Archives for posts with tag: heaven

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

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Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28; Revelation 4

‘WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity..’

I turned to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance about Trinity Sunday. Near the beginning is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, also known by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult, which means ‘whoever wishes’ or, as it says in the Prayer Book, ‘whosoever will’; whosoever will, whosoever wishes, that he be saved, he must hold the ‘Catholick Faith’. And that faith is that we worship ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’.

We worship one God, in three persons, as the hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ says. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tonight’s lessons, from Ezekiel and Revelation, aren’t really relevant to Trinity Sunday, except insofar as they are pictures of the divine, of God and heaven – or perhaps more accurately, they are visions of the divine, as the the prophet Ezekiel and as St John the Divine portrayed their visions of God.

Ezekiel had a vision of fire, and of living creatures, and a throne above them upon which was seated ‘the appearance of a man’. The heavenly figures, the living creatures, had, according to Ezekiel, ‘the appearance of a man’. Some man! I’m not sure what sort of a man has four faces – including the faces of lions, oxen and eagles – or wings, or which every one had four, four wings. I was going to say that perhaps this image is one that got people thinking of God as a superhuman being living in heaven above the clouds, but actually Ezekiel’s vision isn’t tied to a particular place, up or down. The vision was of a whirlwind, and fire ‘infolding itself’ in the whirlwind, with a bright light in the middle, where God and the four creatures – his angels – were to be seen.

In St John the Divine’s vision, he was ‘in the spirit’, and saw into heaven, where there was a throne with someone sitting on it who looked like he was made of jewels – ‘to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone’; there were 24 ‘elders’, and around the throne was a sea of glass, with four ‘beasts full of eyes before and behind.’ These beasts had the look, respectively, of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle. There is clearly a reminiscence of the living creatures in Ezekiel. Here there are four creatures, looking like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle: there were also four creatures, but each one had multiple aspects, each one had four faces, looking like a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle respectively.

The other day I was talking to someone about saying our prayers. I think it may have been in the context of the recent ‘novena’, nine days of prayer, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which all the churches were encouraged to join, so as to create a worldwide wave of prayer. A sort of Mexican wave of prayer round the world.

My question to my friend was, ‘Who are you praying to?’ My friend said, ‘I’m praying to God’. Without going into too much detail, what worried me was that I wasn’t sure that the god which he was thinking about was the same as the one I thought of.

There’s a new book, by the philosopher John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, which I want to read. [John Gray, 2018, Seven Types of Atheism, London, Allen Lane] So far I’ve just learned about it from the Church Times and Guardian reviews. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that in a sense, it helps to understand better what something is, if you think about what it isn’t. We understand what it is to be good, partly by contrast with what it is to be bad. Similarly with black and white, and so on.

So when you meet an atheist, one thing that can be quite illuminating is to ask what this god is, that they don’t believe in. The atheist has to say what the putative god, say, the god he wants to rubbish, looks like, or acts like. That’s what John Gray is setting out to do in his book, identifying seven types of atheists. He doesn’t, according to the reports, end up saying who is right, atheists or believers. But he does ask pertinent questions of the atheists, which, he suggests, leave them looking either like believers in disguise or else they are very simplistic in a way in which believers aren’t.

I won’t spoil your anticipation, but we’re going to sing ‘Immortal, Invisible,’ as our last hymn. When we sing that hymn, we are, I think, being properly cautious about what God is. He is ‘hid from our eyes’. This is not a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, who is somehow ‘my God’, in the sense of being my boon companion. It is still a matter of awe and ultimate respect, I would suggest, for us to come before the Almighty.

One atheistic understanding, Richard Dawkins’, puts up a god who is a ‘blind watchmaker’, a creator who may indeed have made the world, but has just set it ticking and left it to its own devices. That kind of god has no continuing interest in what, or whom, he has created. Strictly speaking, that’s not atheism so much as ‘deism’ – a belief in a sort of god which might as well not be there, or who has, as some philosophers have argued, died, or simply disappeared. God is dead, they say. Just like children who have lost a parent, we have to do without the absent god.

I could see the force of that, see the attraction of it, if we had not come to know about Jesus. God has another aspect, another face. If we believe that Jesus was both human and divine, then we believe in the second part of the Trinity. ‘The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate’; uncreate, which means, not created. Because if the Son were created, were one of God’s creatures, then He could not be an ultimate creator, creator ex nihilo, from nothing – which is the most basic, stripped-down understanding of what it is to be God.

The Nicene Creed was adopted in order to nail down the controversy that Arius, who was a theologian in Alexandria in the fourth century, who, perhaps influenced by Plato and Aristotle, suggested that Jesus as ‘son’ of God was not ‘uncreate’, but was by his very sonship lesser than God. A great controversy broke out in the early church, and the Roman emperor Constantine convened a great conference at Nicaea in the year 325, at which it was decided that Father and Son were ‘of one substance’. The theological opponent of Arius was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius: and the Creed which is called ‘Quicunque Vult’ is also known as the Creed of Athanasius. In Athanasius’ creed, ‘The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.’ We say the Nicene Creed in the Communion service, which reflects Athanasius’ interpretation:

I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…’,

and when it gets to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed says:

‘And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

‘… who proceedeth from the Father and the Son’. Now even today, in the Common Worship service book – at page 140, there is an alternative text of the Nicene Creed, which, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, says,

‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father,..’

Not, ‘from the Father and the Son’. This is so that it may be said ‘on suitable ecumenical occasions’, that is, when you are holding a service with other Christians who don’t accept the outcome of the Council of Nicaea – as for instance the Orthodox churches don’t.

At Evensong we use the Apostles’ Creed, which is simpler, and doesn’t get into whether Jesus was created or not:

‘I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,… ‘

The Apostles’ Creed really emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, as god and as man. God: ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’; man: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.

Now, you may think that this is all impossibly complicated. It is surely part of our understanding of theology that we don’t fully understand: that the nature of God is beyond human understanding. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, from trying to get a better understanding.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what Christians believe in. The father, the creator, the heart of being: the creator in person, Jesus: and the creative force, the love force, the Comforter, as the Holy Spirit is called in John 15:26, for instance. Three ways of seeing God.

That’s all quite difficult to deny, actually. As a lawyer, I knew that one of the most difficult things is to prove the absence of something. Relatively easy to show that something happened, but not the other way round. So I would say that you needn’t be coy about saying you believe in God, even ‘God in three persons’. It’s perfectly respectable philosophically – indeed, if John Gray is right, the ‘new atheists’ are intellectual lightweights by comparison. So you could say, ‘ What is this god you don’t believe in? Bring it on!

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Here is the text of the Creed of St Athanasius.

Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.

QUICUNQUE VULT

WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Text from The Book of Common Prayer, the rights in which are vested in the Crown,

is reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.

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 Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.