Archives for posts with tag: Charles Wesley

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Second Sunday of Easter, 28th April 2019

Revelation 1:4-8, Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=423140630

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This Sunday our Bible readings take us back vividly to the life of the apostles just after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Each passage illustrates a different angle. First in the Book of Revelation.

What is your favourite hymn? A little while ago there was a series in the parish magazine – well, actually in the old parish mag, before the beautiful St Mary’s Quarterly came out, of course – anyway, the series was on ‘favourite hymns’. People were invited to pick their favourite hymn and to explain what it was they liked about it. What would my favourite hymn be? One strong contender in my heart would be ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’, one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns. It’s number 31 in our hymn book, if you want to look it up.

Like many hymns, it contains several sermons and profound theological insights. It’s based on our first lesson, from the Book of Revelation, which says:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

   every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;

   and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

 

The hymn covers the same ground – in rather better poetry, I think.

The Book of Revelation is a book about the End Time, a vision of heaven, a vision of the divine. It’s a vision of God, and of Jesus sitting at his right hand, ‘up there’. Since Bishop John Robinson’s great little book ‘Honest to God’, or Don Cupitt’s BBC series called ‘The Sea of Faith’ in the early 1980s, we haven’t tended to see God as a man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds. Even if we weren’t influenced by Bishop John Robinson or by Don Cupitt, you might remember that according to President Krushchev, when Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, returned to earth, he is supposed to have mentioned that he hadn’t seen God ‘up there’. The great vision in Revelation is a metaphorical one; its truth is not literal. Our reading from it says

Every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

‘Those who pierced him.’ We have to be careful not to take early accounts of the passion and resurrection of Jesus as being very anti-Jewish. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the ‘the whole body of the elders of Israel’, did, as a matter of bare facts, cause Jesus to be crucified: but as Jesus himself said, they did not know what they were doing. They were not consciously killing the Son of God. In the early encounter between the Jewish authorities and the disciples which we heard about in the words of Acts chapter 5, if you read a bit more of the chapter after this, you’ll see that it isn’t simply a question of a brush between the Jewish leaders and the apostles, not simply – or at all, actually – a kind of repeat of the persecution which had resulted in Jesus’ death. The full story tells that the High Priest and the Sadducees, motivated by jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in prison. But ‘an angel of the Lord’ opened the doors of the prison and let them out during the night, so that when they went to get them in the morning, the police reported that they’d found the prison locked, but no apostles inside. They’d gone back to teaching in the Temple. They sent the police and fetched them to appear before the Council – but without using any force, ‘for fear of being stoned by the people’.

Then comes the passage which was our second reading, the exchange between the High Priest’s group, the Sadducees, and Peter. They asked, ‘Why did you ignore our injunction to prevent you from preaching?’ …. And the answer was, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ Then Peter went on to rehearse the crucifixion story. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you had done to death’, and most important, ‘We are witnesses’. The Sadducees, extraordinarily, wanted to kill them. They couldn’t cope with how popular the gospel message had already become. To the apostles, it must have felt horribly reminiscent of the time immediately before the crucifixion.

But then another Jewish leader, a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a ‘teacher of the law held in high esteem by all the people’, stood up in the Sanhedrin council and said, ‘Keep clear of these men, I tell you; leave them alone. For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put them down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God.’ These were wise words – and they came as much from a Jewish source as any of the cruel Sadducees’ threats. Both sentiments came from Jewish sources, enlightened, Gamaliel, or cruel, the Sadducees. You can’t really blame the Jews. They really had no idea what the big picture was.

A quick look back, before we move on to consider Doubting Thomas. An ‘angel of the Lord’ organised the apostles’ gaol break. What was this angel? Given that the name ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ in the original Greek, rather than thinking about angels as being superheroes like Superman, let’s think instead that they could just have been ordinary Christians, doing the will of the Lord. You can understand quite a few of these apparently supernatural terms in natural, normal terms. Most likely it was just ordinary humans who got them out of jail – but in so doing, they were doing the work of God. But of course, if you want to believe in angels as something magical, between gods and mere men, fair enough. I’ve got no proof either way.

Then we do go on to think about Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas has strengthened so many people’s faith. It certainly did mine. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That’s us. We haven’t been able to do what Thomas did and verify empirically that they were encountering the risen Jesus. Our understanding, our trust in the whole Gospel, has to have been based on things we ourselves haven’t seen.

The essence of that faith is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s not just an extraordinary miracle, something to amaze and delight you, which is really what the word ‘miracle’ meant originally, (something to amaze and delight), but also most crucially it means that God, however we understand him to be, the unmoved mover (according to Aristotle), the creator and sustainer, the Almighty, all-powerful, all knowing, He, has a relationship with the human race, with us.

