Archives for posts with tag: Hebrews

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 12th August 2018

Job 30:1-40:4, Hebrews 12:1-17, Psalm 91

Through the great kindness and generosity of one of my St Mary’s friends, I spent a wonderful day yesterday at Lords watching the Test Match between England and India. As you will know, there was a lot to celebrate, at least if you were an English fan. But what must have poor old Sharma, the Indian fast bowler, have been feeling? More than anybody else in the team, except the other pace bowler, Shami, he was running vast distances to bowl at over 80 miles an hour, spot on target, over and over again – but it wasn’t working. He only got one wicket.

Once Bairstow and Woakes were in, there didn’t seem to be anything that he could do. I can imagine that, when he got to the end of the day, over his biryani, Ishant Sharma would have felt a little bit like Job. ‘Why me, Lord? Why is everything going so badly? I’m doing all the right things, but nevertheless I keep getting hit all over the ground.’ That’s what I want to look at tonight: how things can go wrong for us, whether God has anything to do with it, and how we can come to terms with it.

I’m not quite sure how far I can pursue the cricketing metaphor, but of course God goes on to answer Job, by giving lots of illustrations of divine power: all the things that God can make animals do, interestingly including unicorns (at least in the King James version of the Bible which we had tonight). Unfortunately in all the more modern, mundane versions of the Bible, the unicorns have turned into some special kind of ox or heifer; the unicorns have disappeared. Nevertheless, it’s God that makes them do whatever they do, not man.

Similarly at Lord’s today, and on Friday, God made the rain come down. That really changed the way the game was going. It wasn’t anything that either of the teams did which changed the course of the game, when it rained: it was the rain.

There is only so far that I can go with this cricketing analogy with the book of Job, but the point about the passage which Len have been reading tonight is that with divinity comes omnipotence. There is no limit to God’s power. Let’s leave aside for a minute the question who is talking in the book of Job – the question who is God in this context. How realistic is it that someone can write a book saying that so-and-so so had a dialogue with God, in the way that is portrayed in this book in the Bible?

Let’s leave that on one side for minute and just say that, however it came to be written, the book gives a perfectly plausible illustration of the workings of the divine. God is omnipotent, God can do anything. God can make all the animals in the world do what those animals do; and the corollary is that God may not regard the needs of a particular human being as being very high up the list of priorities, so that human being may lose out if it fits God’s cosmic programme for him to lose out.

Job has to accept his position and not rail against it – however unreasonable that might seem, particularly if you’re Job. There are connotations of zero-sums in this as well. Just as in a cricket game, somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose, (unless, of course, it’s a draw), so in the world of nature, for all the sunny days, some rain has to fall at some time.

I think the implication is also that, as between God and man, God and Job, between the Indians and the weather forecast, there is nothing personal. The suffering that is caused, the suffering that is a spin-off of the operation of creation, of the natural order, is not in any way intended, directed against anyone – although that was Job’s beef: he thought God had got it in for him, and he didn’t feel that he deserved it.

But I think that the message of the Book of Job is that there is nothing personal. God has not got it in for Job. This is just the way that God makes nature work. But then contrast the situation in the book of Hebrews. There is, if you like, a different sort of engagement with the divine, ‘seeing we have such a great cloud of witnesses’. Everyone is looking at us. Poor old Sharma: everyone is looking at him. Things may be tough for us. In order for us to achieve the goals which we have set ourselves or to do justice to the calling we feel to follow the example of Jesus, say, as Christians, it’s not easy. We have to persevere to the end.

The metaphor in Hebrews is an athletic one; running a tough race. But this is where it gets complicated. In Job’s case the tough stuff, the suffering, is nothing personal, as between Job and God, as Job has really done nothing wrong, and God is not punishing Job. It’s just that, in the wider compass of things, things have to go badly as well as well, there has to be black as well as white.

