Archives for posts with tag: abraham

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm

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Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.

Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 15th March 2015
Exodus 2:1-10 – the Baby in the Bulrushes

Today is Mothering Sunday, as well as being the fourth Sunday in Lent, which incidentally is sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. Depending on how fierce the regime is that you follow during Lent, you may be very pleased to have Refreshment Sunday, because that is the Sunday when you are allowed to relax a bit and go back to some of the things which you’ve given up, like chocolate and Chateau Yquem or a nice Burgundy to go with your Sunday lunch. On Rose Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, you are allowed to have those things.

Alternatively of course, you can follow the theory which says that Sundays are not part of Lent at all, and that therefore you can stoke up on your goodies every Sunday without breaking any rules. I leave it to you and your conscience, because today I want to concentrate on this Sunday’s motherly aspect, to look through the prism of the beautiful story of the birth of Moses, and the way in which he was saved by being left in an ‘ark’ made out of bulrushes, in the flags of the river, in the reeds at the river’s edge, where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who then gave him back to his real mother to bring him up as a nurse. [Exodus 2:1-10]

At this time in Lent we are reading in the Bible how our understanding of God and our encounters with God developed through the covenant with Abraham and God’s dealings with His chosen people, Israel, the Jews: how they were given the Ten Commandments through the prophet Moses, and then how Moses the high priest, of the order of Melchizedek, was succeeded by Jesus, the real, the true high priest, our mediator and redeemer, as we say in our prayers.

We are reflecting on this central part of our faith, that God made Himself known to us directly by being here with us in human form. Coming in human form, through being born of a human mother.

But today I’m not actually going to spend time considering the vital part which the Blessed Virgin Mary played in the Incarnation of our Lord. Instead I am going to look at Moses himself, the great forerunner, the law-giver. You will remember how the Israelites were in Egypt because Jacob’s sons had sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But Joseph had turned himself into being the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, chief of staff, administrator over the country. The brothers had come to Egypt to buy grain at a time of famine, Joseph having prudently stored up supplies of grain in Egypt, and Joseph had brought his brothers and the people of Israel back into the land of plenty, where they settled, as aliens in a foreign land.

They did well: they went forth and multiplied. They were very successful; they worked hard – perhaps did jobs which the indigenous Egyptians didn’t want to do, and generally became quite visible, visibly successful – people noticed the Hebrews. The Pharaoh, the ruler, didn’t like the way that the Hebrews were, in his terms, getting above themselves. So he tried to wipe them out, by stopping them breeding.

First of all he told his midwives, when they were attending a Jewish woman, not to let male children be born alive: but the midwives didn’t carry out his instructions. Their excuse was that the Hebrew women gave birth too fast, so that by the time they had been summoned as midwives, the birth had already taken place, and it was too late to do away with any male children.

So Pharaoh thought again and came up with the idea that any male children that were born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river and drowned. Genocide, unfortunately, is something that the Jews haven’t only had to contend with in the last hundred years.

Moses’ mother was from the tribe of Levi; Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, the special tribe of priests, who were allotted a share of any produce simply by virtue of being Levites, priests [Deut.18]. But before all else, she was a Hebrew, in circumstances where Hebrews were aliens in the land, immigrants, and they were subject to persecution.

Pharaoh had been working them harder and harder, trying to grind them down. And now he was trying to wipe them out, by killing their first-born sons. It’s a heart-rending picture. Imagine. Somehow or other, the mother felt that the only way that her baby could survive was for her to abandon him in a little coracle in the hope that somebody would find him and save him. It was a long shot just on the chance he would survive at all. What would the odds have been against that somebody, who found him, being the ruler’s daughter?

It must have been a terrifying moment for Moses’ Mum. There she is, hiding nearby to see if somebody will come and save little Moses, and then the very person who turns up is from the family of the man who has decreed that little Moses and all the other Hebrew boys are to be killed, not saved.

But nevertheless Pharaoh’s daughter had a motherly instinct. She couldn’t hurt little Moses. She looked for somebody to look after him – and along came his real Mum. Pharaoh’s daughter knew perfectly well that Moses was an illegal – not exactly an immigrant, but certainly an alien. He was one of the Hebrew children. She said as much. Nevertheless she saved him, and Moses’ real Mum brought him up, so he was able to thrive.