God is bigger and infinitely more detailed than I, certainly, can comprehend. The Bible says, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, that whoever has seen him has seen the father (John 14:9). I suppose if you take literally the passages which have Jesus sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, then those glorious images of a heavenly palace above the clouds will resonate with you.

But I think that I am too much a prosaic, matter-of-fact person to believe literally that that is how things are. I’m with Yuri Gagarin. I don’t actually think that God lives above the clouds, or indeed that he can be tied down to a particular time or place. Except of course he can. He can be tied down in a sense to the time and place of Jesus. If we didn’t know about Jesus we wouldn’t know anything at all about God except in purely functional terms, making stuff, creation, and knowing stuff, omniscience, and so on. And the story of Thomas is the most powerful expression of this.

But hang on a minute: if God isn’t somewhere, if there isn’t a sort of Mount Olympus somewhere, with God and his angels and Jesus together on top of the clouds on their thrones in some glorious palace which looks just as we would imagine 20th Century Fox and perhaps one of those great directors like David Lean would portray it, larger-than-life for sure; if that’s not the way it is, and if Jesus was not saying something completely fanciful, when he said that if we have seen him we have seen the father, then can we actually know God a bit more after all?

I wonder whether the angels are a clue. As I said earlier on, when the angel of the Lord came to let St Peter and the apostles out of the gaol, I did just wonder who the angel was. It occurred to me that, just as we say that the Holy Spirit – which is God in one form – just as we say that the Holy Spirit is in our church, is in all of us, and that we are called ‘the body of Christ’, here today as well, so it means that angels, messengers of God, could be ordinary people, just as Jesus was an ordinary human being in one sense.

So we could be angels. Surely we are angels, when the Spirit is at work in us and when we do God’s work. I’ve preached before about saints. I’ve made the point that the saints are all of us Christians. Another hymn:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed.

That’s us. We are in that wonderful ‘apostolic succession’, as it’s sometimes called, from the earliest Christians; and thousands and thousands of new Christians are coming forward every minute, who haven’t seen, but yet believe.

Well that’s great. It’s a very major thing – and we could stop it there and go away from this service feeling perhaps that we’d come a little closer to God. But the other major thing that we must consider is that, if we are to be saints and angels, real saints and angels, we must behave like them.

So today in a society where there is a terrible xenophobia, where people say things against immigrants, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like us, where people blame those who go to food banks, for being in some sense feckless or undeserving, where we turn our backs as a country on our relationships and treaties with other countries, where we fail to take our fair share of refugees, where we allow a government ministry to uproot people who have being here working and making their lives among us for decades, and send them to countries which they have not seen for those decades, on the grounds that they are in some way here illegally, where there are so many instances of our society’s meanness and failure properly to provide for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, where we justify it by shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all very sad but there isn’t enough money to go round; but then, miraculously, the government finds billions for Brexit.

Yes, what I’m saying is political; but it is not intended to be party political. It’s true whether you’re Labour or LibDem or Conservative. The important thing is that we’re Christians. I’m saying that, as Christians, we should have a view on these things. We should call them out; we should stand against them, because we are Christians. We should, if we have a spare room, consider welcoming some refugees to stay with us when they first arrive. We should tell our politicians that it’s not acceptable not to put sprinklers in high rise council blocks like Grenfell Tower, (even though government ministers have promised to do it); tell our politicians it’s not acceptable not to pay proper compensation to the people whose lives have been ruined by the Windrush scandal; it’s not acceptable that thousands of people – last year, over 4,000 – are denied benefits on the grounds that they are fit to work, and then are so ill that they die within three months of that decision. It’s not acceptable that the newspapers should be full of pictures of a poor man, Stephen Smith, so emaciated that his bones are sticking out, so obviously desperately ill, denied benefits, on the ground that he is ‘fit to work’: he died. But not until he had won an appeal in court, as 70% of the appeals are won. [See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/22/stephen-smith-benefits-system-dying]

This institutional meanness doesn’t just come out of the air. Just as we are saints and angels with the Holy Spirit in us, we have God’s power in us. We are not impotent. We have God’s power to do something about it. We need to speak to our MP, to write letters, to demonstrate on the streets if necessary, to rise up.

So today the message, the Easter message, is that we have seen the Lord. We have seen him at work in our fellow saints and angels. Let us join them, let us take that divine power and use it.