But there is also a sense where difficulties are to some extent intended. This is where there is a training purpose involved. The Letter to the Hebrews suggests that God sometimes is – and should be – like a father who follows the old idea about ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’. It’s supposed to be a sign of parental love if the father whacks the children by way of punishment. Thank goodness, we don’t do that any more. I think that now we know that simply hurting people when they won’t stop doing something doesn’t in any sense train them not to do whatever it is. In a sense, indeed, it may be, in a microcosm, like the beginnings of wars.

A war often starts with a ultimatum: If you invade Poland, we will declare war on you. What it means is, if we can’t persuade you by argument, we will compel you by force. If you throw golf balls at Mr Jones’ greenhouse, I will smack your bottom. The problem is, that whereas possibly in the case of Mr Jones’ greenhouse, the threat to smack bottoms may be effective in stopping you doing it, in the case of modern warfare, it’s arguable that all you do by waging war is add to death and destruction, and perhaps store up resentments and enmity for the future.

Think of the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought about the end of the First World War. It was so hard, it exacted such a harsh penalty in reparations on Germany, that Germany was reduced to its knees economically, and the seeds of Nazism were sown. The war did not achieve its peaceful or practical objective. Think of the wars in Afghanistan, since the time of British India, when it was the ‘North-West Frontier.’ The British Army in Victorian times couldn’t defeat the Afghans. The Russians couldn’t do it. And we and the Americans haven’t done it more recently either.

So we might query the efficacy of the ideas behind this passage in Hebrews. ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child’, is not what we believe in today: but we can understand the idea, the theory. If we, who are supposed to have seen the light, who are supposed to be believers, to be Christians, behave badly – if ‘…there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright, ..’ if we are sinful, God will punish us, will give us a hard time, says Hebrews.

Maybe that’s a point to ponder. Would a loving God hurt his chosen people? However naughty they were? And what if they repented, if they sought forgiveness? I have a feeling that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews – who wasn’t St Paul, according to a number of scholars – may have been wrong here. Surely a loving God would not hurt people. So perhaps, actually, the Job model, that suffering doesn’t necessarily result from bad behaviour, from sin, is more apt, even in the light of Christ. Bad things just happen. It doesn’t mean that God is angry with us. So do run the race, do go into training for the race to run the good life. But don’t give up if rain stops play. God doesn’t have it in for you and your team.

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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.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 22nd July 2018

Job 13:13-14:6, Hebrews 2:5-18

I’m always struck by how personal the relationship between the Israelites and God is. In the Old Testament, actually to see God face to face is fatal. There needs to be a prophet or a priest to go into the inner sanctum and intercede for you. But still, God speaks to the Israelites, through the prophets.

Here in our OT lesson, Job, an innocent man who nevertheless has been dreadfully stricken, is making a speech to God. What have I done to deserve this? What are the specifics of your charges, God?

It implies that Job doesn’t think of God as being a random sadist. He wants to have a courtroom battle, with charges and a defence, before the throne of judgement. It implies that, even though Job is suffering way beyond what he could possibly attribute to any crimes he might have done, this isn’t the sentence of a court after reaching its judgement in a careful and considered way. Job wants his day in court.

I warn you now that there are going to be two elephants in this room. Just keep that in the back of your mind for the next few minutes.

What Job is suffering is something he doesn’t blame God for, although he can’t understand why God would want to do it to him. By contrast, in our second lesson, in the Letter to the Hebrews, the undeserving sufferer is Jesus himself. Although He was innocent, not guilty of any sins or wickedness, Jesus was made to suffer, as part of the mechanism of our salvation.

Jesus had to enter into our human nature in order to be like us in every respect, to take upon himself the burden of our sins, following the Jewish idea of a scapegoat. In Judaism there was a sacramental idea of symbolically loading all one’s mistakes and sins on to the back of a sacramental animal, a goat or sheep, and sending it out into the desert to fend for itself – to starve to death, in reality.