It’s a lovely story. Just imagine, what would be a parallel today? Let’s imagine, perhaps, the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton, as was) and some of her girl-friends having a few days by the sea in Sicily, staying in one of those beautiful Relais et Chateaux palazzi, with nannies and ladies-in-waiting, all sitting on the beach under an umbrella, enjoying a glass of Prosecco and chatting, setting the world to rights – and then, all of a sudden, on the horizon, they see one of the refugee ships.

The crew has abandoned it. It is on auto-pilot: the engine is still turning the screw, and it is heading straight for the sea shore. But – wait a minute! It looks as though the ship is going to go past the promontory where the ladies are, and it looks as though it’s taking on water. Suddenly someone on board launches a little life raft, and in the life raft is a baby. Clinging to the life raft, but not in it, is a girl, a teenager, just about hanging on. They get washed up on the beach, just down from where the duchess and her friends are sitting.

Kate Middleton says, ‘Look: there’s a baby. It’s one of those refugee babies – we must save him, and we must make sure that he gets a good start in life. Let’s bring him ashore, wrap him up; give him some food. Oh, he’s only a teeny baby. Can someone nurse him? I wonder if that African girl, the one who was clinging to the life raft, could nurse him. Look, she’s still lying on the beach just a little way down. Poor thing, she looks half dead. Let’s give her something to eat and put everything together.’

Can you imagine that? Or are you persuaded by politicians who tell us that to have enough coast guard rescue ships and helicopters in the area to save everyone who is a refugee and in peril, would act as what they call a ‘pull factor’? Their idea is that if you believe that somebody will rescue you if you get into trouble, it will encourage you to embark on a lethal refugee ship, barely able to stay afloat. Frankly that is evil nonsense. Those people are so desperate that they will take those sort of risks irrespective whether there’s anyone to rescue them.

What do you think about those people – those refugees, those immigrants, those illegal immigrants? Some people say, ‘They take our jobs’ – like the Jews were supposed to be taking the jobs of the Egyptians. Next time someone says how dreadful immigrants are, and how we ought to stop people daring to try to come away from the poverty and violence in their country to get into the UK, think of the Law of Moses. God spoke through Moses: He gave Moses the Law, the Jewish Law: and Jesus affirmed it. The Law tells you to care for the alien in your midst. In the Law of Moses, when you harvest a field or pick the grapes, you are supposed to leave something for the alien and the stranger to have, so that they don’t starve. See Deuteronomy chapter 24, or Leviticus chapter 19.

Somebody else might say, ‘We were born in England, or to English parents. We deserve our comforts. We’ve earned them’. They might say. ‘We’ve paid our taxes. We don’t want our hard-earned benefits squandered on people who haven’t earned them. It’s our birthright’.

But just think what it must be like if you’ve been born in Syria, or in Iraq, or in Somalia, or Libya, instead of in England! What is your birthright then? Surely the most important difference between us and them is where you were born, which is a matter of sheer luck. But God loves us all, wherever we were born. So the commandment means, love your neighbour, wherever they come from.

3,000 years later, are we as good as Pharaoh’s daughter was? It is something for us to reflect on, as we enjoy our roast beef – with or without Chateau Yquem with the pudding.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1st March 2015

Genesis 12:1-9, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Yesterday morning, along with Beryl Jones and Godfrey from St Mary’s, Robert Jenkins and the other ministers from St Andrew’s, together with their churchwarden Dr Moni Babatunde – and about 991 others – it was our privilege and our joy to attend the Service of Inauguration of our new bishop, Bishop Andrew, at Guildford Cathedral.

The process is called ‘inauguration.’ Just as we are no longer supposed to think of bishops as ‘princes of the church’, so we don’t talk about them being enthroned any more, but just ‘inaugurated’.

Bishop Andrew had to declare his loyalty to the inheritance of faith professed by the Church of England, the ‘faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’ That is in the preface to the Declaration of Assent, which is read by the Dean. She went on say, ‘Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.’

If you want to look at the ‘historic formularies’ which are referred to, then look at p.584 (and following) in your little blue Prayer Books, where the historic form of service is set out – although I’m disappointed to tell you that we didn’t follow that, but instead it was a more modern version. Do look at the wonderful lesson in the Prayer Book, from 1 Timothy, setting out all the qualities which a bishop needs – ‘.. not greedy of filthy lucre..’ and so on. The 39 Articles are there too.

