Archives for posts with tag: 39 Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

And at the hour of death’.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for Evensong on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 26th August 2018

Hebrews 13:16-21 – see https://tinyurl.com/y754tzue

‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ’.

This lovely blessing comes from the letter to the Hebrews, from the end of our second lesson which Len read for us. It’s often used at Easter time, and if you are a Methodist, as I used to be, you will be familiar with the blessing as it is the one used at the end of the communion service.

May God make us perfect. It’s a really inspiring idea to go out with at the end of the service. May God make us perfect, perfect to do His will. I’m not quite sure how we would put that today: ‘perfectly suited’ to do it, perhaps.

The modern Bible translation in some of our other services [NRSV Anglicised Edition] says, ‘.. make you complete in everything good, so that you may do His will..’, which isn’t so memorable, and I’m not sure that it’s any more understandable; because in normal speech today, we don’t say we are ‘complete’ to do something. [I have also put at the beginning a link to Paul Ingram’s very useful ‘katapi’ site, showing the excellent New English Bible translation alongside the Greek original].

We don’t talk about being ‘complete’ people. ‘The Compleat Angler’ was the title of the famous book by Izaak Walton published in 1653, which subsequently went on to become the name of countless riverside pubs: ‘The Complete [sic, 1760] Angler, or, Contemplative Man’s Recreation’ was the full title of the book. You can get an early edition, a 1760 one, printed 100 years after the original one was published, for the bargain price of £1,500, I see, on the Internet, at biblio.co.uk: but you don’t have to pay such a lot, because it looks to be still in print, at much more modest prices.

The book title, The Compleat Angler, is the only use of the word ‘complete’ to describe a person that has occurred to me. You certainly might say that some thing was complete: my Hoover is complete with all its attachments. The spares kit in the boot of the car is complete. But I, a person, am not normally referred to as ‘complete’ in that sense. Tom Wolfe wrote a good novel called ‘A Man in Full’, published in 1998. The description ‘in full’, ‘A Man in Full’, has something of the same connotation as ‘complete’ has in the NRSV Bible.

Thinking about this prompted me to read the passage in the original Greek to see what this intriguing couple of sentences really says. It’s very inspiring, particularly at the end of an uplifting service, to feel that, with God’s help, we could be perfect. But does it really mean that?

The Greek word, καταρτισαι, is a word which means to ‘fully prepare’ someone or something, to ‘restore’ them, to put them in full working order. It’s not really the same as ‘perfect’, though – at least not nowadays.

Clearly the translators of the King James Bible (which is the version Len read from, the one we use for Evensong and Mattins), those three groups of learned scholars, used the word ‘perfect’ slightly differently from how we would use it today. They actually adopted, nearly word for word, the translation by William Tyndale just under 100 years earlier. Tyndale’s two editions, of 1525 and 1535, both used the word ‘perfect’: they said, ‘… make you perfect in all good works, to do his will, working in you that which is pleasant in his sight…’ In those days ‘perfect’ had a connotation of being ‘apt’ or ‘well-equipped’, as well as of being faultless.

These famous words in the Bible, in Hebrews, first written by Tyndale, link us right back to the time of the Reformation. William Tyndale was martyred because he dared to translate the Bible out of Latin into English. The Reformers, like him, Martin Luther and John Calvin, didn’t want there to be any barriers between the people and God in worship.

The idea, that only the priests could understand the words, was something that the Reformers were dead against. ‘Hoc est … corpus meum’, the Latin for ‘This is my body’, in the Communion service, became ‘hocus pocus’. Hocus pocus – hoc est corpus. That’s what the ordinary people tended to think about it. Sacrament had become superstition. I do think that, if we let words just pass by unexamined, we might fall into the same trap.

Article XXIV of the 39 Articles reflects the Reformers’ intentions. Thomas Cranmer, who wrote it, was familiar with the work of Martin Luther, and may have met both him and Huldrych Zwingli, the great Zurich reformer. The Article is entitled,

‘Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth.

It says:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God, and the custom of the primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.’

You can find Art XXIV on page 621 at the back of your little blue Prayer Book. As a small aside, you can look at the whole Letter to the Hebrews as another angle on the whole theology of priesthood. A lot of the Letter, its main theme, is taken up with discussion of Jesus’ position as a priest ‘of the order of Melchizedek’, which is an idea that only people steeped in the Old Testament, Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity, would understand.

