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Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

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Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.