Tonight, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are reflecting on the nature of faith. The faith which inspired Abraham to leave his home and go off in search of the promised land, just relying on the Lord’s promise, in our first lesson from Genesis, and the great catalogue of instances of faith set out in the Letter to the Hebrews, the faith shown by a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that it refers to in Chapter 12.

Bishop Andrew chose as his lesson, which was beautifully read by his eldest daughter Hannah, a passage from chapter 47 of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, which certainly those of us in my car, coming away from the service, couldn’t remember before, as it wasn’t the ‘still, small voice’ of calm, and it wasn’t the dry bones: but it was Ezekiel being walked around where the temple would be, and being shown a spring of water, which variously was a trickle, came up to his knees, and then was deep enough to swim in, which flowed out into the Dead Sea, and made the water of the Dead Sea sweet enough for fish to thrive and be caught abundantly there.

Bishop Andrew drew on that image as he outlined the task ahead of him. He had some allusions to Classical mythology as well: the story of Odysseus and the Sirens in the Odyssey, and a version of the same story in Jason and the Argonauts. The Sirens’ song was intended to draw Odysseus and his companions to their deaths on the rocks, and they were saved by the beautiful song of the singer Orpheus, which drowned out the Sirens.

For Bishop Andrew, this illustrated the need for continual work, continual strife against all the challenges which he would have to face in his ministry. As he pointed out, rotting fruit will spread rapidly and ruin all the good fruit next to it: but it doesn’t work the other way. The good fruit doesn’t neutralise the rotting fruit by itself. Something positive has to be done to get rid of the bad stuff.

In the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 11, that first line, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ has a rather different meaning from the ‘faith’ which the Bishop has to declare his assent to, as part of his inauguration.

We can say that Bishop Andrew shares our core Christian beliefs: he shares the specifics of belief which are set out in the creeds. But what we’re being asked to reflect on tonight is slightly different. This passage in Hebrews is a pretty philosophical passage, and it deals, not so much with the content of our faith, with what it is we believe and trust in, but instead it invites us to think about what it means to have faith. What are we doing when we have faith?

It’s drawing a contrast, which you’ll also find in Chapters 4 and 8 of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, between what we can see with our eyes, what we can sense with our five senses, the truth of which we can witness – we were there, we saw it happen, so we can certainly say we believe in it – and the things that we can’t see, but nevertheless believe in: what it is that gives substance to our hopes and in some way provides a touch-stone, a reality check, for things which we cannot directly experience.

Some philosophers and writers have of course challenged this. H. L. Mencken, whom Alastair Cooke was so fond of quoting in his Letter from America, said, ‘Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.’ The Oxford philosopher Richard Robinson, in his book ‘An Atheist’s Values’ [Oxford, OUP, 1964] simply finds Christian explanations of faith to be ‘unintelligible’, believing something where there is no evidence for it.

The word which we translate as ‘evidence’ in this context, in ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ in Hebrews 11:1 (KJV), something which convinces us that something is true, is something objective, it’s something outside us. It’s not a question of our being disposed to believe something, credulous. It’s what it is that makes us disposed to believe it. In Greek, the word is ελεγχος: it’s a word which means a proof, a process of putting something to the test.

I have to say that I disagree with those philosophers who say that this kind of belief, faith, trust in the reality of something which you can’t actually prove, is simply unintelligible. We believe and trust in all sorts of things every day, which we can’t prove. For example, that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, or that we will – or most of us will – carry on with our lives, and that there will be another day.

I believe and trust that some of my friends are curling up in front of the TV, and getting ready to watch Top Gear. I can’t prove it – I can’t see them. But for practical purposes, I’m quite confident that that’s what they’re doing.

You can of course object that some things are more likely than others. Some things are more believable, if you like, than others, and therefore more deserving of our faith. Can faith, our faith, pass this test?

I would suggest that our faith in God is both intelligible and intellectually respectable, because of the testimony of the actual people who were the real witnesses, which we have in the Bible, and because the history of that faith, as it has been passed down by the generations here in Stoke for the last 1,500 years, is such that, frankly, if it wasn’t true, it would’ve died out.

