Archives for posts with tag: flock

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘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 vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday of Epiphany, 5th January 2014
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana in Galilee – Christ Reveals his Glory

You might wonder why our lesson just now was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee rather than Jesus’ visit from the Wise Men, given that this Sunday is our celebration of Epiphany; Epiphany, which means showing off, revealing.

This morning indeed the Gospel was the story of the Wise Men: the last of the traditional Christmas stories. It’s the lesson for the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are supposed to be taken down tonight, Twelfth Night. Christmas is over. The season of Epiphany begins.

In the Epiphany season, next week we mark the baptism of Christ, and three weeks after that, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas – when we are going to have a special Evensong here at St Mary’s. In between, in a fortnight, on 19th January, there will be our Christingle service in the morning before Mattins, and – as this is another traditional Epiphany theme – there will be the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the evening, at the Methodist chapel, instead of Evensong here.

The candles, the Christingles and at Candlemas, are symbolic of the Epiphany light, the enlightenment, that the coming of God’s kingdom brings. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,’ says Isaiah in our first lesson. It is all about showing, showing to the world that Jesus is here.

The wedding at Cana fits in with this. The evangelist says that Jesus turning the water into wine was his first miracle, ‘and he revealed his glory.’ Revealed, manifested. Epiphany.

That’s all very familiar. Emmanuel, God with us. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. But what does it really mean, mean to us today?

Time was, when the idea of light, the idea of enlightening people, was seen differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the Enlightenment with a capital E, it was the time of Erasmus and the Humanists. They believed that the world could be completely understood through the use of reason, reasoning and logic. That went for knowledge of God as well: whatever we could know about God, we could know only by the use of our intellect – the same way in which we learned about animals and geology and so on.

It led some theologians and philosophers to look at the findings of scientific enquiry, like Darwin’s work on evolution, and to reach the conclusion that life on earth may have been started by God, but that we could not know much more about this God than that He is an ultimate first cause, a creator from nothing, an unmoved mover.

Reason could take you to a belief in that rather limited god, the divine creator – but not much further. You could not know much about what such a god was like. Most importantly, there seemed to be no evidence that God had done anything more than just starting the process off. No evidence that God had any interest in human life, or in particular, that He cares for us.

That’s quite a contradiction with the things that we say we believe in our worship. Look at the Magnificat:

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That’s not a description of a laissez-faire god, of an unmoved mover who has, frankly, just moved on: it’s a description of an interventionist God, a God who cares for social justice. God with us. God with us, who does not stand idly by in the face of injustice, in the face of poverty and exploitation.

Somebody like Richard Dawkins might say, the Magnificat is just pretty words. It doesn’t really mean anything. Science can’t lead you to believe in a God, or at least in a God who has any personal interest in us.

At the time of the Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the answer to the deists, as they were called – to the people who said that God was just the creator, a blind watchmaker, and nothing more – the answer was that our religion is revealed religion. There are things beyond what reason can tell us, things nevertheless revealed to us, revealed to us by God.

One sort of revelation is the sort of thing which we are celebrating today. Turning the water into wine was a demonstration, an epiphany. Did it really happen? It can’t be proved. But one thing you can say is that if it did happen, then it was a complete contradiction of the idea that God has moved on, that He doesn’t care.

If God has manifested Himself, has showed Himself to us, in the person of Jesus, then it can’t be true that He doesn’t care for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He in turn calls on his flock to be good sheep. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another, He calls on us to live like people who recognise that they have God in their midst, God with us, Emmanuel.

‘Whoso have this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (1 John 3:17). You’ll remember that from the Communion service. It goes on, ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.’

It was, and still is, a revolutionary message. By turning the water into wine, by manifesting himself in his divine nature, Jesus was challenging the powers that be, both spiritual – the Pharisees and the scribes – and temporal, the Romans. They both had a vested interest in the established order – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. To upset it was dangerous. In the story of the Wise Men, Herod ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,’ when the Wise Men told him of the new king’s birth.

Similarly today. Let’s not be too ‘political’, or upset the status quo, people say. Look at all those respectable people who say they are all right, they have no need to believe: there is nothing missing in their lives. They never say, like the bod in the Alpha Course poster, ‘Is that all there is?’ But they have no proper roots, no real understanding of what is good. Instead, they tend to cling to status and possessions. There is nothing else, for them, nothing else to cling on to.

But a Christian has faith, a Christian has faith that there is more, there is a reality beyond what we can reach simply by the exercise of reason, excellent though that is. Our prayers are answered; we know we are not alone. It is reasonable, it makes sense, after all, for us to read the miracle stories, to open our minds to analogy, to metaphor, and to see God, revealed.

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.’

The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us – but we mustn’t ignore Him. It must make a difference – we must change. That’s what Epiphany calls us to do.

‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Now what are we going to do?