It was a sort of homeopathic remedy. You exposed yourself to the thing that had hurt you.

I think you could be forgiven for having rested your eyes during the first part of this sermon. You might say, a massive ‘So what?’ What has poor old Job got to do with us, today? And what does it really do for us, in order to bring us to Jesus, to study a recondite theory of atonement?

I worried about that, about the lack of some contemporary relevance, when I was preparing this sermon. I had just read a challenging article in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin [accessed at https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/springsummer2018/understanding-white-evangelical-views-immigration] called ‘Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration’, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

The article’s thesis was this. The Evangelical mega-churches in the US deep South are predominantly white, and they profess that nothing is more authoritative in their belief than the literal words of the Bible. ‘Sola scriptura’, only Scripture, matters. And, by the way, this isn’t meant to be specifically directed against one denomination rather than another.

Holy Scripture is overwhelmingly in favour of our helping the stranger, the alien, the refugee in our midst. Immigrants are to be protected and supported. The line of references stretches from Deuteronomy, with its injunction to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger that is within your midst, to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are all children of God; where we have come from, whether it was a palace or a bomb-site in Syria, is a matter of luck, the ‘accident of birth’.

And so we might expect that the white Evangelical churches, and their congregations, would be supportive of immigration, would welcome strangers. But all the surveys apparently show the exact opposite. No-one is more against these strangers, orphans, poor and in need, than the white evangelicals.

The causes of this are investigated in the article. The history of the Cold War and the perceived Communist threat to world order, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the ‘domino theory’; then 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, when the threat to the American way of life was identified with Moslem kids hanging around on street corners, all had influences.

America, so the theory ran, needed to be protected – protected by strong men, ‘the meanest so-and-so’s you could find’, as they described it. Even one of the evangelical church leaders put it in exactly those terms:

In light of ongoing and ever-present threats, many evangelicals have concluded that we need strong men, and a strongman. For this reason, President Trump’s “character flaws” aren’t the stumbling block we might expect them to be. In the words of Rev. Robert Jeffress: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”

‘President Trump’s character flaws’. Bet you were wondering when The Donald, as they used to call him, would come up. Well yes, here he is. Why would the Bible Belt in the southern USA have voted for him, when his character was – is – so inimical to the values of generosity, kindness and openness to others that one finds in the Bible? So he’s the first elephant in the room.

And Pres. Trump does have some major character flaws. He is happy to separate little children from their parents and lock them up, with little hope of their being reunited, sometimes ever: because the little children were with their parents, who were deemed to be illegal immigrants. And he is a sexist, saying most unsavoury things about what he has felt able to do to women, because he is so powerful, that it somehow suspends his moral obligations. He is a xenophobe. He tells blatant lies. And so on. Not, we might have thought, a suitable person to be the most powerful individual in the world. And he claims, I believe, to be a Christian.

But equally worrying, I suggest, is that large numbers of the electorate in the USA, who also claim to be Christian, voted for him, and, according to the article, don’t think that the Bible is relevant, when questions of national sovereignty and immigration arise. The article says,

‘In fact, the Bible appears to hold little sway when it comes to immigration: a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that 90 percent of all evangelicals say that “the Scripture has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.” Evangelicals, then, are not basing their views on scripture. Instead, they are acting out of a powerful, cohesive worldview—an ideology that is at the heart of their religious and political identity, an ideology influenced by conservative media sources but that is also deeply rooted in their own faith tradition.’

This morning I talked about what we believe, and how we reach those beliefs. Here, we are seeing that people who claim to be guided supremely by Scripture, by the Bible, are in fact relying on a ‘faith tradition’ which has very little derived from the Bible.

Poor old Americans! You will say. I agree – having Pres. Trump is not good, in so many ways. But here’s the second elephant. What about us? Do we recognise the Bible’s teaching in our lives, when it comes to difficult questions, maybe even political questions, on such matters as immigration? Do we really believe that we were all made in the image of God?