The Jews never referred to God by name. God was the great ‘I am’, and anyone who met God face-to-face would be destroyed by the sight. Only the prophets and priests of the Temple could encounter God face-to-face and survive. And the Letter to the Hebrews goes into great detail in explaining how Jesus is indeed a true priest, with a direct line to God the Father.

Contrast that with the Reformation, Protestant, idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, (originally espoused by Luther and Calvin, following 1 Peter 2:9, which says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…’), the belief that you didn’t need a priest to stand between you and God. Any worshipper, any true believer, was his own priest. So in this earliest English translation, adopted by King James’ translators, a Greek word which means to prepare or to restore – ‘may the God of peace prepare you, make you up to the task’ – which I suppose is a bit like being ‘complete’ in the sense of the ‘Compleat Angler’, fully qualified, fully prepared, becomes, ‘perfect’. Make you perfect.

Perhaps I’m being too finicky about words here. Perhaps we do really know what it is to be made ‘perfect in every good work to do his will’. But it’s not all down to us whether we are ‘perfect’. Whether we have 20-20 spiritual vision or not is a question of grace; God has either blessed us with it or He hasn’t. There’s another version of the Hebrews blessing which is perhaps a bit closer to our modern way of thinking and expressing what we mean. This is:

‘May Christ the Son of God perfect in you the image of his glory

and gladden your hearts with the good news of his kingdom’

‘Perfect in you’ the image. Make it perfect. Not make you perfect, though. But in Hebrews it is a prayer for you: and it is to make you perfect. Not perfectly formed, necessarily, but perfectly equipped.

So let us pray.

May the God of peace,

that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,

that great shepherd of the sheep,

through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make us perfect in every good work to do his will,

working in us that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Evensong on the second Sunday of Easter, 3rd April 2016
Wisdom 9:1-12

It’s one of those classic ways of passing time or getting off to sleep, if you’ve woken up in the middle of the night. You are the heir to the throne: you’re going to be king. God appears to you in a dream, and says, ‘What would you like? You can have anything you like.’

Of course, being a good Bible student, you will immediately be reminded of the story of Solomon and his dream in 1 Kings 3 or 2 Chron. 1. What did Solomon ask for? Solomon asked for wisdom. He might have used the words which were in our lesson today, from the book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. He said, ‘God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word,
And ordained man through thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which thou hast made, …
Give me wisdom, ..’

Solomon did not ask for riches, or power, or any of the other kingly trappings – although God was so pleased with his choice, with his asking for wisdom, that he did give him all the other good things as well.

These days we don’t really think much about wisdom, or in those sort of terms. We don’t talk about people being ‘wise’ men. ‘Wise’ tends to be more of a cynical pejorative – he is just a ‘wise guy’. But wisdom, on proper reflection, is not just knowledge, but discernment and the ability to choose the right thing to do in circumstances where it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do. Perhaps, indeed, we ought to look at wisdom again.

When you watch the pictures on the news showing the government minister meeting the steelworkers at Port Talbot, and you hear the ministers saying that they will do everything that they can do, lots of questions come crowding into one’s mind. If you thought along the lines of the author of the book of Wisdom, you could imagine the government ministers praying that Wisdom would come and help them out.

We don’t think that it was actually Solomon who wrote the book, but it was someone much later, writing in his honour: a Greek, most likely in Alexandria, who could have been writing about the same time as Jesus Christ. The Book of Wisdom was very much influenced not just by Jewish history, but also by Greek philosophy, especially by Plato and the Stoics. There is the Platonic idea of the essences of things being real as well as their manifestations. So we understand what it is for something to be a table, because we have an idea, a concept, an essence, of tables, in our minds.

So similarly Wisdom, the idea of Wisdom, to put it in Plato’s terms, almost has an independent existence all of its own – or rather of her own. If you are called Sophie or Sophia, you are named after the Greek word for wisdom. In the wisdom literature in the Bible, the books like the Wisdom of Solomon or Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, wisdom is personified; wisdom is a being in her own right, who can guide you into the correct path in order to follow the will of God.

So a government minister looking at the crisis in the steel industry would no doubt be very pleased to have a guiding figure, a Mrs Wisdom, at his or her side. What is the right thing to do? What are the principles which should inform one’s decision? Is it right that the only thing that matters is the law of the market, and, moreover, the law of the market worldwide? If so, it is tough, but it should just be a question whether our steel plant can make steel cheaper than anyone else. That wouldn’t give much hope to the people in Port Talbot.

