Archives for posts with tag: Calvin

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 8th July 2018

[Jeremiah 20:1-11], Romans 14:1-17

‘You are what you eat’. I’ve always smiled at this passage, where St Paul seems to put himself in the position of the alpha male, a rugby playing, beef eating hearty, who might be inclined to be a bit sniffy about his younger brother, who is a vegetarian, for some unaccountable reason. Proper chaps don’t eat vegetables. Indeed some proper chaps take this to considerable extremes and avoid greens together. They stick to steak and chips only. Well, of course, this is not a case of St Paul micromanaging what the disciples in Rome should be eating.

In the Jewish tradition, of course, there are things which, for religious reasons, observant Jews are not allowed to eat. Pork, for example. And before we talk about the religious reasons for avoiding certain foods I would point out that some of the old Jewish food rules are sensible on medical and public health grounds as well. Pork goes off quickly in Middle Eastern temperatures.

Paul is referring to people who choose either to eat or to not eat foods because they believe that God has forbidden them to eat them or positively ordered them to eat them. Think of the manna in the desert, divine food which God recommended. Panis angelicus, the bread of angels.

And of course the ultimate spiritual food is the Lord’s Supper, where we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. It’s not a form of cannibalism, as the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) may have hinted. There seems to have been an urban myth that the Christians had an initiation ceremony which involved child sacrifice and cannibalism, amazing as it sounds to us.

Holy Communion, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, is not literal but sacramental, an ‘outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual grace’. It’s a really clear example of doing something ‘to the Lord’, for the Lord, or with the Lord in mind. It depends for its power on the faith of the person eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. The beginning of this passage in Romans is clearly talking about this.

Depending how strong your faith is, you can eat anything, or, if you are a doubtful, more sceptical type, ‘another, who is weak’, can only eat ‘herbs’, or vegetables. I wonder if the word ‘herbs’ is one of those old English usages which have got into American English – they talk about ‘Erbs’ [sic] in a context which suggests to me that they mean more than just rosemary sage and thyme.

St Paul is saying that whatever we do, whatever we take to eat, whatever we choose, we do it ‘to the Lord’. This ‘to’ does not mean the same as when we do something ‘to’ someone. It’s more like ‘for’. We do it for the Lord. Another translation offers the idea that we do something ‘with the Lord in mind’, which I think gives a good idea of what St Paul meant.

For example, ‘He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord’. In other words, if someone thinks that a particular day is special, for religious reasons, it means that he has the Lord in mind in deciding whether to make that day a special day or not. All this chapter in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an eloquent plea that Christians should be tolerant of each other’s views.

‘Regarding’ a day, thinking a particular day is special in some way, could, for example, be relevant to the question of Sunday trading. Do you think that it is Sunday that is the Sabbath, and that if we had been to Waitrose today, (preferably just after the 10 o’clock service, as half of St Andrew’s and this congregation seem to do), we would have been breaking one of the Ten Commandments, to keep the Sabbath holy?

There’s quite a good case for saying that we wouldn’t have been. Because, Sunday isn’t necessarily the Sabbath. If you’re Jewish for example, Saturday is the Sabbath. The point about having a Sabbath day is to give a day of rest rather than to specify which particular day in the week is the day off. If we are Jewish it is Saturday, but if we are Christian it is usually Sunday.

But if you have to work on Sunday, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take another day off instead. Godfrey, for example, like a lot of vicars, takes Fridays off. What St Paul is saying is that none of this actually matters much, except that we should not condemn each other for our own particular preferences. We should not ‘judge thy brother’ – or sister, indeed – because all these little differences are of no real consequence, when you think that we will eventually all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

At various stages in Christian history theologians have debated what the ‘important’ things to believe in are, and what are αδιάφορα, Greek for ‘things that don’t make a difference’ – which is almost what the word sounds like even to us: all you need to know is that α- as in αδιάφορα is a negative: ‘not’ διαφορά, in this context, things that make a difference.

There have been several times in the history of the church when there has been controversy about what is αδιάφορα and what is important.

