Archives for posts with tag: Martin Luther

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

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 All Saints, Sunday 1st November 2015
Rev. 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

Why do you come to church? I’m sorry; I’ll put it a bit less abruptly. Why does one come? I used to know a lovely old lady, Mrs Ryder, who said, ‘I go to church to think about dead people.’ To some extent, I think that’s how I came in, too. What does happen when we die? What is heaven like? ‘Behold, I make all things new. … A new heaven – and a new earth’. Is that where Mrs Ryder’s people have gone?

And then there’s Lazarus. Too much detail: his corpse was beginning to go off, to get smelly. He hadn’t gone anywhere, apparently. Then out he came, blinking, into the light. Not smelly.

In a way, those two pieces encapsulate where I came in; where I started to think about things outside the realm of what I could see and feel and touch. How I started the the process in which I eventually came into being a Christian.

‘Am I going to die?’ I asked my mother one day when I was a boy. ‘No’, she said. Well, not imminently, anyway, she might have added. But even so, I had started to think about it.

Actually, it’s tomorrow that we really think about dead people – All Souls, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, will be our service at 10.30 tomorrow morning. Today we are doing what Christians have done at least from the third century, and that is to celebrate the special people who have been, from the earliest time, witnesses to Jesus’ mission, the saints. I Sancti, the holy ones, set apart from ordinary people. St Paul mentions ‘saints’ thirty times in his letters. We may think of them as being somehow almost superhuman, but St Paul simply used that name for the ordinary members of the church.

But clearly in many instances the term ‘saint’ does describe someone very special. In the Roman Catholic Church saints are priests, in the sense that they pray for us, they intercede for us with God. ‘Sancta Maria – ora pro nobis’: holy Mary, saintly Mary – pray for us. So in Catholicism the idea grew up that you pray to God through a saint, you ‘invoked’ that saint.

This was all part of the system of purgatory and indulgences which Martin Luther opposed. Thomas Cranmer, following Luther, wrote in our 39 Articles of Religion, Article XXII, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is it fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’According to the Reformers, invocation of saints, praying through the saints, has no scriptural basis – you can come to God direct: you don’t need a priest to intercede for you. There is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’

Just like a lot of the controversies from the Reformation, the antithesis between the Catholic idea of the saints as being people whom we can call upon to intercede for us with God, and the Reformation idea of the Priesthood of all Believers, is a question which we don’t now look at in such a black-and-white way. We do say prayers by ourselves; we do dare to speak directly to God, wherever we might be: but we also come to church and have the minister say prayers for us.

In the Apostles’ Creed in the Prayer Book (the one we say at Mattins or Evensong), we say,
‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ The Communion of Saints is right up there with all the other really important parts of our faith.

Today we pray in the Collect, “O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy son Christ our Lord…” Being in ‘Communion with the Saints’ means being in the same body with them, in the church down the ages. There is something very powerful about that. All those wonderful men and women, beginning with the apostles and the earliest Christians – Peter and James and John, the Twelve, then Paul, then Dorcas and Phoebe; then the early martyrs, St Stephen and all those who were eaten by lions in the arena: and then all the great figures in the church down the ages.

Martin Luther, certainly: Thomas Cranmer: but also St Francis Xavier, and Pope John XXIII. John Wesley and John Henry Newman. Dietrich Bonhöffer. This is the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we read about in the Letter to the Hebrews.

These saints were willing to sacrifice everything for their faith. Read the list of faith heroes in Hebrews 11. It might be rather daunting. How could we match up to some of the things they did? But at least we don’t have to face being thrown to the lions.

Whom would you think of as a saint today? This is where we can recognise the force of St Paul’s idea that everyone in the churches was, is, a saint. I’m sure it’s still true. Just look around you, and think how nice we are – think how we have cared for each other and for those in need. In a real sense everyone in the congregation is a saint.

It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect in order to qualify to be saints. St Paul, when he wrote to the ‘saints’ at Corinth, or in Ephesus, or in Colossae, or even in Rome, wasn’t writing to eulogise their virtues: instead the purpose of his letters was often to correct their errors and put them back on the track of the true faith. Saints are normal people with normal faults and weaknesses. People like us can be saints.

So what is it that calls us, still calls us, to be people apart, holy people – (because that is what Άγιος , Sanctus, sacred, saintly, means)? This is where poor old Lazarus comes in. We are ‘members of one another in Christ, members of a company of saints, whose mutual belonging transcends death’. Jesus conquered death. He raised Lazarus from the dead, and He himself rose resurrected in glory. This is our faith.