What do we really feel when we sing the Magnificat? ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the poor and meek’? Does it just wash over us like poor old Job’s troubles – ‘nothing to do with us’?

Does it really resonate with us that Jesus was a man, a human being just like you and me? If He was like us, are we like Him? Are we, really, like Him?

Something for us to think about. Maybe we ought not to have to suffer as Job did – but equally, ought we to be quite so blasé – if we are – blasé about how closely we are following Jesus?

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.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, at the Beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18th January 2015
Hebrews 6:17-7:10

‘Jesus, made an high priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Hebrews 6:20). I don’t know whether you were letting things just flow over you during the New Testament lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, or whether you followed in detail its rather technical description of what the ‘priesthood of Melchisedec’ was all about. It does seem rather complicated.

In the Old Testament, the order of priests were the sons of Levi, the Levites, and Melchisedec was a king who met and blessed Abraham in Genesis [Gen.14:18f], to whom Abraham gave a tenth of his wealth as a tithe. In Psalm 110 – ‘The Lord said to my lord – Dixit dominus, ‘The Lord said unto my lord: sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool …’ at line 4, ‘The Lord sware, and will not repent: thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedech’. [Book of Common Prayer 1662, The Psalms: also quoted in Hebrews 7:21]

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (probably not Paul the Apostle, but perhaps somebody writing in a similar style), addressing a Jewish audience, was introducing another dimension to the greatness of Jesus Christ: that He was a great ‘high priest’.

The High Priest, in Jewish tradition, was the only priest allowed to go into the inner part of the Temple, behind the curtain – and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement; but somehow Melchisedec was an even greater high priest. As it says, he had no father, no mother, no beginning and no end, so he was ‘made like unto the Son of God, an eternal priest’ (Hebrews 7:3). Perhaps effectively the idea was that Melchisedec and Jesus were in some sense the same.

But as I said, I slightly suspect – and I certainly wouldn’t take you to task if you have – I slightly suspect that you may have been letting some of this rather recondite technical Jewish religious stuff flow over your head, somewhat unexamined. It does seem a world away from our experience today. I don’t think, for example, that it’s really adequate to talk about ‘priesthood’ in this context as though being a priest – like a Levite, or of the Order of Melchisedech, or whatever, was no more than just a synonym for being a vicar today.

The ‘priestly work’ in those days – look a little further on in Hebrews, in Chapter 9 – you’ll see – was largely to make sacrifices, blood sacrifices, slaughtering oxen and sheep and goats, offering them to God on the altar. Another thing that a priest of the Order of Melchisedech could do was to make intercession. In Chapter 7 verse 25, ‘He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’.

This is quite topical at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which today is. This week we are aiming to make friendly noises to our fellow Christians in the other denominations, and we will all share together in a joint service, to take place, instead of Evensong, next Sunday at St Andrew’s. If you remember, last year we welcomed everybody here at St Mary’s, and we had a nice Evensong, to show how we worship here.

Be that as it may, it does prompt me to suggest that we take a few minutes just to think about the whole topic of worship: how we approach God in prayer and praise, and in sacrament. As soon as we start talking about Jesus being a priest of the Order of Melchisedech, there are a number of issues which come up which, depending on the answers you come to, will tend to determine which denomination, which way of following Christ, you belong to.

I know that most of us go to the church denomination that we were brought up in; but I’m sure that there are moments when we look over our shoulders at other churches to see whether we are more in tune, with the way they worship and with what they believe, than we are with what’s familiar to us.

So, worship. What is going on?

‘Gracious God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise’. [F.S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917]

No burnt offerings. No dead sheep or goats, or oxen – thank goodness. If there is a sacrifice involved in our worship today, it’s a symbolic sacrifice, giving up, giving out our praise: singing hymns and making prayers and supplications.

Some of us rather like it to be done for us; for the office to be said, for the service to be done, in a decent and dignified manner by a professional. Get in an expert rather than trying to do it yourself.