Stephen Smith
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Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1st May 2016 Zephaniah 3:14-20
‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.’ (Zephaniah 3:14-15)
Zephaniah, in his short book – it has only three chapters – gives a snapshot of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. The people of God having turned away from the Lord and worshipped the Baals, God would punish them. The description of the punishment takes two and a half chapters out of the three chapters in the book! Then the ‘remnant of Judah’, the ones who were spared, suddenly find that God looks kindly on them and they are saved.
What a strange idea the people of the Old Testament seem to have had about God! As they saw things, God took sides. They were the chosen people: therefore they expected God to favour them and help them to overcome their enemies. In the weeks after Easter, at Morning Prayer during the week, Common Worship offers as a canticle ‘The Song of Moses and Miriam’, taken from Exodus chapter 15.
Here is some of it.
‘I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song

and has become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will praise,

the God of my forebears whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior,

the Lord is his name.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power:

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
At the blast of your nostrils, the sea covered them;

they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
In your unfailing love, O Lord,

you lead the people whom you have redeemed.’
And so on. ‘The Lord is a warrior’: ‘your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy’.
Quite apart from the divine sneeze – ‘At the blast of your nostrils’, this sounds very strange – quite unlike how we think of God. What about God’s love for all mankind? Surely we were, we are told, all made in the image of God. How can He favour one lot over against another?
God, in the Old Testament, does seem to be a kind of superhero, a sort of almighty trump card. If you have God on your side, you will prevail, you will succeed. Clearly this God, the one who comes down in a cloud or in a fiery pillar and speaks to Moses, is a sort of superman, who has a direct relationship with His chosen people, through his prophets. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, is being God’s mouthpiece.
But we really don’t believe in that kind of God any more. The God who blows people away with a ‘blast of his nostrils’ is of a piece with the image of heavenly king, sitting on some kind of magic carpet throne above the clouds. He didn’t really survive the Age of the Enlightenment. A God like that is limited in time and place. He is ‘up there’, or ‘out there’. That’s not consistent with being all-powerful, the creator from nothing, ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only wise’.
The thought is that Jesus has changed our outlook on God. God has come to us, our interface with God isn’t in a burning bush or through a prophet, but by His being a man like us, human as well as divine. Easy to say, but really difficult fully to understand.
Now this week, on Thursday evening we will remember and celebrate Christ’s Ascension. ‘While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9). Up – He goes up, He ascends. He went up, He ascended. And then ‘two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ (Acts 1:10-11)
In one way, it looked as though Jesus had gone up, gone up to a heaven above the clouds. But then these angelic figures contradict it. The ‘heaven’, where Jesus has gone, isn’t up above the clouds. Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’
Indeed, the lifting up on Ascension Day is not the same as lifting up was generally understood to be, something shameful, being lifted up on a cross. In the Jewish tradition, to be lifted up was a sign of shame.
Today is Rogation Sunday, so called because the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘calling’ or ‘asking for something’. In anticipation of Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we call on God, we anticipate Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. For the farmers, the call to God is in the context of springtime, a call for God to bless their crops and make their flocks thrive.
Going to heaven is at the heart of our faith. What did happen to Jesus? Indeed, what does happen to anyone who dies? In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 4:14-17], and in the beginning of Acts, we read this rather enigmatic reference to Jesus returning to us from the same direction as he went off to. ‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn puts it.
He’s not ‘up there’ in a conventional sense. God, Jesus, transcends space and time. He is ‘at the ground of our being’, as Paul Tillich put it. It’s something of absolutely central importance. Think of all the things which we confront today. There are elections on Thursday as well as Ascension Day – and a referendum, the outcome of which could radically change our country’s place in the world. There is the most catastrophic war going on in Syria. Our doctors feel so strongly that they are going on strike. What difference does it make, where Jesus ascended to, or whether there is a heaven?
Think of all those Bible lessons that you have at funerals, when people have to confront this ultimate question. Is there life after death? Think of St Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians, in particular chapter 15. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and our faith is in vain. But He was raised: Paul lists all the people who saw him, who met him, in that amazing time. They were witnesses, witnesses just as serious, just as certain, as in a court of law.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate incarnation. Because He entered into our human life, and because He was resurrected, so we will be resurrected. There is life after death. But Paul is properly cautious about exactly how it will happen.
He says, ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor 15:42-44)
Now frankly that is hugely, hugely important. God is involved in our world: God cares for us. There is life beyond death. And Jesus, as he met again his faithful followers, after He rose from the dead, tells them – tells us – not to skip over it, but to
‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:18-20). It was the Great Commission, the great challenge. Our faith isn’t a quirky weird little secret society. It can give hope to all people, and that hope is the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life.
So on this May Day, Rogation Sunday, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’ Among all the challenges, there is hope. Just don’t keep it to yourself.

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 30th November 2014, at St John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Yesterday I asked your Rector and her Assistant, Hope and Bill, ‘Is today still part of the Thanksgiving season? Or is it the beginning of the run-up to Christmas – Advent?’ I needed a bit of technical advice – both on the Thanksgiving part, and of course also on the theological side.