But what if the market is modified, by tariffs, for example? Should we protect our steel producers by erecting a tariff barrier? There are arguments for and against. Does the fact that thousands of people will lose their jobs, does that outweigh in importance all the other considerations? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gentle feminine voice in one’s ear saying, ‘Choose this; avoid that. This is the way that the problem will be solved.’

But how do you know whether you have got it right? Solomon, of course, demonstrated wisdom right at the beginning, when the two women came, both claiming to be the mother of a particular baby. How to tell which was the right mother? So he proposed to chop the baby in half and give each mother half a baby. It soon became clear which was the real mother. Wouldn’t it be nice if all wisdom calls were so simple? [1 Kings 3:16-28]

I’m sure that the ministers would indeed be really delighted if it was really possible to invoke the assistance of some goddess-like creature who would hold their hands and point them in the right direction.

The Wisdom of Solomon was a book which the early Christians liked, because they thought that it pointed forward to Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The lesson says, ‘Who ever learnt to know thy purposes, unless thou hadst given him wisdom and sent thy holy spirit down from heaven on high?’ (Wisdom 9:17) Wisdom is bound up with the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Wisdom is not a canonical book. Not every Bible has it in. It’s in the Apocrypha. If you look in the Articles of Religion in the back of your prayer book, Article 6, on page 613, you will see the list of canonical books which were the books which were supposed to contain everything necessary for salvation, and the other books which ‘the church doth read for example of life and instruction in manners’, include the Book of Wisdom. St Paul considered Christ to be the wisdom of God. There is something very closely connected, between the idea of Wisdom and the idea of the Holy Spirit, the essence of God at work.

Just before Christmas in the early Roman church at Vespers (which became part of our Evensong), before the Magnificat they sang an Antiphon, an ‘O’ Antiphon: O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David: and the first Antiphon was ‘O Sapientia’, ‘O Wisdom’, in Latin.

‘O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things;
come and teach us the way of prudence.’

That is ‘O Sapientia.’

We can get something out of the idea of wisdom personified, of O Sapientia, even today. Wisdom, for a government minister, ought not to be just a question of making sure they take all the right theories, the right political dogmas, into consideration. True wisdom means they should consider in the round, from all angles, whether that dogma is right, whether it is kind enough to the people whose lives it affects.

The spirit of wisdom is surely the Holy Spirit. So to consider Wisdom, we must consider the Spirit as well. What would Jesus do? What is the will of God? Where is the Holy Spirit leading? In the chapels in the Welsh valleys tonight, their prayers will be rising. Let us pray with them, and let us pray in particular that the true spirit of Wisdom will come among those who have the power, either to save those communities or to turn their backs on them. They do it in our name. Let us hope that they, in their power and good fortune, will appreciate how those strong men in their Welsh valleys really do need them to have, not just clever theories, but true wisdom.

Sermon for All Saints, Sunday 1st November 2015
Rev. 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

Why do you come to church? I’m sorry; I’ll put it a bit less abruptly. Why does one come? I used to know a lovely old lady, Mrs Ryder, who said, ‘I go to church to think about dead people.’ To some extent, I think that’s how I came in, too. What does happen when we die? What is heaven like? ‘Behold, I make all things new. … A new heaven – and a new earth’. Is that where Mrs Ryder’s people have gone?

And then there’s Lazarus. Too much detail: his corpse was beginning to go off, to get smelly. He hadn’t gone anywhere, apparently. Then out he came, blinking, into the light. Not smelly.

In a way, those two pieces encapsulate where I came in; where I started to think about things outside the realm of what I could see and feel and touch. How I started the the process in which I eventually came into being a Christian.

‘Am I going to die?’ I asked my mother one day when I was a boy. ‘No’, she said. Well, not imminently, anyway, she might have added. But even so, I had started to think about it.

Actually, it’s tomorrow that we really think about dead people – All Souls, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, will be our service at 10.30 tomorrow morning. Today we are doing what Christians have done at least from the third century, and that is to celebrate the special people who have been, from the earliest time, witnesses to Jesus’ mission, the saints. I Sancti, the holy ones, set apart from ordinary people. St Paul mentions ‘saints’ thirty times in his letters. We may think of them as being somehow almost superhuman, but St Paul simply used that name for the ordinary members of the church.

