Archives for posts with tag: Holy Spirit

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

Advertisements

Sermon for Mattins on Trinity Sunday 2014
Isaiah 6:1-8, Mark 1:1-11

Today is Trinity Sunday. We commemorate the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you turn to page 27 in your little blue Prayer Books [Book of Common Prayer], you will see that there is a rubric which tells you when the words which follow can be used. That includes Trinity Sunday. So instead of what we did chant, the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth … and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, ….’ and then, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost …’, instead of that, we could have said the Creed of St Athanasius, called ‘Quicunque Vult’, Latin for ‘Whoever wants’, that is, whoever wants to be saved; this is what they must believe, if they are to be fit for salvation at the day of judgment.

If you read it afterwards at home, you’ll see that this Creed really goes into the question who God is, and what He is. This all comes from the revelation of Jesus: that Jesus appeared on earth, as a human being.

‘Day by day like us He grew.
He was little,weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us He knew.’
[Mrs C.F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s City, Common Praise, hymn 66]

But He did more than a normal human being could possibly have done. Specifically, of course, He did miracles. And the biggest miracle of all, He was resurrected from the dead. So whatever else you might say, He wasn’t exactly like other men.

‘Thou art my beloved Son’ [Mark 1:11]

Then, when Jesus had ascended, after His wonderful life and death and resurrection, at Pentecost, last Sunday, Whit Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples. They realised that God still cared for them. Their Lord was still there. His Spirit is with us.

So when we think of God, the Christian way to do it is to think of the three ‘persons’ of God, as they’re called: the father, the creator; the son, and the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’ we sing in the hymn [Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Common Praise, hymn 202], but what does it really mean? It’s a slightly odd way of thinking about our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Normally we approach those sacred mysteries one by one, and especially through thinking about Jesus Himself and studying the Gospels, His life and teaching here on earth.

The voice from heaven said, Thou art my beloved Son’. So if we accept that this was the voice of God, He said he had a Son. Somehow related to, or representative of, that god, but in the form of a human being. God is not just the Creator.

But then, perhaps those two, Father and Son, are no longer visible: but surely, we are still able to discern lots of greater or lesser occasions when it becomes apparent in various ways that God is still at work here among us. That is the third face of God, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

If there hadn’t been Jesus Christ, or if we hadn’t accepted that He was more than just a prophet or a great teacher, and if we had not recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit, then one would be left with worshipping God as Creator, but not knowing whether He was still actively involved with us; whether He cared for us, or whether in fact God had simply wound up the mechanism of life and set it going: and then gone on to look at other things.

(Incidentally that is roughly where the Jewish and Moslem religions are. They recognise the life of Jesus and they acknowledge Him to have been a great prophet: but nothing more.)

But we know that He did things that would normally be completely impossible, culminating in His glorious death and resurrection. Resurrection from the dead. So Jesus has god-like powers. He isn’t just a great preacher. He really had power to heal, in fact even to raise people from the dead; and when He Himself died, power to be resurrected, three days later. We read they heard the voice of God, saying, Thou art my beloved Son’.

The early church had big debates about how to understand the true nature of God and of His Son. One of the early fathers, Arius, decided that in fact, God was not just God in three persons, but that there were effectively three gods: father, son and Holy Spirit were all gods independent of each other. But if that were true, our understanding of God would be very odd indeed. If the father created the son in the normal way, and if the father and the son together created the Holy Spirit, then who created the creators?

Is it true, or would it be true under that arrangement, that Jesus was divine? It’s a very difficult thing to hold in our heads. ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ There is a distinction made, in all the early theology, between ‘persons’ and ‘substance’. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply. A person is who we are: a substance is what we are. Thomas wrote:

‘We can say the Father is another who from the Son, but not another what.’ You can say God is one ‘what’ but not one ‘who’. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol 6, 31-2] The answer to the question ‘who?’ can give you three separate persons within the divine nature, within the Godhead, within the ‘Godness’.