So the traditional Roman Catholic way of doing things resulted, for example, in mass being said in Latin, although the majority of people present didn’t understand a word of it: but it didn’t matter to them, because they felt that the sacrifice of praise was being done appropriately and correctly. They were there simply to take part by witnessing the worship being made on their behalf by the priest.

You had people endowing chancels in which they would pay for masses to be said for their souls after they had died. It didn’t matter that they weren’t there any more, at least physically, but they felt that nevertheless it would help them to get through Purgatory to the pearly gates if there was somebody down here still praying for them.

Then along came Martin Luther and his various Reformation colleagues, Calvin and Zwingli and Co, and they brought in the Protestant idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, from 1 Peter 2:9, ‘… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light ‘.

Martin Luther said that all Christians ‘truly belong to the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them apart from their office’ – in German, Das Ampt, their job. ‘… We all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians, in that it is baptism, gospel and faith which alone make us spiritual and a Christian people… We are all consecrated priests through baptism ‘. [Martin Luther, 1520, Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, quoted in McGrath, A.E., 2007, The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, pp 505-6]

Martin Luther considered bishops and priests simply to be office-holders in the church, doing a functional job. When they retired, priests would go back to being ordinary Christians like anybody else. There wasn’t anything essentially different, spiritually different, between office-holders like ministers or bishops and their congregations as laymen.

Today if you are a Baptist or are in the United Reformed Church, that idea of the priesthood of all believers is still very strongly held. They do have ministers who wear dog-collars, but there is no concept of those ministers having a tradition of ordination handed down from St Peter, down through the ages in a continuous chain, if you like, in the same way that the Roman Catholics, and to some extent the Anglicans, do.

The Methodists are similar to the Anglicans. If you are in America you will find Methodist bishops; but you won’t find bishops in the British Methodist church – yet. The Methodist ‘chairmen of the district’ here are exactly the same, functionally, as bishops in the Church of England. On that basis, Revd Ian Howarth, the previous Methodist minister in Cobham, is now the Methodist bishop of Birmingham, which is a rather neat swap, as the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham is sending its suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Aston, Andrew Watson, to be Bishop of Guildford. That is one division in the church, between Anglicans and Methodists, where I do think we will eventually come together again. I hope and pray that we will.

Among the ‘comfortable words’ that we hear in our Holy Communion service, there are these lovely words,

‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1). The idea is that, whereas the priests of Levi made sacrifices, slaughtered animals and made burnt offerings, so that God was given presents, valuable presents, in order to keep him sweet, now the priest of the Order of Melchisedech has been himself the sacrifice.

God has given His only Son Jesus, who in his death was in fact a sacrifice for us, for our sins. In the Prayer of Consecration we pray to God, ‘who didst give thy only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered (a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world)’.

The concept looks similar to the original burnt offerings. Jesus gave Himself. He was punished in our place. In some sense that substitutionary sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice; it made up for our badness, our sins.

I personally don’t think that squares with the idea of a loving God. I don’t think that God is actually a wrathful God who needs to be bought off with sacrifices. I think that we have moved on and our understanding has deepened: that Jesus in some sense was the last sacrifice.

But He rose again. He wasn’t burned up. God showed that He wasn’t a vengeful God, but that He cares for us. He raised Jesus from the dead.
Well, saying that puts me into certain categories as a Christian. Not all will agree with me. There are Christians who still believe passionately in the idea of an ‘atoning sacrifice’, but still they believe, as I do, that the important thing about Christianity is for us to try to follow Jesus more nearly every day, and in particular to follow his commandment of love: because we love Him, because we love God, we should also love our neighbours as ourselves.

There’s more we agree upon than disagree about, I’m sure. So as we meet our fellow Christians this week, let us be joyful and celebrate the different ways in which we all approach the throne of grace.