But clearly in many instances the term ‘saint’ does describe someone very special. In the Roman Catholic Church saints are priests, in the sense that they pray for us, they intercede for us with God. ‘Sancta Maria – ora pro nobis’: holy Mary, saintly Mary – pray for us. So in Catholicism the idea grew up that you pray to God through a saint, you ‘invoked’ that saint.

This was all part of the system of purgatory and indulgences which Martin Luther opposed. Thomas Cranmer, following Luther, wrote in our 39 Articles of Religion, Article XXII, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is it fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’According to the Reformers, invocation of saints, praying through the saints, has no scriptural basis – you can come to God direct: you don’t need a priest to intercede for you. There is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’

Just like a lot of the controversies from the Reformation, the antithesis between the Catholic idea of the saints as being people whom we can call upon to intercede for us with God, and the Reformation idea of the Priesthood of all Believers, is a question which we don’t now look at in such a black-and-white way. We do say prayers by ourselves; we do dare to speak directly to God, wherever we might be: but we also come to church and have the minister say prayers for us.

In the Apostles’ Creed in the Prayer Book (the one we say at Mattins or Evensong), we say,
‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ The Communion of Saints is right up there with all the other really important parts of our faith.

Today we pray in the Collect, “O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy son Christ our Lord…” Being in ‘Communion with the Saints’ means being in the same body with them, in the church down the ages. There is something very powerful about that. All those wonderful men and women, beginning with the apostles and the earliest Christians – Peter and James and John, the Twelve, then Paul, then Dorcas and Phoebe; then the early martyrs, St Stephen and all those who were eaten by lions in the arena: and then all the great figures in the church down the ages.

Martin Luther, certainly: Thomas Cranmer: but also St Francis Xavier, and Pope John XXIII. John Wesley and John Henry Newman. Dietrich Bonhöffer. This is the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we read about in the Letter to the Hebrews.

These saints were willing to sacrifice everything for their faith. Read the list of faith heroes in Hebrews 11. It might be rather daunting. How could we match up to some of the things they did? But at least we don’t have to face being thrown to the lions.

Whom would you think of as a saint today? This is where we can recognise the force of St Paul’s idea that everyone in the churches was, is, a saint. I’m sure it’s still true. Just look around you, and think how nice we are – think how we have cared for each other and for those in need. In a real sense everyone in the congregation is a saint.

It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect in order to qualify to be saints. St Paul, when he wrote to the ‘saints’ at Corinth, or in Ephesus, or in Colossae, or even in Rome, wasn’t writing to eulogise their virtues: instead the purpose of his letters was often to correct their errors and put them back on the track of the true faith. Saints are normal people with normal faults and weaknesses. People like us can be saints.

So what is it that calls us, still calls us, to be people apart, holy people – (because that is what Άγιος , Sanctus, sacred, saintly, means)? This is where poor old Lazarus comes in. We are ‘members of one another in Christ, members of a company of saints, whose mutual belonging transcends death’. Jesus conquered death. He raised Lazarus from the dead, and He himself rose resurrected in glory. This is our faith.

This faith is the mark of a saint. A saint – a saint like us – has the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

‘Behold, I make all things new’. That includes us. Us saints.

Sermon for Evensong on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 7th September 2014
Acts 19:1-20 – The Sons of Sceva

All being well, I shall see you on Wednesday. Touch wood, fingers crossed, it’ll stay fine until then. Touch wood: fingers crossed; I expect some of you will be preparing to tackle me on the way out already!

I expect some of you may say that touching wood and crossing one’s fingers and so on are superstitious gestures – and that no true Christian should get involved with superstition.

What’s the difference between what S. Paul was doing, in performing ‘extraordinary miracles’ [Acts 19:11], so that, when handkerchieves or aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to the sick, they were cured, and ‘evil spirits came out of them’, and on the other hand what the seven sons of Sceva did? We are told that they were also casting out demons, making people better, and curing people by invoking the name of ‘Jesus whom Paul proclaims’.

Presumably, some of the time it must have worked for the sons of Sceva. They must have cured some people, because it says that they ‘were doing this’ [ησαν … ποιουντες], not that they had just come along to see whether they could do it. On this occasion an evil spirit challenges them, saying that he recognises Jesus and Paul, but not the sons of Sceva.

This is all very strange. These days we have some difficulty understanding miracles at all, but here we are being asked to distinguish between authentic miracles and mere superstition, mumbo-jumbo.

