is it something that we can fix?

What about the captives in prison? We have any number of passages in the Bible where Jesus makes it plain that part of our duty as Christians is to go visiting people in prison. We might think that the ‘captives’, really, are not bad people; they’re not real criminals, but they’re people who have been wrongly imprisoned. Perhaps they are Christians in a country where it’s against the law to be a Christian and they have been locked up. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Or they could be like Paul and Silas in the passage in Acts 16, wrongly imprisoned for another reason. But no. If you look at the passages, I don’t think you can make that distinction. Isaiah’s prophecy is that, when the kingdom comes, all the prisoners will be released. And that includes the real criminals as well.

That seems to me to be in line with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, with turning the other cheek or going the extra mile. The thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it is based on grace. You don’t earn your place in heaven. You are a sinner. Nevertheless you can be forgiven. You can be released. ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’

Or you could say it was another instance where Jesus, and our faith, has things upside-down. ‘The first shall be last’, or, as in the Magnificat, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’.

The kingdom of heaven is not just for good people, or successful people. it’s for all of us, however humble – however bad.

Think of Jesus’ comparison between the Pharisee praying, thanking the Lord that he was ‘not as other men are’, that he was better, and contrasting his prayers with the publican, the tax collector, humbly saying, ‘Have mercy on me, because I am a sinner’.[Luke 18:11f] I know that I am not up to the mark. Jesus says that the kingdom is there, at home with that poor man who feels he is no good at all.

It’s a strong lesson for us. We shouldn’t be complacent and self-satisfied: we shouldn’t say, ‘Thank the Lord that I am not as other men are’. Instead we should pray, ‘May the Lord have mercy on us, because we are not perfect, and we don’t always do the right thing.’

I was going through my list of things to do yesterday, and it seemed to me never-ending. Then I just put a quick call through to find out when I was supposed to be running a particular errand that afternoon, only to be told that I’d got it wrong, and I’m not due to do it till Tuesday. What a nice feeling! All of a sudden, I had a free afternoon. I didn’t really deserve it, but there it was. In a small and mundane way, I had received grace. It was a little glimpse of heaven.

I pray that you will have little glimpses of heaven too. But you must be aware that they’re not necessarily where you might expect to find them, and you don’t necessarily deserve them.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 29th April 2018

Isaiah 60:1-14, Revelation 3:1-13

I’m not sure whether Jerusalem is a good thing. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’: as some of you will know, always puts me in mind of my favourite biscuit when I was little: Huntley and Palmer’s Milk and Honey biscuit, which was a bit like a superior jammy dodger. No, what I have in mind now is that the idea of Jerusalem covers all sorts of things. It is a place: for sure it is a place today, which President Trump has designated as the place where the United States will have its embassy, as though it were the capital of Israel – although it isn’t. There is the place in ancient times which Isaiah, the third of the three authors who together make up the book of the prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century before Christ, made the more or less mythical capital of the promised land, the city of the Lord, the ‘Zion’ of the holy one of Israel. Zion is the name of the hill on which the city of David, the centre of Jerusalem, was built. It was the place for the temple and was, in a sense, where God lived.

So it goes on to have a meaning as the heavenly city, the kingdom of heaven; which is the idea in our reading from Revelation. ‘Him that overcometh’, the elect, the chosen ones, ‘him … will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God’. We still talk about people being ‘pillars’, ‘pillars of the church’. They are the stalwarts, the usual suspects, on the PCC and Deanery Synod.

That mythical new Jerusalem was adopted by William Blake, of course, in his great hymn,” And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? … I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

In some ways that all sounds very admirable and harmless. The picture in Isaiah of the holy city, ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense’ is a wonderful picture. You may wonder, of course, what a dromedary is. And I have to tell you that Hilaire Belloc, in his ‘Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ gets the dromedary completely wrong. He says,

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:

I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse, collected edition (1954), reprinted 1991, London, Pimlico, p.237 n

A Kurd, you know, people who live on the borders between Turkey and Iraq: Kurds, not animals at all! But also, dromedaries are not birds, not birds at all. They are a sort of small camel. Mind you, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts is probably not a good source of zoological information. I can’t resist reading you what Hilaire Belloc says about the tiger, just before the entry about the dromedary. It comes after his description of the lion.

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,

He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;

And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)

Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Oh dear. Well, Isaiah correctly thought of dromedaries as a species of camel. ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Everyone will come to the holy city, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles: ‘The Gentiles shall come to thy light.., the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.’

‘Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.’

This is a clue to the problem which I want to go into now. It’s the idea of a homeland or nationality; it’s a very strong idea in many people. Scotsmen go all over the world but keep their Scottishness; they always celebrate St Andrew’s Night and Burns Night. But nationality is not an entirely benign idea. The problem seems to come when people are on the move. Obviously, as we are in church, we can think of the Jews, the people of Israel, leaving the land of Egypt and the land of Babylon –

‘By the waters of Babylon

We sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’ Psalm 137.

They longed for the Promised Land. Then, as we know, the promised land story was effectively repeated, but without any parting of the Red Sea or anything, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Palestine was declared to be a national home for the Jews – and there’s been trouble ever since, between the Israelites and the people they displaced, the Palestinians.

In this country, maybe William Blake’s new Jerusalem has to some extent already been built. I noticed that an MP called Kemi Badenoch, whose parents were Nigerian, was saying on ‘Any Questions’ on Friday that she thought that Britain was a very attractive country for people to come to and settle in; and that we are a welcoming people. I have to say, having heard the awful stories of what has happened to many of the ‘Windrush people’, I thought she was being rather generous; but nevertheless, the idea is there. It seems to be a similar one to the one in Isaiah: that if we have ‘built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’, then not only the Israelites, but also the Gentiles will be welcome to it:

‘.. thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night’

so presumably that means that not only the people who were born here, but also other people from outside – in this context, the ‘Gentiles’ – should be able to get into the Holy City.

But then again, perhaps the Holy City is spiritual, a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one, so we should rather look at the sort of vision that St John the Divine shares with us in Revelation. A place for the people who prove worthy of salvation:

‘Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world..’

If you are one of the saved, then you are going to be welcome in the City of God, new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem is in heaven, or it ‘comes down from heaven’. I think that, as soon as you see the word ‘heaven’, it’s a signal that this is a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one.

The Son of Man, Jesus, appearing to St John the Divine, telling him to write down his letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, is a sort of preparation for the Day of Judgement. Watch out! ‘I know thy works’. You aren’t everything that you’re cracked up to be. Be careful, if you want to go to the new Jerusalem.

So I wonder whether the idea of the new Jerusalem resonates with us at all today. Is it in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’? If so, are the Gentiles allowed in – with their camels and dromedaries, bringing their gold and silver? Who are the ‘Gentiles’ today? Are they just us, who happen not to be Jewish? or should we be like the church at Philadelphia – by the way, you know what ‘Philadelphia’ means in Greek: it means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ – and of course that includes sisters too. Αδελφός means a brother, and αδελφή a sister, so Φιλαδέλφεια means brotherly or sisterly love.

So are we going to be like the people in Philadelphia? Although they have ‘a little strength’, they’re not very strong, they have ‘kept my word’ and have not ‘denied my name’. They will be welcome in the new Jerusalem. We know what we have to do. Open the gates!