The thing about our Christian faith is that, although the object of it is invisible, it is real. ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness’, St Paul writes in Romans 4. ‘Righteousness’ in Paul’s letters is what draws us closer to God. If all there were is mankind and what man can see, can perceive with the senses, then indeed, faith makes no sense. But we believe that there is more, more than we can know or perceive. Just because we can’t perceive it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Hebrews gives a catalogue, as I said earlier, of all the various heroes and heroines of faith. Look what a tremendous tradition you will be following if you join in! Bishop Andrew is saying that, if you have the faith, if you get swept up in its stream, a stream like that stream rising in the middle of the temple, in Ezekiel’s vision, then even in the barren waters of the Dead Sea, you will make a good catch.

Let us give thanks for Bishop Andrew’s teaching, and for the example of his faith. He will be a good man to watch over us – which is what a bishop does.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, at the Beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18th January 2015
Hebrews 6:17-7:10

‘Jesus, made an high priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Hebrews 6:20). I don’t know whether you were letting things just flow over you during the New Testament lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, or whether you followed in detail its rather technical description of what the ‘priesthood of Melchisedec’ was all about. It does seem rather complicated.

In the Old Testament, the order of priests were the sons of Levi, the Levites, and Melchisedec was a king who met and blessed Abraham in Genesis [Gen.14:18f], to whom Abraham gave a tenth of his wealth as a tithe. In Psalm 110 – ‘The Lord said to my lord – Dixit dominus, ‘The Lord said unto my lord: sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool …’ at line 4, ‘The Lord sware, and will not repent: thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedech’. [Book of Common Prayer 1662, The Psalms: also quoted in Hebrews 7:21]

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (probably not Paul the Apostle, but perhaps somebody writing in a similar style), addressing a Jewish audience, was introducing another dimension to the greatness of Jesus Christ: that He was a great ‘high priest’.

The High Priest, in Jewish tradition, was the only priest allowed to go into the inner part of the Temple, behind the curtain – and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement; but somehow Melchisedec was an even greater high priest. As it says, he had no father, no mother, no beginning and no end, so he was ‘made like unto the Son of God, an eternal priest’ (Hebrews 7:3). Perhaps effectively the idea was that Melchisedec and Jesus were in some sense the same.

But as I said, I slightly suspect – and I certainly wouldn’t take you to task if you have – I slightly suspect that you may have been letting some of this rather recondite technical Jewish religious stuff flow over your head, somewhat unexamined. It does seem a world away from our experience today. I don’t think, for example, that it’s really adequate to talk about ‘priesthood’ in this context as though being a priest – like a Levite, or of the Order of Melchisedech, or whatever, was no more than just a synonym for being a vicar today.

The ‘priestly work’ in those days – look a little further on in Hebrews, in Chapter 9 – you’ll see – was largely to make sacrifices, blood sacrifices, slaughtering oxen and sheep and goats, offering them to God on the altar. Another thing that a priest of the Order of Melchisedech could do was to make intercession. In Chapter 7 verse 25, ‘He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’.

This is quite topical at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which today is. This week we are aiming to make friendly noises to our fellow Christians in the other denominations, and we will all share together in a joint service, to take place, instead of Evensong, next Sunday at St Andrew’s. If you remember, last year we welcomed everybody here at St Mary’s, and we had a nice Evensong, to show how we worship here.

Be that as it may, it does prompt me to suggest that we take a few minutes just to think about the whole topic of worship: how we approach God in prayer and praise, and in sacrament. As soon as we start talking about Jesus being a priest of the Order of Melchisedech, there are a number of issues which come up which, depending on the answers you come to, will tend to determine which denomination, which way of following Christ, you belong to.

I know that most of us go to the church denomination that we were brought up in; but I’m sure that there are moments when we look over our shoulders at other churches to see whether we are more in tune, with the way they worship and with what they believe, than we are with what’s familiar to us.

So, worship. What is going on?

‘Gracious God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise’. [F.S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917]

No burnt offerings. No dead sheep or goats, or oxen – thank goodness. If there is a sacrifice involved in our worship today, it’s a symbolic sacrifice, giving up, giving out our praise: singing hymns and making prayers and supplications.

Some of us rather like it to be done for us; for the office to be said, for the service to be done, in a decent and dignified manner by a professional. Get in an expert rather than trying to do it yourself.