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a falling-out with Philipp Melanchthon over the importance of ‘justification by faith’ as opposed to gaining salvation by doing good works – or celebrating elaborate masses.

Then again the Puritans, in the Westminster Confession of faith (1646), asserted the rule that only things which were in the Bible were important – ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, counted. That’s still basically the URC and Baptist position. Church structures, hierarchy and liturgical formulae weren’t as important. There is a distinction between true worship itself and what were called ‘circumstances of worship’, the Biblical essentials on the one hand and the way the worship was organised, not so important, αδιάφορα even, on the other. The Puritan position was summed up in this:

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (commonly translated as “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity”). The guiding principle was a line from Romans 14, after the passage which we had as our lesson tonight, v.19:

Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.

That’s sometimes used as an introduction to the Peace.

Then came the Anglican ‘latitudinarians’, who were even more relaxed about what mattered. ‘The latitudinarian Anglicans of the 17th century built on Richard Hooker‘s position in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker (1554–1600) argues that what God cares about is the moral state of the individual soul. Aspects such as church leadership are “things indifferent“.’ [Wikipedia, accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latitudinarian]

You will also find an echo of the same issues at the beginning of your little blue Prayer Books, in the section called ‘Of Ceremonies’. Page x at the front of the book. Again, this is about what we need to do in order to offer appropriate worship to God. Should it be elaborate services with great torrents of flowery words, dressed up with beautiful music sung by accomplished, perhaps professional, choirs – or should it be stripped-back, plain words, no music – or maybe simple amateur ‘worship songs’?

This brings us up with a bit of a jolt to what we do today. What is essential to the worship here at St Mary’s? Remember that this morning we had a special event in our church life: we admitted five young ones to be able to receive Holy Communion before they’re confirmed.

What looks important to them? What does it mean to them to worship the Lord? I think that St Paul set the tone pretty well all those years ago, maybe only 30 years after Jesus was crucified, when he counselled the Roman Christians not to look down on each other because some things were important to some of them and other things to others.

So – what’s important to us, here, at St Mary’s? What can we see other Christian friends doing differently? I mean, we make quite a thing about our doing things in a distinctively different, traditional way here. But how much is at the heart of our faith, and how much just our taste, our preference?

I think I can suggest that one way one would argue would be that we don’t water things down. The little ones this morning went through a proper communion service with some grownup words in. We think they will be more likely to think deeply about the service if they’ve had to look up some words. Their parents didn’t think there was anything babyish either. Our approach is not to water things down. God isn’t an easy thing. Immortal, invisible.

And when we have been exposed to God’s grace, when we have come to the Lord in prayer, in the way we do, can you tell? Does it make a difference to our lives? Do we ‘repent’?

Put it another way. We aim to eat the red meat of worship and witness here at St Mary’s. Full fat. But we mustn’t look down on the friends who only take the vegetarian, decaf option. Which are you?

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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

Sermon for the third Sunday of Epiphany at St Mary’s 22nd January 2017 

1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23 

When President Trump took the oath of allegiance on Friday, according to the report on the radio, he had his tiny hand on two Bibles, one of which was the one which Abraham Lincoln used, and the other was one which his mother had given him. It makes you think that the Bible must mean something to the new president. 

Using two Bibles in this way reminds me of a story which I heard about a rich old man who had two Rolls Royces. Somebody once asked him why he needed two. He wasn’t a car collector. However, he said, he felt better having two, just in case one broke down. So perhaps Donald Trump needs two Bibles, just in case one breaks down. 

‘Wait a minute’, you will say. One of the things about the Bible is that it is utterly reliable. It’s even better than a Rolls-Royce. It doesn’t break down. All you need in life is holy scripture, ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, in Latin. But different churches say different things here. There are, perhaps, some differences of emphasis.

Today is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I must confess that my heart does sink a little bit when I realise that I have to try to say something useful and enlightening about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, especially when we have a lesson like the one which we had today from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. St Paul ticks them off. ‘… each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ St Paul says, Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’

Poor old Corinthians. They are always getting ticked off by St Paul. It’s one of those points where I have to say – and I think some of you will agree with me – that I feel rather sympathetic to those Corinthians. Why am I an Anglican? Why is somebody else a Methodist? Or for a Wee Free? A Baptist? Or a member of the United Reformed Church, or indeed Roman Catholic? And is this a good thing? 

