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Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

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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!