You have in the Nicene Creed, which we say in the communion service, a reflection of this. Did the Holy Spirit come from the father or from the father and the son – and if the latter, was there some kind of family tree, so that the father created the son and the son created the Holy Spirit, so that the son and Holy Spirit were not really God? So that was the controversy. The Council of Nicaea, 325AD, decided that the right answer was that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded from the father and the son. Who with the father and the son together is worshipped and glorified’ [Nicene Creed].

That corresponds with what the Athanasian Creed says (at the beginning of the Prayer Book, on page 27). ‘But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one…. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.

(Not completely impossible to understand, but impossible for us to understand every bit of it.) It goes on:

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

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

The key thing in this whole area is how to think correctly about Jesus. ‘It is necessary to everlasting salvation: that [you] believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read this part of the Athanasian Creed (on page 29), it sets it all out:

‘… Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: …
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.’

So that is the Trinity: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

imageSermon for Evensong on the 15th Sunday after Trinity, 8th September 2013

John 5:30-47 – ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, … testify … that the Father has sent me.’

Last week I had a few days’ holiday in Italy, in one of Palladio’s villas, outside Vicenza. You’ll be relieved to know that I will spare you my holiday stories – and you’ll be even more relieved that you won’t have to soldier through the 383 pictures that I took. No lantern slides here at St Mary’s!

What I do want to mention is something strange which happened last week, which actually happened to all of us; it was on the news, not just in Italy. But it struck me perhaps more than it would otherwise have done, because I was getting the news each morning by downloading my English newspaper on to my iPad; it was my only source of news, as I wasn’t listening to the radio or watching the TV – indeed the Villa Saraceno didn’t have a TV.

I’d flown out on Tuesday and I stayed through till Saturday afternoon. When I set out, the situation in Syria was very bleak – as indeed it is today. The new development then was the dreadful use of chemical weapons, most likely by the Assad regime, and the way in which the USA and our own government were shaping up to react. ‘Assad must be punished’ was the line. There was a perception that the United Nations was deadlocked, and that it was unlikely that there would ever be a resolution from the United Nations permitting military action against the Assad regime.

So the government proposed a motion in the House of Commons which would lead on, if it were passed, to a further motion which would authorise British forces to attack Syria.

I should pause at that point, before everybody in church walks out, and say that nearly everything one can say, in this context, is capable of more than one interpretation: so I should say that all that this is describing is my perception, and I’m quite prepared for somebody to tell me that my perception, for example of the precise meaning and intention of the motion which was proposed to the House of Commons, is not exactly accurate. The important thing, from the point of view of this sermon, is what it looked like to me, and on that I can be a reliable guide.

So on Wednesday and Thursday, my friends and I in the Villa spent the days against a background where we felt that it was highly likely that within days there would be military action against Syria by British and American forces. Indeed there was evidence of a major military force in the Mediterranean – American warships, British Typhoon jets and so on – all being assembled.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Friday morning, switched on my iPad and downloaded the newspaper. I saw on the front page a headline to the effect that the motion in the House of Commons had been defeated – convincingly defeated. The Prime Minister had said, ‘I get it’ and had assured everybody that there was no longer any question that Britain would become involved in warlike activity in Syria.

I have to tell you that I have not recently read the front page of a newspaper and had such a feeling of excitement and surprise as I did when I read the front page of the paper as it appeared on my iPad last Friday morning. I quickly pulled on my dressing gown and went out into the breakfast room, where my friends were already gathering for breakfast.
The friends I was with are Americans, so there was perhaps an added poignancy about the situation. I told them what had happened. The interesting thing was that they were not upset. We all expressed a great feeling of relief and joy that our parliament had not done the conventional thing and supported the Prime Minister’s motion. As the day unfolded, we did make an effort to look at the BBC website, and we saw that there were already people saying that the special relationship with the United States was over, that Britain had forfeited its position in the world, that Mr Cameron had been inept in the way he had prepared the motion, and so on and so forth.