So the traditional Roman Catholic way of doing things resulted, for example, in mass being said in Latin, although the majority of people present didn’t understand a word of it: but it didn’t matter to them, because they felt that the sacrifice of praise was being done appropriately and correctly. They were there simply to take part by witnessing the worship being made on their behalf by the priest.

You had people endowing chancels in which they would pay for masses to be said for their souls after they had died. It didn’t matter that they weren’t there any more, at least physically, but they felt that nevertheless it would help them to get through Purgatory to the pearly gates if there was somebody down here still praying for them.

Then along came Martin Luther and his various Reformation colleagues, Calvin and Zwingli and Co, and they brought in the Protestant idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, from 1 Peter 2:9, ‘… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light ‘.

Martin Luther said that all Christians ‘truly belong to the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them apart from their office’ – in German, Das Ampt, their job. ‘… We all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians, in that it is baptism, gospel and faith which alone make us spiritual and a Christian people… We are all consecrated priests through baptism ‘. [Martin Luther, 1520, Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, quoted in McGrath, A.E., 2007, The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, pp 505-6]

Martin Luther considered bishops and priests simply to be office-holders in the church, doing a functional job. When they retired, priests would go back to being ordinary Christians like anybody else. There wasn’t anything essentially different, spiritually different, between office-holders like ministers or bishops and their congregations as laymen.

Today if you are a Baptist or are in the United Reformed Church, that idea of the priesthood of all believers is still very strongly held. They do have ministers who wear dog-collars, but there is no concept of those ministers having a tradition of ordination handed down from St Peter, down through the ages in a continuous chain, if you like, in the same way that the Roman Catholics, and to some extent the Anglicans, do.

The Methodists are similar to the Anglicans. If you are in America you will find Methodist bishops; but you won’t find bishops in the British Methodist church – yet. The Methodist ‘chairmen of the district’ here are exactly the same, functionally, as bishops in the Church of England. On that basis, Revd Ian Howarth, the previous Methodist minister in Cobham, is now the Methodist bishop of Birmingham, which is a rather neat swap, as the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham is sending its suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Aston, Andrew Watson, to be Bishop of Guildford. That is one division in the church, between Anglicans and Methodists, where I do think we will eventually come together again. I hope and pray that we will.

Among the ‘comfortable words’ that we hear in our Holy Communion service, there are these lovely words,

‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1). The idea is that, whereas the priests of Levi made sacrifices, slaughtered animals and made burnt offerings, so that God was given presents, valuable presents, in order to keep him sweet, now the priest of the Order of Melchisedech has been himself the sacrifice.

God has given His only Son Jesus, who in his death was in fact a sacrifice for us, for our sins. In the Prayer of Consecration we pray to God, ‘who didst give thy only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered (a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world)’.

The concept looks similar to the original burnt offerings. Jesus gave Himself. He was punished in our place. In some sense that substitutionary sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice; it made up for our badness, our sins.

I personally don’t think that squares with the idea of a loving God. I don’t think that God is actually a wrathful God who needs to be bought off with sacrifices. I think that we have moved on and our understanding has deepened: that Jesus in some sense was the last sacrifice.

But He rose again. He wasn’t burned up. God showed that He wasn’t a vengeful God, but that He cares for us. He raised Jesus from the dead.
Well, saying that puts me into certain categories as a Christian. Not all will agree with me. There are Christians who still believe passionately in the idea of an ‘atoning sacrifice’, but still they believe, as I do, that the important thing about Christianity is for us to try to follow Jesus more nearly every day, and in particular to follow his commandment of love: because we love Him, because we love God, we should also love our neighbours as ourselves.

There’s more we agree upon than disagree about, I’m sure. So as we meet our fellow Christians this week, let us be joyful and celebrate the different ways in which we all approach the throne of grace.

Sermon for Evening Prayer on Saturday 15th June 2014, after the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, AGM
Exodus 34:1-10, Mark 1:1-13

After the AGM. A new beginning. A new deal. Moses had broken the tablets written by God – ‘tables of stone, written by the finger of God’ [Ex. 31:18]. He broke them when Aaron made the Golden Calf and got the Israelites to worship the Golden Calf rather than the One True God. They broke their covenant with God, so Moses broke the tablets containing the words of the covenant [Ex. 32:19].