This faith is the mark of a saint. A saint – a saint like us – has the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

‘Behold, I make all things new’. That includes us. Us saints.

Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.

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 Evensong at St Mary’s on Bible Sunday, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014
Isaiah 55:1-11, Luke 4:14-30

It’s been a challenging week to be a Christian. The other night I was listening to The Moral Maze on the radio, when a panel of people, including the Reverend Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips, who is Jewish, were discussing the footballer Ched Evans, and the question whether he should be allowed to rejoin his former club and play football again. Had he paid his debt to society and therefore was he entitled to be rehabilitated into society and continue his normal life, or was he in some way disqualified from his previous career because of the nature of the crime that he had committed?

I heard stories about the terrible virus Ebola in Africa. This week we were worried by a couple of instances where people appear to have caught the virus and come to areas which have not so far been affected, in Europe and also in the United States.

We had a report from the new chief executive of the National Health
Service, on what the health service in this country is going to need if it is to survive and continue to give the wonderful service which we expect.

There was a very sad story, here in Cobham, of a 21-year-old boy who was in the middle of a glittering career at university, with great prospects ahead of him, from a wonderful family, who suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack.

I listened to the debate on The Moral Maze about Ched Evans the footballer – and one of the things that rather surprised me was that neither Canon Giles Fraser not Melanie Phillips, the two expressly religious people on the panel, mentioned the Bible. Neither of them tried to relate what had happened and the punishment process which Ched Evans had been through to any passages in the Bible or anything which Jesus or the prophets had said.

In relation to the Ebola virus I have been struck by how it is very much a story about third world countries and poor people. Up to now none of the big drug companies had decided to put any money behind trying to find a cure or trying to develop a vaccine – I hope I’m not offending any of those companies by saying this – until it looked like becoming a threat to the developed part of the world. All of a sudden we now have the hopeful development that GlaxoSmithKline is claiming to have to developed a cure and a vaccine and that they will very fortunately be ready for use very shortly after Christmas; but the observation remains that it does look as though it matters more if you are a rich person in the northern hemisphere rather than a poor person in Africa, if there is going to be an epidemic.

Nearer to home, of course there is the whole question of the future of the National Health Service. The great thing that we all love about it is that it is free at the point of need: in other words it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; it’s just a question whether you are a human being and whether you are sick as to whether or not you are going to get treatment under our health service.

And finally, the poor chap who died just at the beginning of an adult life, which which probably was going to be very successful and very happy, clearly prompts the question, how could a loving God allow something like this to happen?

To add to those general challenges to Christians, I personally had an interesting thing happen to me this week, which was that I went to attend the inaugural lecture of the new Regius Professor of History in Oxford, Professor Lyndal Roper, an Australian scholar whose speciality is Martin Luther. Her lecture was all about Martin Luther’s dreams. I never knew that Martin Luther had dreams.

I hope it’s not a reflection on the quality of teaching in the diocesan ministry course, but the only revelatory experience involving Martin Luther which I could remember having been taught about was what was called the ‘Turmerlebnis’, the ‘Tower Experience’, when Martin Luther, who apparently was said to suffer dreadfully from constipation, had had to go to the loo in the tower in the monastery where he was, and was said to have experienced spiritual and physical release at the same moment.

Funnily enough, Prof. Roper didn’t mention the Turmerlebnis. It obviously didn’t count as a dream. He had apparently had five other experiences which she counted as dreams, including a vision of a giant quill pen, writing on the door of the church in Wittenburg, where his 95 Theses were subsequently pinned up, and another dream about a cat in a bag, which fortunately did not come to a bad end, but was not simply a question of letting the cat out of the bag.

If we were addressing the task, which Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips addressed on The Moral Maze, as Christians here at St Mary’s, surely we would have gone to our Bibles. ‘Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged’: ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons’: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’; and what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, on the question of adultery.

If we looked at Ebola and at the National Health Service as Christians we might remember what it says in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘From each according to his ability and to each according to his need’. We would worry about the huge gap between the rich and poor, the verse which we no longer sing in ‘All things bright and beautiful’, ‘… the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.

The fact that we are so keen on the NHS and we think it is so special is surely all to do with the fact that it does not distinguish between the rich and poor. It’s not perhaps so much a question that we don’t approve of the gap between the rich and the poor, but we certainly do approve of something where there is no distinction between rich and poor.