Sermon for the Time to Remember Service at St Andrew’s, 3rd November 2013
Revelation 21:1-6

We are here, because they are not here. In a few minutes we will read out their names, the names of our loved ones, which we have written down, and whom we will remember together, here in God’s house. We will make an act of remembrance by lighting candles in their memory.

We will remember our mothers, our fathers, our wives, our husbands, our sons and daughters; our friends. They are not here. It makes us sad to think of all those people who have died, all those whose company we have lost.

Some of those who have died have left us after a full life, when perhaps they themselves would even have said that they were ready. You will remember Jesus’ saying, that in his Father’s house there are many rooms, many ‘mansions’. Some people, when they reach the end of their lives, are quite happy, quite happy to pass from one room to the next. My late father-in-law surprised many of his friends, days before he died, by ringing them up, and announcing that, as he wasn’t going to be around much longer, he wanted to say goodbye properly. He was quite relaxed about his future. He was truly blessed.

But some people are taken from us too soon, before they are ready and before we are ready. It is a great challenge to us to understand it, when people die suddenly or accidentally or unexpectedly. We are struck with the unfairness of it. We protest. We ‘rail against heaven’. Why them? Why should we lose the ones we love? There is no easy answer.

At the heart of the Christian gospel is Jesus’ promise of eternal life. We believe that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead. In the Bible, Jesus assures us that there will be a resurrection for everyone; there will be eternal life.

You will remember that wonderful aria in Handel’s Messiah: ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible’. How it works, is surely a mystery. But we have the assurance that it will happen, because of the good news that it happened to Jesus himself.

When Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’ [John 14:1-6], he said that those rooms are for everyone who follows Him. So whenever one of our loved ones is taken from us, Jesus says that there will be room for them in God’s house.

How it works, St Paul explains in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he reminds us that we all have a body and a soul. Two separate things. Although the body may die, may perish, the soul does not. This is what St Paul says. ‘There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly, another. The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars another, for star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’ [1 Cor. 15:40f, NEB]

There is now scientific work which bears out the possibility of the life after death. There is a well-known book, ‘Proof of Heaven’, by Dr Eben Alexander, who is a neurosurgeon, and that book, together with the work of other scientists who have analysed near-death experiences, strongly supports the conclusion that there is a life after death.

Now other leading academics, such as Prof. Richard Swinburne in Oxford, have examined the latest neuroscience findings on the way in which our brains work, how they control our movements, and have concluded that the only way to explain how our bodies are actually controlled involves the existence of something separate from our bodies, something which corresponds which our idea of a mind or a soul. There is no reason, as Prof. Swinburne says, that that soul should not survive the death of the body. [Swinburne, R., 2013, Mind, Brain & Free Will, Oxford, OUP]

Or, you can be simply blessed with faith, as the saints were blessed according to the letter to the Hebrews; in chapter 11, there is a wonderful catalogue of faith shown by the leaders of the Israelites all through the Old Testament. Hebrews says, ‘Since we are ‘surrounded by … so great a cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ A great cloud of witnesses.

If we have run that race, as we heard in our lesson from the Book of Revelation, the vision is that there will be a new heaven and as new earth, ‘where God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

We are here because they are not here. But the Gospel message is that that separation, that loneliness, will not last for ever. So in our act of remembrance, we need not be without hope. We can have the Gospel hope, the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ [The Book of Common Prayer: At the Burial of the Dead]

Of course we do feel sadness. We do feel the pain of loss, the pain of separation. But we can also feel joy. We can rejoice in hope, in the Christian hope of eternal life, that we will not be separated for ever.

Sometimes when I look at old family pictures I do feel rather sad. But then, I look again at those pictures, and remember the happy times, the achievements we celebrated, the love. It was real. It is real. It is still good.

So therefore, in our memories we can feel happiness as well as pain. We can celebrate as much as we regret. We can understand that it is not enough, simply to say that we are here because they are not. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ We are here because we remember them. Let us remember them with joy.