When you read a lesson like the one we’ve read from 1 Corinthians, It’s an ‘oh dear’ moment. It looks as though, although for hundreds of years, the church has been divided into lots of different denominations, everybody seems to turn a blind eye to these Bible passages which suggest that we should be all one church. 

We can trace back the various splits and disagreements which have given rise to the different denominations. For instance the original split between the church in Byzantium and the church in Rome, the orthodox and the Roman Catholics respectively; and then in the time of the Reformation – 500 years ago this year – Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, and starting a movement which split the Western Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants themselves were divided, mainly between those who were Lutherans and those who followed Calvin and Zwingli, the reformed Christians. And there were – there are – Baptists as well!

This isn’t going to be a sermon where I try to teach you all about the various differences in theology and the philosophy of religion as it has evolved down the ages; why, for example, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics have not moved together – after all, Henry VIII was a jolly good Catholic, the only problem being that he had some local difficulty with the Pope. 

Apart from that, Henry had no difficulty with the Catholic doctrines, of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine in holy communion actually become the body and blood of Christ; and the blueprint or route map of heaven, what happens to people after they die: that their souls go to a place called purgatory, where all the sins are laundered from the souls. Possibly laundry is too nice an image; it is more like the refiner’s fire. 

Not a nice process, but after that you were ready for your encounter with St Peter at the Pearly Gates. Henry had no difficulty with all of that; but of course Martin Luther did. He was particularly opposed to the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences, according to which you could pay in order to shorten your time in purgatory. It was very lucrative for the church but it didn’t have any basis in holy scripture. 

Martin Luther wanted to strip out all these things that were not in the Bible but which had grown up in the church’s tradition. ‘Sola scriptura’, only scripture, was his motto, his byword. Calvin and Zwingli, on the other hand, as well as relying on scripture, like Luther, did not like the traditional idea of a priest, as someone standing between the believer and God, somehow mediating worship. That Catholic idea was based on the Jewish concept of the priesthood, according to which an ordinary mortal who came into contact with God would die.

The trouble with having a priesthood is that you start to have a hierarchy, ‘princes of the church’ among the bishops, living in splendour in complete contrast with the simple life enjoined on his disciples by Jesus. In reaction against that, Calvin introduced the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. God would meet anyone, directly, face to face in prayer or worship.
Why would you follow one form of theology rather than another? Surely what the Bible says, if you follow what St Paul has written to the Corinthians, is that splitting up into all these different churches is an aberration. Somehow we have all got lost on the way. True believers will all just belong to one church, whatever that is.

At that point, of course, all of you in the pews mentally shift from one foot to another, with your eyes cast down, thinking privately that it’s hopeless, after 2,000 years of history and because of the way that all of us have been brought up in different traditions round the world. There is no chance of abolishing all the various denominations in favour of a single unified church, and the idea of having to go to a single church may well fill us with some trepidation. 

‘Our beliefs are not one-size-fits-all’, you will say. You might even say, ‘My God is not like your God.’ I have always found it rather difficult when people talk about ‘my God’, because it seems to me that God does not belong to us, but rather that we belong to Him. So saying that something or someone is my God, mine, is nonsense. 

In your mind’s eye, even if not out loud, you are probably thinking, ‘I don’t want the churches to be all just like so-and-so down the road. Just think, they might make me wave my arms around or clap in time to a guitar, or have to smell incense!’ – or, indeed, whatever it is that you get sniffy about in other churches. 

But I think the thing that you need to take into account is the idea that is behind what St Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our lesson today. In effect, it is not what the Corinthians want that matters, it isn’t that they must have that great thing, that we celebrate so much in our society today, namely, choice, it isn’t that: It isn’t up to them, it isn’t up to the Corinthians: it’s up to Jesus himself. 