As you will realise, I can claim to be at all qualified only about the theology. As a mere Englishman I don’t know enough about Thanksgiving – although, as this is my third Thanksgiving here in Hartford, I am getting the hang of it. It’s a lovely time. I have to tell you that at home in England, a supermarket chain, Waitrose, in their in-house newspaper, are claiming that 17% of Brits – yes, Brits – are now celebrating Thanksgiving – or at least having turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps – and I hope this is not too cynical – this is some variation on the idea of turkeys voting for Christmas, but this time promoted by the farmers.

Hope preached a lovely sermon here on Thursday about remembering: looking back at the year and giving thanks for all the blessings we’ve received. At our Thanksgiving dinner, she went round the table and we all had to tell the others about something we wanted to give thanks for. Both the lovely thoughts the sermon brought out, and our stories round the table, were gentle and kind and good. Good memories, good feelings; real thanksgivings.

But now, as members of Christ’s church, we are called to be in a different mood. The secular world and the Christian one have different calendars here. If we’re not churchgoers, Christmas marks the end of the year, and Christmas, not Thanksgiving, leads to the new year.

But as Christians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, we mark the end of the church year and the beginning of the new one now, just after Thanksgiving, at the end of Ordinary Time, as it’s called in the Lectionary, at the beginning of Advent, today. This is the beginning of a new church year.

And Advent is a season not of unmixed jollification, but of penitence. As Isaiah says, we have rather forgotten God. ‘There is no one who calls on your name.’ We are caught up in Black Friday, and in ‘so-and-so many shopping days to Christmas’.

But if we change our point of view, and see things through the prism of our Christian faith, then Advent is the beginning of a new year, the time of anticipation, looking forward to the Christmas story, to the momentous events which show that God is with us. With Isaiah we say, ‘You are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand’. But God is not just the divine watchmaker, a creator who has simply wound up the mechanism, put it down and let it run, without any further interference. Instead God has become incarnate, become flesh and blood, become a man like us.

So in Advent we are waiting to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the coming of God as a man, that was His first coming. That is certainly something to look forward to, and surely it’s all right to be quite jolly about it. Of course the children – and maybe some of us grown-ups too – get pleasure out of thinking about the nice things they hope to get as presents. But for us the biggest present, the most generous gift, is the one from God, the gift of Jesus.

That should also make us pause and reflect. In the face of this, in the face of the fact that God didn’t just make the world and then ignore it, didn’t just leave it to get on by itself, we have to reflect on the fact that God knows about us, God cares about us. What do we look like to Him? What sort of shape are we in to meet God? That’s why Advent is a time for reflection, for penitence.

Just after my sermon we will say the Creed together. We will say, ‘He will come again’. Jesus will come again. We will pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come’. In both cases, we will imply that Jesus, and Jesus’ kingdom, haven’t come yet. The coming of the Kingdom, the Second Coming is still ahead.

Jesus talked about these things in his sermon which we heard in our Gospel reading today. ‘Lo! he comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s great hymn, which we just sang, puts it. The last trump, the Day of Judgment, the end of the world.

Now I suspect that for most of us that’s a vivid image, a powerful picture – but nothing really more than that. In any case Jesus must surely have been mistaken when He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’: even if we don’t actually contradict that, or reject it, we are tempted not to try to understand it at all. It’s too far-fetched.

But Jesus clearly did want us to keep it at the front of our minds, not at the back. ‘Wachet auf! (‘Keep awake!’) as the music at the beginning and end of the service says. ‘Keep awake, the voice is calling’. There might even be a contradiction between Jesus’ first statement, that ‘this generation will not pass away’ until the end time has come, and His second statement that ‘about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’

What would you do if you encountered the risen Jesus, now? To put it another way, are we right to keep all this talk of the Kingdom of God conveniently separated from our normal lives? Are we right to think of it as something that might happen in thousands of years, but definitely not something that will happen to us? Can we be absolutely sure about that?

Jesus definitely wanted to make us less certain. I would suggest that He wasn’t necessarily talking about a Second Coming which was all in the future. Remember the wonderful passage in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, when Jesus has come in his glory to judge the nations, dividing the sheep from the goats; and He says to the righteous people, the good sheep who are going to heaven, to eternal life, ‘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.’ They didn’t understand. ‘When did we do all this?’ they asked. ‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, “… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”‘

How really important that is. It means that in one sense, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God, has actually happened already. Jesus is with us. He is in everyone we meet. If you do it to someone else, you do it to Jesus. You may have difficulty believing in some kind of supernatural Flash Gordon riding on the clouds. But you’d be far less wise to rule out seeing the Holy Spirit in the people you meet.

So do keep awake. Look out for someone who is ‘an hungred’, hungry; someone who has no clothes; who is sick, or in prison. But I would dare to say, don’t worry about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. No-one knows when they will be coming. Have a happy and blessed end to the Thanksgiving holiday, and I pray that this time of Advent will be for you a time of prayerful – and joyful – expectation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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