Even today some people still do perform exorcisms, to drive out ‘evil spirits’. There is still in some quarters a belief in demonic possession. The distinction which we’re supposed to draw here is between mere superstition, black magic or something, and God, genuinely working through S. Paul and the disciples.

Miracles are said to be all right – and indeed they demonstrate the authenticity of the Christian message – but black magic, superstition, is not all right. But what is the difference?

If I was a wizard in Harry Potter and I declaimed a spell invoking powers, magic powers, and presumably the names of powerful witches or wizards and magicians in order to make my spell happen, this is said to be entirely different from praying to God, and asking in one’s prayers for Him to do certain things, for example, to heal a sick person.

I think this is very tricky; because if you pray for God to do something, for example, praying that somebody who is ill should get better, we traditionally invoke Jesus to help us in this. We end most of our prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Through Jesus Christ: we pray through Him, our advocate in heaven.

We say that, but we can’t possibly know the mechanics in any detail. Why do we pray ‘through’ Jesus Christ? Prayer is ‘talking to God’, not, surely, giving Him a message through an intermediary, or asking for somebody to intercede for you, like a barrister in court. Of course, if you are a Catholic, this isn’t a strange idea. ‘Hail Mary, mother of grace, … pray for us’, they say. There is a difference between Protestants and Catholics here. Article XXII of the 39 Articles (on page 620 of your little blue Prayer Book), says,

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

The Catholic idea is described in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (22.1). ‘We have a high priest who has entered the heavens: Jesus, the Son of God. The characteristic role of a priest is to act as a go-between between God and his people, handing on to the people the things of God, offering to God the prayers of the people …’

We are in Reformation territory here – Calvin resisted Thomas’ idea of priesthood, and put forward instead the idea of a priesthood of all believers. As Anglicans, we still hold to the compromise between the Catholicism of Queen Mary and the Protestantism of the boy king Edward (or really, of his advisers) made by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. This kept the Catholic orders of bishops, priests and deacons, and used the word ‘ministers’, ministers of religion, standing between God and people. So it’s not a big mental step from having your worship mediated, passed on to God by a minister, to being comfortable with the idea of Jesus as our ‘mediator and advocate’ as several of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer call Him.

In the light of this, were the sons of Sceva doing anything particularly wrong? They were praying, invoking, calling on the evil spirit to come out of the afflicted person, and invoking the power of Jesus to strengthen their petition.

What is magic supposed to be all about? If I ‘magic’ something, I am trying to bring about something in the future. But it’s not supposed to be necessarily a good thing. In this passage, many of the people who were converted had previously believed in magic and had practised magic – Ephesus was apparently known for magical formulae (the Εφησια Γράμματα or Ephesian Letters) which were said to ward off evil spirits. When they were converted, they gave it all up and burned their magic books.

What is it that we can get from this today? Is there something harmful in Harry Potter, and does it matter if a good Christian crosses his fingers or touches wood? I think the difference is that crossing one’s fingers or touching wood is not something which we take very seriously. Doing these gestures is not a sign that we are really invoking some magic powers or undermining our belief in one true God, all-powerful, the creator.

It might be different if we were, to some extent, hedging our bets spiritually, as perhaps some of the early Christians may have done, believing in God, believing in Jesus Christ, but still – just to be on the safe side – making sure they didn’t do anything to offend their old gods.

The difference is perhaps this. If one invokes Jesus as mediator and advocate, the prayer is always subject to the overriding idea that ‘Thy will be done’, in other words, a prayer is always as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘not as I will, but as thou wilt’ [Matt. 26:39]. There is no question, in prayer, of trying to direct the future. God works through people, through believers, not the other way around. Indeed, if we look at our lesson again in Acts 19, at verse 11 we read, ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.’ Paul didn’t cast spells. God did the miracles.

In magic, the idea of the magician making something happen is central. But the power to do this which is invoked is not divine, but mysterious and not necessarily good, not good in the sense of being beneficial for all. It implies that the magician believes – invokes – the power of something other than God: indeed, it’s possible that it could be something opposed to God.

Now all this is predicated on the assumption that we accept that there is such a thing as demonic possession, and that there are ‘evil spirits’ as opposed to mental illness. I think, however, that whatever our view on that is, we can understand the distinction which S. Luke, the author of Acts, is drawing. Harry Potter is harmless. But to pray to God, and to invoke our mediator and advocate, Jesus, is real and serious. Do tell me what you think!

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.