What would Jesus do? Remember what he said to the rich young ruler, that he should give away everything that he had to the poor and follow Him – and indeed he then went on to make the famous remark about it being harder for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven then for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Shall we quote to the parents of the poor chap who has died, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ [Romans 8:35]. Will that hit the spot with them? Will they listen to that? Will it mean something properly to them? Does it sound realistic to them that that is what God is like?

Well perhaps the first thing to say in relation to all these challenges for a Christian is that in each case I am coming up with a quotation from the Bible. I am going to my Bible first, in order to try to find out what Jesus would do, what God feels about this particular situation.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Bible does not give you straightforward answers; it’s not a textbook in that sense or an instruction manual for life. It’s not a guidebook to the divine. It’s not a description of God and how he works.

We believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: the creator and sustainer of everything we now about, of our entire life. But we can’t be said to know much about God, in the same way as I know for example how many people there are here in church.

That’s deeply frustrating, because we could easily say that the most important things that we could possibly know would be the things that we can find out about God: but he is the one thing that we can probably know least about! What we can say is that what we do know, what we can infer, starts off with what we read in the Bible. Holy Scripture is the beginning of our experience of God and as such there is nothing more important than what we can learn from Holy Scripture.

There are so many questions – starting with, of course, what is Holy Scripture? What is the criterion by which we decide which books are in the Bible and which books from the same era are out, are apocryphal, or just not part of the canon of accepted books?

Right from the very earliest times Christians have debated what the Bible, the gospels and the various letters of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles all really mean. What did Jesus say and what did he mean by it? What would Jesus do in particular circumstances? Who was Jesus really? Was He the son of God, and if so, is that the same thing as being God, in some way?

Terribly important questions, because, depending on the answers to them, we are talking about the most important things that we can possibly have in our lives today: that’s why I was particularly fascinated to go to the lecture about Martin Luther.

The Reformation may have happened in the 16th century – and we’re now in the 21st century – but all the various questions, which are relevant to the problems that I was looking at earlier, were around in Martin Luther’s time and he tried to understand better the message of the gospels in order to deal with them.

Was God ‘judge eternal’, inclined to condemn us, stern and unbending, or is he a loving God who forgives us despite our imperfections and our sins? Can we earn his forgiveness by the way we act? What happens to people who don’t know about Jesus and God and are good nevertheless? Are they saved or are they condemned because they are in ignorance?

We all know the story of Martin Luther pinning up his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, mainly aimed at the Pope and his sale of so-called ‘indulgences’: that you could in fact buy yourself a shorter time in Purgatory, which was supposed to be the kind of antechamber to heaven, where you had a chance to make amends for all those dreadful things that you had done, all the sins you had committed in your life, so as to have a sort of second chance to get into heaven.

The Pope was selling the right to shorten your time in Purgatory by making charitable gifts to the church. It all sounds very far-fetched, if not slightly corrupt, now and we’re not really surprised that Martin Luther was against it.

We should perhaps not be too hasty to condemn the Pope because the background to the sale of indulgences was the need to raise money for Saint Peter’s in Rome. It was in fact a parish fundraising campaign by another name.

Who was right? Was Luther right or the Pope right? Was Henry VIII right? Was Cranmer right? Who has the authoritative statement of what Jesus would do in all these various circumstances?

Who has an authoritative view on what the correct interpretation of the Bible in relation to any given instance is? Because you can find contradictory things in the Bible.

Professor Roper had a thesis behind her lecture that in fact whereas John Calvin, the other great reformer, would say that his inspiration was ‘sola scriptura’, only Scripture, only Holy Scripture alone, and whereas the Pope would point to his apostolic succession from St Peter and the tradition of the holy Fathers, Luther could point to revelation, revelation from God, in the various dreams which he had had.

I have to say that I rushed to my copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s great book ‘Reformation’, and couldn’t find any reference to Luther’s great dreams – although the lavatorial experience, the Turmerlebnis, was quite well covered!

The point is, on this Bible Sunday, that whatever view you take and however you fit in with church history and the various strands of theology that have grown up over the ages in dealing with this incredibly important but terribly difficult topic, the important thing is that everything starts with the Bible: nothing is more authoritative.

It may not be the be-all and end-all, and it may not be literally the result of God dictating to somebody, but it is the word of God in the sense that it is the best source we have for our knowledge of God and Jesus; so let us never stop reading our Bibles; never stop wrestling with the words in them and trying to understand them.