And then Moses met the Lord, who came down in the pillar of cloud, and begged The Lord to forgive the Israelites and renew His covenant. The God of Israel was not a vengeful god; the Lord forgave His chosen people and renewed the covenant, giving Moses two new replacement tablets of stone on which the Lord had written: various commandments, (more than just the 10 Commandments), all designed to make for decent humane living.

The Israelites experienced God in the most direct way. God, JHWH, revealed Himself to His prophet Moses and He told Moses what He wanted His people to do.

In those days, scripture, holy writing, was supposed to be, literally, the word of the Lord. Even today, Moslem people believe that their scripture, the Quran, is the result of direct divine inspiration.

By the time Jesus came along, the Commandments had been copied, written down many times, and the Jews all knew what the commandments of God were. God had made an agreement with the Israelites, through their representative, through Moses. It was written down: it was a written contract.

With John the Baptist, people were renewed in their Jewish religion by ritual washing, being baptised in the River Jordan. There was no contract-making, nothing written except the original Jewish Bible, containing the words of the covenant between God and Abraham – renewed between God and Moses.

The covenant, the understanding, the link between God and his chosen people, was expressed to be by water and the Spirit. When Jesus presented Himself for baptism, God appeared. God spoke, not just to a prophet, but to anyone who was listening. ‘Thou art my beloved Son’ …[Mark 1:11]. And this began Jesus’ adult mission on earth, those three momentous years which changed the world.

We should perhaps pause at that point, since this is the Prayer Book Society at worship, and observe in a respectful way the fact that, whereas the Lord’s covenant with Israel through Abraham and through Moses was a matter of words. Jesus came in water and spirit [John 3:5] – and then above all, in the flesh, as a man. It wasn’t a question what was written or the detail of what was said, but of who He was that made a difference; so although we set great store by having the right words, the best words, to express the most important things in life, our relationship with God – and we find those words in the Book of Common Prayer – we must draw a respectful distinction between that situation and Moses and Abraham’s tablets of stone.

That covenant, that contract, those words written under the finger of God, were not replicated when Jesus came to be baptised by John the Baptist. Indeed I would suggest that there has been quite a lot of harm done by the idea that Scripture is literally written down by God. I think we can take some comfort from the fact that the Book of Common Prayer was clearly the work of human hands, indeed human hands informed by a lot of prayer, and by the response of the Holy Spirit to that prayer.

But albeit with the benefit of prayer, the book was written by a man, by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in the middle of the 1500s. Cranmer based it on existing liturgy, usually in Latin, so he wasn’t making it up. Instead he was using the best bits that had evolved over the hundreds of years beforehand.

I started out by mentioning new beginnings, new years. This, the week of Pentecost, Whit week, is the beginning of the Christian year, the beginning of the Church year. Last Sunday was Whitsunday, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit: mysterious flames, the disciples speaking in tongues. Although they were recognised as being just ordinary bods from Galilee, what they said was understood by everyone, irrespective what country each person listening came from.

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit.

God appearing in the pillar of fire or out of the burning bush to Moses: the father, the creator.

God the Son – ‘Thou art my beloved Son’

and last weekend, God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. ‘The wind wills where it listeth’ [John 3:8].

None of this will translate literally, either as a matter of language or as a matter of metaphysics.

It’s difficult for us to believe in the sort of God who dealt with the Israelites, taking a very personal interest in what they did and responding to very basic prayers – ‘Save us from the Egyptians!’ ‘Save us from the Ammonites and the Amalekites. Give us victory in battle.’

It’s very difficult for us to believe in that kind of God. Easier for us to believe in God incarnate, in Jesus Christ. He was clearly a historical figure.

It may be easier, today, to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit. All of us, however unspiritual, surely have had those moments when something has happened, or a thought has popped into your brain, which you can’t really account for, but which nevertheless suddenly helps you to make sense of a difficult situation.

Obviously those sort of feelings don’t just pop up at will every time we pray. But it does seem to me that it would be worthwhile to carry on looking out for them. I suppose our take on that, as PBS members, is that on listening out for the ‘still, small voice of calm’, we feel that we may find it more easily using Cranmer’s words than in some twenty-first century banality.

Wherever you are going to find it – that still, small voice of calm, the voice of the Spirit – it is worth looking out for.