What would Jesus say about, ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I follow Paul’? Or, I’m a Methodist, I’m a United Reformed? I’m a Roman Catholic, or an Anglican? I’m a high Anglican. I’m a low Anglican. I’m a middle of the road Anglican. I’m an Evangelical (Godfrey will tell you more about that, of course); or I’m an Anglo-Catholic. Every shade and nuance is catered for. What do you think Jesus would think about that?

What St Paul says is, ‘Christ did not send me to baptise, but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.’ In other words, the key thing is for people to hear the gospel, and in particular to hear about Christ’s passion and death and resurrection: to hear about the role of the cross which is at the heart of it. 

Provided we get the Gospel, nothing else really matters. I don’t think that Jesus would particularly care whether we like a particular church or a particular style of worship or not. The more important thing is that Jesus gets to be believed in by more people. So my feeling is that is that, although there might be moves to get closer to each other in the various denominations, moves such, for example, as ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or more recently the conversations between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the covenant discussions between the Anglicans and Methodists, still, you can give yourself a break; you can smile sweetly at your friends in the other churches, particularly in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: you can take the opportunity to go and visit each other’s churches and worship with them. But you don’t have to give up being based at the church you’ve always gone to, where your friends are. 

You definitely can be confident that we all, all of us in Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and Downside, are united, united in that we believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; so I think we wouldn’t get ticked off like the Corinthians were. 

Mind you, going back to Donald Trump and his two bibles, as Canon Giles Fraser has written recently in his ‘Loose Canon’ column in the Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2017/jan/19/for-donald-trump-faith-has-become-the-perfect-alibi-for-greed], President Trump does go to a different sort of church, different from any of the ones round here, a church called Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, where the minister is, or has been, the Rev Norman Vincent Peale. Mr Peale has published a book called ‘The power of positive thinking’ and has developed a theology, if you can believe this, of how to be a winner, how to be successful in business. It seems to be a sort of ‘prosperity gospel’.To be blessed, in that congregation, means to be rich.

Giles Fraser wrote, ‘When Trump was asked what God is to him … he came up with this: “Well, I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this … here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals, they say, ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals.” 

Awful, isn’t it. And it came from something at least pretending to be a church. Now what that means is something which we ought to be thinking about, especially in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

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 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 Evensong for Churches Together on the Third Sunday after Easter, 11th May 2014
Ezra 3:1-13, Ephesians 2:11-22: Be Reconciled

So then you are no longer strangers …, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and … of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. [Eph. 2:19-20]

Building a temple. Building a church. Being reconciled.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.

I want to welcome everyone to the church here at St Mary’s. We were excited when you, Godfrey, put your hand up in the Churches Together meeting and volunteered that we here would host the service to remember and celebrate the fellowship and spiritual growth which we enjoyed together in our Lent groups.

Our Lent groups, which were devoted to studying St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, with a strap line which Jeremy Cresswell, in his erudite study notes, identified as ‘Be Reconciled’. Obviously St Paul was talking about Jews and non-Jews, at the time of Jesus Christ, whereas in applying this message today – and certainly in the context of our service tonight – we are talking about the different Christian denominations, and how we can be reconciled, brought together in fellowship, so as to become, in unity and diversity at the same time, the body of Christ.

Ezra, the author of our Old Testament lesson, was writing in the sixth century BC following the conquest of the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple, by the Persians – King Cyrus followed by King Darius and the three Kings Artaxerxes.

The Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, and to have some self-government. But they were very much a minority, surrounded by people who did not necessarily sympathise with them, and who were much more powerful than they were.

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple. But before then, in the passage that we heard tonight, came the restoration of worship, of the One True God. It’s a theme throughout the Old Testament – certainly it comes out in Ezra, if you read Ezra and its sister book, Nehemiah – that there was one true God: that also, that one true God had made a covenant with a chosen people, and so the world was divided, divided into God’s chosen people and the rest.

It was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith, their belief in the one true God, when they had such terrible bad fortune. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept. .. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land? (Ps. 137).

