Archives for posts with tag: faith

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 5th August 2018

Psalm 88, Job 28, Hebrews 11:17-31

I’m going to cheat, ever so slightly, tonight: because the text that I want to talk about isn’t actually part of either of our lessons this evening. But it does come in the Book of Job, a bit earlier than our first lesson, which was from chapter 28. This quotation is from chapter 19: and it is

‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth’.

You can probably hear it, as one of the arias, ‘airs’, as he called them, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I know that my redeemer liveth. It does lead into our two lessons, which are about different ways of knowing things.

The first lesson, from the Book of Job, is all about wisdom; the value of wisdom, how difficult it is to come by, but how important it is: and the second lesson, from Hebrews, is all about faith; trusting that something is the case, believing in something. Hebrews tells how faith can make you a hero, and how the various stars of the history of the Israelites had faith in things, and did remarkable deeds as a result.

Let’s look first at wisdom. What does it mean to be wise? This has connotations of good judgement, discernment and fair-mindedness. I think these days that we often tend to concentrate not on what would be wise in certain circumstances, but rather, on what would not be wise. You know: we tend to say, for instance, ‘If I need to go home from here, I could go in the golf buggy. But it wouldn’t be wise.’

The idea of wisdom is that it’s the sort of knowledge which leads to a successful outcome. Knowing what is likely to turn out well, and having the good judgement to choose that course of action rather than anything else.

Another thing that wisdom is bound up with is understanding. If you understand something properly, then probably you will deal with that thing better, more effectively, more correctly. In the Book of Job, Job has three dialogues with his so-called ‘comforters’, his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, candid friends who hold up a mirror to him, he having suffered unjustly. He’s not done anything wrong, but terrible things have happened to him. They try to help him to understand what has happened to him. For some reason God has caused it.

One thing that’s different between the world of Job and our world today is that we don’t tend to look for a divine cause for everything that happens. Obviously, as Christians, we believe that God is the ultimate creator and sustainer of our life. But I’m not sure that we would see Him at work taking sides, if you like, lifting up some people and casting down others. I think these days we tend not to think of God in that way, because it tends to lead you into the possibility that God is not a good and loving god, but that He may in certain circumstances be a vengeful and cruel god.

I think we tend to say that things just happen; perhaps, tying them a little bit to somebody’s conduct: ‘If we carry on polluting the atmosphere, then global warming will happen much more quickly’, say. Of course, if you were in an Old Testament frame of mind, you could cast that discussion in terms of breaking the Covenant to look after God’s creation on our part, and God inflicting punishment accordingly.

But I’m inclined to think that’s not a common view these days, even among people who do think about God and believe in Him, because in a way it makes God out to be not necessarily a loving god. And it’s interesting to see how Job thought of wisdom in this context.

‘… the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.., and so on, is, I suppose, what ‘the fear of the Lord’ means – although it’s odd that it should be fear and not love. Maybe a better word would be ‘respect’. You can have loving respect for God.

I think that’s pretty good, even in the court of the philosophers. What is it, to be wise? It’s not something you can just acquire, as the lesson says. And it’s not something you can buy, or learn, like riding a bike. There has to be some sort of guarantor, that what we think may be true, is true. That could be God.

The point about having God in the background, underpinning our knowledge and understanding, is that otherwise, we might never agree on what is wise. What is it, to know that something is a good idea? It might be a good idea for me; but it might not be a good idea for you.

In Handel’s ‘Messiah’, that line from Job, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, actually points to the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, to Jesus. The air goes on, ‘For now is Christ risen, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ Händel’s librettist Charles Jennens quoted 1 Corinthians 15:20 as well as the Book of Job.

But in the context of Job himself, another way of putting what he says is, ‘I know that my vindicator lives’. He has been unjustly condemned. Poor old Job is suffering all sorts of indignities, trials and torments. And he has done nothing to deserve it. So what he really needs is somebody to speak up for him in a persuasive way, an advocate, a ‘vindicator’: somebody who can prove that he is not a guilty party: somebody to show everyone what the true position is.

