Archives for posts with tag: Article XXII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on the 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!