But we did not feel any worse. Neither side, neither the American friends nor I as a Brit. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that something greater was at work. Indeed, we dared to think that perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work here. Everybody acknowledged that what was going on in Syria – what continues to go on – is truly dreadful, that something must be done to stop the suffering and the killing.

But we also really doubted whether more warlike activity was going to produce the peace and security that Syria so badly needs. Can you really change the mind of a brutal leader by launching a cruise missile at him and killing some of his people – probably together with some other people as well, who are not involved? What would the consequences of a major attack by ourselves and the Americans be likely to be? Somehow this message had got through to enough of the MPs in Parliament for them not to accept the proposal, and to vote for peace instead.

In so doing they were definitely doing something unconventional. They were breaking a lot of the conventional rules of so-called good government. If a government threatens against another government, ‘If you do this, then we will do that’, and they do this, then conventional wisdom says that you have to do that in response. But we didn’t. Somehow the MPs perceived a higher force, a greater principle, than just the narrow question of the conventions of the English constitution.

I think you can look at our story from St John’s gospel in much the same way, and I think from it one can gain some real encouragement that what has happened in relation to Syria so far is a glimmer of hope, and it shows the Holy Spirit at work, it shows God at work.

If you read the whole of chapter 5 in St John’s gospel, before the passage which we had as our second lesson, the background is that Jesus healed a sick man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been ill for 38 years, lying by the pool but unable to get into the healing water: and Jesus did it on the Sabbath day. The Jews went after Jesus, saying that he was wrong to heal people on the Sabbath. Jesus answered them, ‘My father is still working, and I also am working’. He was working – just as I think God is working in relation to the rather unconventional position taken by Parliament in relation to Syria.

God is working. The Jews were even more incensed, because they thought that Jesus was blaspheming in referring to God as his own father. It never occurred to them that He was in fact God. Jesus gives an explanation to them. ‘I can do nothing on my own. I seek to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me,‘ and so on, contrasting the witness of John the Baptist with the witness of Jesus’ heavenly Father at the moment when Jesus was baptised: you will remember, a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’, (Luke 3:22).

This passage was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It begins, ‘Now in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool, called in Hebrew, Bethesda’. That would imply that when John was writing this, Jerusalem was still intact. So it means that this account was written no more than 30 years or so after Jesus‘ death. It is authentic – but what it described was extraordinary. It broke the rules. Jesus did the sort of things that no-one had ever seen before.

But nevertheless He did them. As Jesus said, ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me’. This is much greater authority than the law of Moses, than the tradition of the Jews.

Well I don’t know whether it’s completely fanciful, but I am hearing echoes in my mind of the situation last week. Unheard of for Parliament in effect to disobey the government of the day in a context where foreign affairs were concerned and there was the imminent prospect of major warlike activity. If the Prime Minister says ‘War’ then the parliamentary convention is that Parliament supports him. But they didn’t; they didn’t, because they perceived something higher.

Maybe not many of them would acknowledge that it was the Holy Spirit at work, but it might explain my reaction, when I saw that newspaper headline, first thing in the morning in Italy; the strange warmth I felt. My heart lurched. Something very special had begun to happen.

Of course God moves in very mysterious ways. The poor Syrians are still fighting. The G20 summit did not produce any agreement between the various great powers. But nevertheless America and Britain are now looking much more carefully at whether the use of force is a complete solution, or whether there might be a better alternative that does not involve more death and destruction.

On the one hand, the law, the law of Moses. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Punishment, the punishment to fit the crime, perhaps. On the other hand, a recognition that two wrongs don’t make a right, that what is needed is not more violence and force.

I believe that what happened last week showed a glimmer of hope. It may not have followed the rules, just as Jesus didn’t follow the rules in Bethesda – but it showed that God is working.