But here’s the problem. It’s not necessarily the case that we will all agree about things that we say we ‘know’. I might say that I know that something or other is a good thing. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing – and you might disagree with me. We sort-of think that, if you say you know something, if I know that such-and-such is the case, then it must be true. Really? Well, just saying it tells you that that’s not necessarily right.

Maybe faith can add another angle on this. This whole topic is what’s called epistemology, the philosophy of understanding, what it is to understand something, what it is to know something, what it is to perceive something. And faith is in this area. In the Letter to the Hebrews, you find this wonderful catalogue of heroes in Bible history, doing heroic things because of their faith. By faith they did such-and-such. I think we’re meant to distinguish faith from knowledge – although that may not actually be a real distinction.

At the beginning of chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, there’s a definition of faith. ‘Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of realities we do not see’, (NEB), or ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, according to the King James version.

I’ve been beginning to think about how I’m going to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to my little grandson Jim. Jim is 19 months old, so his capacity for philosophical reasoning is probably a bit limited, at least for now. But I think it’s a good thing for me to start thinking about how I will be able to explain these things in terms that Jim can understand.

So much of our understanding of God, so much of our religion, involves things we cannot see. In some ways it would be very handy if, in the same ways as with the ancient Greeks, our God periodically came down from heaven and appeared among us: and of course 2,000 years ago, that’s exactly what happened. But these days we are challenged by how to explain that we believe in something, we trust something to be true, that we can’t see and we can’t prove the existence of – at least in the same way as we could prove whether I’m wearing pink socks.

It’s not just religious things: there are a lot of things where in order for our lives to just carry on normally, we need to have faith. I have faith that I will get up next morning and that there’ll be another day. But there’s no way I can prove it. Anything involving the future involves faith. If I turn the ignition key of my car, I have faith that it will start up and go. But I don’t know.

There are some similarities with what Job was talking about. He was praising the idea of wisdom. It was a gift beyond price, unable to be found anywhere specific. If you had wisdom, then you would make fewer mistakes. You would be able to discern the right thing to do.

But if you have faith, it takes it on a further stage. If you believe and trust in something or in someone, depending on how inspiring that figure is, how compelling they are, you will be inspired, you will be able to rise to the highest challenges. Just as with wisdom; you won’t be able to prove it, but it will be real for you. If you have faith that something is the case, then for you, that is reality.

But there is an extra factor in this, both where wisdom is concerned, and also with faith. And that is, that it isn’t just a question that if I do the right thing, it will make me more successful; or if I have complete faith in, say, a particular diet, then I will achieve spectacular weight loss – well, actually , there may be better examples that you can think of – but the idea, the point, is that wisdom and faith, in this context at least, involve something extra, someone extra: they involve God.

In Job’s world, the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and in the context of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the light of Jesus, faith makes it possible for us to be heroes, to do things which by ourselves we would never be able to do.

I know that my Redeemer liveth.

I know it. It’s wise to believe it. I do believe it. I have faith.

Advertisements

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

You might wonder what the connection is between our two lessons today. The first one is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which you might think was more apt for one of those Sundays when we review our giving to the church and our stewardship, and on the other hand, the passage in St Mark’s Gospel, the two miracles of Jesus, healing the woman with the unstoppable haemorrhage, who just touched the edge of his coat, and Jairus’ daughter, one of Jesus‘s greatest miracles, where he raised a little girl from the dead. We know that story so well, but not in the words that Godfrey read. I don’t remember Jesus saying, ‘Little girl, get up’ – although that is what the Greek literally says. The words I remember are so much more mighty and memorable.

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.

And they laughed him to scorn. …

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.

‘Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’ Not ‘Little girl, get up’. Now that’s a proper miracle, in proper miracle words. Just imagine what it must have been like

if you were Jairus or the damsel or the damsel’s Mum, indeed everyone around. She wasn’t just some little girl. She was the damsel, the damsel in Mark’s Gospel.