The Assyrians conquered the Israelites in 722, and when in 587 BC the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple, which had stood for so long, was razed to the ground. All the precious things in it were taken by the victorious Babylonians. You can read all about these disasters in the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles.

It didn’t really look as though God’s covenant with the Israelites, His covenant with Abraham, was really working. Then the Israelites started to understand that it was God, God Himself, who had caused all the misfortune, and it was because they had not followed God’s commandments. But God forgave them, and during the time of the Persians, they were treated much more kindly. Eventually they went about rebuilding the Temple.

Flash forward 600 years to the time of Jesus, and the time of St Paul immediately afterwards, and imagine what a huge step – a huge mental step – St Paul was making when he realised that God was not exclusive in the way that he had been brought up to think He was.

It wasn’t the case that there was one God, and that that one God favoured only the Israelites, the Jews. The lesson of Jesus was that God was – God is – a god for all of us. God created the whole world after all. The message of Jesus’ appearance is that there is still a covenant between God and His people: but his people are all people, not just one small nation.

That is, of course, a momentous step. Once St Paul had recognised that, it made it possible for the good news of Christ to spread throughout the world, and not just to stay as a minority cult among the Israelites.

So look at this timeline: Ezra, about 500 BC: St Paul, no more than a dozen or so years after the death of Christ, so, let’s say, just over 500 years later. And we are just over 2,000 years after that.

But back to the fact that we are tonight in St Mary’s. St Mary’s is the oldest church in Surrey – it was built originally in 680AD. Indeed, it’s a Saxon church: if you look, after the service, at the three little models that are on the shelf over there in the transept, you will see that it was originally a sort of Saxon shed – and then it grew progressively in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to be the shape of church which it is now.

So if we go back to the timeline – Ezra, 500 BC: St Paul, maybe 40 or 50 AD: St Mary’s, just over 500 years later, 680. And our service, written in the 1540s by Archbishop Cranmer – so, about another 5- or 600 years later.

You should know that the Book of Common Prayer, which we’re using tonight (it’s the little blue book in your pew), actually took 100 years to settle into its final form, but the key bits of it were written by Archbishop Cranmer in the middle 1500s – so, the time of Henry VIII – and we are about 700 years after that. We are joined – reconciled, sort of – with all those Christians before us.

Remember that in the 1540s Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was writing the Book of Common Prayer in the crucible of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg: John Calvin had preached in Geneva; Zwingli in Zürich, and of course, Henry VIII; all contributed to a time of theological ferment and disagreement.

We are using words which haven’t changed for 700 years. We really are walking in the footsteps of the saints. Because Cranmer didn’t just dream up all the words in the services which went into the Book of Common Prayer. He based all the services on his translations, and on his understanding, of even older services which the church had been using before he compiled the Prayer Book in the 1540s.

The BCP was meant to be a prayer book, a service book, for use in common, meaning shared by everyone. Against the background of all the different strands of the Reformation, the BCP was a powerful tool for reconciliation.

So the fact that tonight we are using the BCP, a prayer book written 700 years ago which goes back even earlier in its origins, is, I think, very apt in the context of Churches Together: in the context of our variety, all our different ways of worshipping, in our seven churches.

Just like the time of St Paul. Faithful Christians in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, in Colossae, in Galatia, were all confronting something which was far bigger than they were, and they didn’t know what the right answers were.

St Paul talked about it in 1 Corinthians 1:12.

‘ …. each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’

Which one of these great preachers had it right? Terribly important; once you are confronted by the Revelation, the Good News, that God cares for us, that He sent His only Son: nothing is more important than to respond appropriately.

But, as the Roman poet Terence said, ‘Quot homines, tot sententiae’ – (for as many as there are people, there are just as many opinions). That’s why the message of Ephesians is so very important. Its message of reconciliation, coming together, of agreeing together – even in circumstances where we disagree – is vitally important.

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I pray that that has been your experience in our Lent course – and that it will continue to be: that you will come and share with us here, and we will come and share with you. In our different ways, we will spread the good news of Christ and will receive the good news of Christ; and we will live like people who have seen the Kingdom.