Anyway, I’m not really going to talk about the gospel today. Because I’m sure you’ve heard loads and loads of sermons about that lovely passage in St Mark’s Gospel about the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage; the key point about both stories being the importance of having faith. To the woman who touched his cloak he said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, when people were saying it was too late, that his daughter had died, Jesus said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ They both had trusted in the power of God.

No, what I want to have a go at this morning is to look at what St Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, where he is trying to get some funding for Christians in Jerusalem, who are hard-up, from the relatively well-off people in Corinth. This was like us in wealthy Surrey putting together a collection for a parish in the East End of London or in down-town Sheffield.

I think that it’s very interesting to see what St Paul was writing – or actually dictating to his secretary, because that’s how he worked – at the very earliest times in the history of Christianity. These letters to the Corinthians are usually dated by scholars at around 50AD [CE], so less than 20 years after Jesus was crucified. It is reckoned that only the letters to the Thessalonians are earlier. So we are getting a glimpse into the life and concerns of the earliest church. And St Paul is banging on about people upping their planned giving! Clearly, some things haven’t changed. But I’ll let Stephen Chater speak to you quietly about whatever St Mary’s needs.

The interesting things about what St Paul was saying here are precisely how sensitive he was, and how he recognised how tricky it is to reconcile money matters with faith. There are churches who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. According to that idea, if you are wealthy, it is because you are blessed – and conversely, if you are faithful to the church and give generously to it, then God will reward you, and make you rich.

I doubt whether any of us here would believe in that sort of thing. And neither does St Paul, here. What he does say is that he wants the Corinthians not only to talk the talk, to ‘excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness’, but also to walk the walk, in giving – the word in Greek is χαρις, from which we get our word ‘charity’. It’s also the word for ‘grace’, and indeed the words of ‘The Grace’, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ come from the end of this very same letter.

And ‘grace’ has another connotation, a ‘free gift’. In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, and in the letter to the Ephesians chapter 2, salvation, eternal life, is said to be the gift of God, not something people can earn through doing good works. It is a χάρισμα, which means a free gift, given by χαρις, grace, generosity. These are all related ideas. So what St Paul is asking the Corinthians to do is to be generous. Give a free gift – this isn’t a payment for services. Paul says, You’re not obliged to give; I’m not ordering you to do it. He says in v 8, ‘This is not meant as an order; by telling you how keen others are I am putting your love to the test.’ [NEB translation].

St Paul says that although Jesus was rich, he became poor. Actually that seems a bit unlikely. Jesus was, at least on earth, a carpenter’s son. He was a sought-after preacher, a rabbi. But I doubt whether he was like some of the telly-evangelists in the USA today, who are pretty well-heeled, as I understand it.

That’s true in parts of Africa too, incidentally. We had an interesting visit from a clergyman, a bishop’s chaplain, from the diocese of Owerri in Nigeria, with which St Andrew’s Oxshott, or rather Revd Canon Jeremy Cresswell, their previous vicar, had links. This chap fully expected to be kept in some comfort wherever he went. His reasoning was that, as Christ’s representative, people in the church should accord him respect and provide for his needs generously. I see that Godfrey is making notes here … But unfortunately, I think it only works for vicars in Africa …

I don’t know whether St Paul knew Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite, which is recorded in St Mark’s and St Luke’s Gospels (Mark 12: Luke 21). His Letters to the Corinthians were written before those Gospels; but his point in his Letter, which he spells out in the next chapter (2 Corinthians 9:6) where he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’, is very much along the same lines as Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite. What she gave may have seemed very small, a couple of coppers only; but it was all that she had.

Paul goes on to make it plain that you mustn’t feel pressured into giving more than you have (2 Cor 8:12). He reminds the Corinthians about the story of the Israelites after they had come out of Egypt, when they were with Moses in the desert, and they started to grumble and complain that they didn’t have enough to eat.

The Lord gave them an ‘ample sufficiency’ when he dropped manna from heaven, and numbers of quails for them to eat. I’ve always wondered how that last bit worked. In the sixties you got ‘chicken in a basket’ at Berni Inns. Maybe the effect was similar. The point, though, was about the quantity. Not too much, and not too little. An ample sufficiency. That’s what the Lord gave them. So the Corinthians – and we – should give to the Lord just what we can afford, and not more.

So what is the link between those miracle stories, about the damsel, Jairus’ daughter, and the other lady with the chronic illness, and St Paul banging the tin – albeit very elegantly – but clearly twisting the Corinthians’ arms – to give generously to the church?

I would suggest that the idea might be this. When you read the Gospel stories of what Jesus did, and particularly the miracle stories, the idea is that they are revelations, revelation of Jesus’ divine nature. God, with all that God can do, in a man. That man, Jesus, healed people, even raised the damsel and Lazarus from the dead. It demonstrated that he was much more than just a young man from a humble carpenter’s shop.

On the other hand St Paul interpreted it all, and he explained Jesus’ teaching in a way that everyone, not just the Jewish people, could understand. And when you have believed the miracles, when you ‘excel in faith’, then St Paul teaches that you will want to gracious, to be generous.

St Paul was the great church planter, the original Alpha Course teacher – and he was also, effectively, the first archdeacon. Paul was totally practical about how the new churches should operate, not only in their worship and care for others, but also in the nitty-gritty of church admin. You need enough money to run the church. And then you need more, if you are going to do something for neighbours in need.

It’s teaching which is still valid today. Do please think about what you give to the church. Are you doing in practice what you say you do? Please do give -cheerfully – but don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. Be like the widow and her mite.

Oh – and you know, if your wallet is somehow empty, St Mary’s is geared up to take credit cards, even Apple Pay. God bless you – and thank you!

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 third Sunday of Epiphany 22nd of January 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-12

I said when I welcomed everyone at the beginning of the service, this is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s particularly nice to have Father Jonathan and some of our friends from Sacred Heart here to worship with us. That of course goes for all our friends from all the other churches, but today I have a particular thing to discuss with our Roman friends.

This morning I preached on Christian unity and tried to reconcile our modern tendency, to elevate our tastes and our wish to be able to choose, with the clear biblical imperative that we should all be one in Christ Jesus.

Tonight I want to be more specific in touching on the fact that this week is not only the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but also that we are beginning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or to be more precise, the 500th anniversary, on 31st October, of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses protesting against various practices in the then Roman Catholic Church; in particular, the sale of ‘indulgences’ in order to shorten one’s time in ‘purgatory’.

In those days, the belief was that, after death, your soul went into a halfway house, purgatory, where it was tested and purified so as to eradicate from it any traces of sin. This could be a lengthy and painful process, which you could shorten by buying indulgences. Without going into the theology involved in Martin Luther’s challenge, I would just point out that this dispute about indulgences was the beginning of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches which are subsequently described as Protestant.

What I am interested in tonight is to some extent influenced by our first lesson from Ecclesiastes, the famous lesson about time, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to get, and a time to lose, and so on. Everything in its season and a season for everything

As some of you may know, I was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford. The College has been in the news recently because it has become the subject of protests by a movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, started originally in South Africa, protesting against memorials to Cecil Rhodes, who, as well as founding the famous Rhodes scholarships, and paying for the building of Rhodes House, where the Rhodes Scholars could meet, gave to my old college, Oriel, enough money to fund the building of a new Rhodes Building which was finished before the First World War and which has just been subject to a complete refurbishment including the building of a new additional top floor with very splendid penthouses for students looking over the rooftops towards the dreaming spires of Oxford.

On the side of the building which faces the High Street there is a large statue of Cecil Rhodes, and the protesters have been demanding that the statue be removed, just as a similar statue in Cape Town has been removed as a result of their protest. The protesters have argued that Cecil Rhodes exploited his workers in his diamond mines, that he had been a racist and colonialist of the worst type, and he should not be remembered favourably in any way.

This has prompted a huge amount of soul-searching in the governing body of the College, who have in their turn consulted the old boys like me – and the old girls; this consultation taking the form of a seminar which took place recently with three distinguished academic speakers and open discussion aimed at placing the heritage of Cecil Rhodes in the appropriate ‘context’.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed that, with the exception of one speaker, none of the discussion concerned the moral question whether or not it was acceptable to judge people by contemporary standards when, at the time they were active, moral judgement would have viewed them differently. Or, if even then Cecil Rhodes was a bad man, was it a good thing to accept gifts, albeit generous ones, from such a bad man?

Then having regard to our lesson today, what difference does time make? If at that time the gifts were made, Cecil Rhodes was not a bad man, according to the standards prevalent at the time, what difference does it make that in time that perception may have changed?

Those sort of perceptions seem to me to affect our view of the Reformation as well. There is a statement from our two archbishops, Justin and John Sentamu, about the Reformation, celebrating the good things that have come from it, the proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible for people to read in their own languages, and the recognition that lay people are called to serve God in addition to those who are ordained. This is an echo of Calvin’s idea of the priesthood of all believers.

At the same time the archbishops express regret, and acknowledge that the time of the Reformation was a time of violence and strife between the Christian people on either side of the Reformation process, all claiming to know the same Lord.

We have been using tonight – as we do every Sunday at St Mary’s at 6 – the Book of Common Prayer, which was originally written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It was – and still is – the finest expression of reformed theology in the English language. Even so Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic seven years later. The turmoil in the English Church did not really subside until nearly 100 years later. The prayer book which we are using is the 1662 edition.

The Reformation in England claimed many lives. England had see-sawed between Henry VIII’s version of Protestantism, which really was Catholicism minus the Pope, (because of his inconvenient objections to Henry’s desire to obtain a divorce), to the Catholicism of Mary, back to Protestantism under Elizabeth and so on. Until after the Civil War and the death of Charles I, under the reign of Cromwell and the Puritans, extreme Protestants; England had lived out the Reformation for over 100 years. It was a live issue, and unfortunately, an extremely violent time. The poor Roman Catholics suffered a lot.

There has always been a paradox in the area of religious belief and tolerance of other people’s beliefs. Jesus preached a message exclusively of love and caring for one’s neighbour. But at the same time he foresaw that divisions would be caused by his gospel. Matthew 10:34f: ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ But he told them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.

Unfortunately his followers did not listen, because for them, for someone not to believe what they regarded as being fundamental and true, was sacrilege, blasphemy and had to be completely eradicated, even by killing the person who had expressed the unacceptable view.

Is very difficult for us to understand why people should have been horribly killed like this, for example by being burned at the stake; but of course we do see the same sort of religious violence today, this time between Muslims and other religions including our own, in the Middle East. Converting from the Muslim religion to another religion is regarded in many Islamic countries as a capital offence.

Does Ecclesiastes have anything to say about this? Is it a recipe for moral relativism? It seems to say that at different times, the same thing is both good and bad. We see the same issue in the context of safeguarding and sexual misconduct. Those of us who grew up in the swinging 60s were frankly not terribly shocked by what rock musicians got up to after concerts with adoring groupies.

But now it is recognised that there was a great inequality of bargaining power, if I can put it that way, and great scope for glamorous individuals, usually men, in effect to coerce impressionable young girls. What is it that makes things right and wrong? What is it that makes things right at one time and wrong at another?

I think that among the various Christians here in Cobham there is more that unites us than divides us. We are all looking to follow Jesus’s message of love and care for our neighbours, and that is the standard which we seek to apply to our conduct. Not everything is what it seems at first. Apparently the first student to win a Rhodes Scholarship was a black African.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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