Archives for posts with tag: Pope Francis

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 27th July 2014 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Acts 12:1-19.

What a week! The church is being persecuted: Christians are being killed, just for being Christians: there are disciples in prison. Brutality, killing, everywhere. Equally true in our lesson from Acts, and still – even more so – today. In Mosul, near to the ancient city of Nineveh, which Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, memorably said yesterday on Radio 4’s Today Programme, was ‘made famous by that dubious submarine evangelist Jonah’ – you know, Jonah and the whale – fundamentalist Moslems have been confronting Christians and giving them a choice between converting to Islam and death. It was reported that there was an option of paying a fine, but Canon White says he doesn’t think it was real. Convert or die.

Or if you live in Sudan and they think you have changed your religion away from Islam, again you will be killed, killed by due process of law. Dr Meriam Ibrahim was brought up a Christian, but her father, who deserted his family soon after she was born, was a Moslem. Somehow she was accused of apostasy and sentenced to be flogged – 100 lashes (when they reckon 40 is life-threatening) – and then executed. She was heavily pregnant, and was forced to give birth in prison while shackled to the floor. A completely harmless, innocent doctor. But she still had the courage to stand up for her faith. She refused to renounce it. She would rather suffer – and she did. She is worried that her baby may have been damaged by being born when she was unable to move her legs because of her chains.

What a week. We cannot understand the unspeakable horror that is happening in Gaza. 1,000 Palestinians dead and countless more seriously hurt. According to the United Nations and the BBC, almost all were innocent civilians. About 40 Israelis dead, all but three of them soldiers.

Yesterday an British Apache attack helicopter flew over my garden. You could see its machine guns, missile and bomb pods. Imagine that helicopter – because that’s what the Israelis have too – flying towards you and letting loose that vast destructive force at you and your house. Or if not a helicopter, a fast jet or a so-called drone – actually some of them are as big as an airliner – or a Merkava battle tank. You have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They hit hospitals. On Friday they shot up an ambulance and killed a doctor. One in four of the people they have killed, according to Save the Children, is a child.

I’m not going into the merits of this as between Israelis and Palestinians. The great conductor Daniel Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has written a very good piece in yesterday’s Guardian, http://gu.com/p/4v8bg, in which he says that what is wrong, at bottom, is that both sides want each other’s land. You can argue it all ways – but only one thing is certain, he says, and that is that violence, the use of force, solves nothing.

Of course the Israelis don’t want the constant threat of rockets falling on them (although they have developed the highly effective Iron Dome anti-missile shield system). Of course the Palestinians don’t want to be annihilated by one of the most powerful armed forces in the world. But – and this is what Daniel Barenboim says – it doesn’t help either side to continue the use of force. Remember, Daniel Barenboim knows about getting the two sides together. He created the famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which musicians from both sides play wonderfully together. They have been at the Proms, although I don’t think they’re coming this year.

And then there’s MH17, the airliner shot down over the Ukraine. Whatever else may be true about that, the people who died were innocent bystanders. No wonder the Dutch prime minister is so angry, blaming the Russians.

What a week. The poor early Christians must have felt similar emotions, in that Passover time that our lesson was about. They were innocent. But the majority around them, the Roman army of occupation and the Jewish majority, didn’t like them. They wanted to be rid of them. Maybe some of the animus against them was like the prohibition against apostasy in parts of Islam today. The early church contained a lot of people who were of Jewish origin. They were seen as apostates, people who had turned away from the true religion. They must be killed.

That was what they had in mind for St Peter. He knew. He said, ‘The Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me … from all the expectation of the people of the Jews’. Sinister understatement – to have been delivered from all the ‘expectation’. What did they expect? More death. Execution. Stoning. What a wonderful escape!

But now, here, unless you work for one of the relief agencies or for one of the broadcasters or newspapers, it’s difficult to be really involved. Really involved – not with the Roman world 2,000 years ago, and not with the Middle East today, but here in Stoke D’Abernon. What are we supposed to do?

What would Jesus do? It’s clear, in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew chapter 5. ‘You have learned that they were told, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” You know – the Israelis say, we will stop our military operation for 24 hours – but if there are any rockets, we will retaliate. An eye for an eye. But Jesus said, ‘…. resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Daniel Barenboim. I don’t think he’s a Christian – but he’s got it. Turn the other cheek. Don’t launch an artillery strike. And certainly, don’t fire off any more rockets either. No more war, however angry, however justified you feel you are.

Now that may be absolutely right – but is that likely to do any good? Just for all of us good Surrey people to nod sagely and say, yes, they must stop killing each other: it’s surely not very likely to do anything, is it?

I’ve held back from my look at this terrible week two good things, two good things which might still give us a glimpse of grace, a reason to hope.

The first is in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. It says, ‘Peter was kept in prison under constant watch, while the church kept praying fervently for him to God’. Kept in prison under constant watch – just like poor Meriam Ibrahim. But the church was praying to God for him – just as, all over the world, and certainly here at St Mary’s, Christians have been praying for Meriam. So the first is that there was a lot of prayer, prayer for release from the tyranny of oppression, prayers for release from imprisonment for Peter and for Meriam.

And of course the second is that the prayers were answered. St Peter escaped. His chains fell off. ‘Now I know it is true’, he said; ‘the Lord has sent his angel’ – he has answered all those prayers. A million people signed petitions calling for the Sudanese government to release Dr Meriam. Many, many of those online petitions were also prayers. And now she has been freed: not only just freed, although that is good enough: but she has been welcomed and blessed by Pope Francis. The prayers were answered. ‘The pope thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous demonstration of constancy of faith. Meriam gave thanks for the great support and comfort which she received from the prayers of the pope and of many other people who believe and are of goodwill’, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, according to Friday’s ‘Guardian’.

At the ‘house of Mary, … where a large company were at prayer.’ We are also in the house of Mary. Although we are far away from the strife in the Middle East, I think we can learn from these happy stories, of Peter’s escape from prison and from Dr Meriam and her family getting away safe. We can learn that it is important always to pray. Prayers are answered. They were, they are, answered here.

As we pray, let us pray for all the injustice and violence in the world to stop, and for the innocent prisoners to be freed. Let’s not forget that, as we bring our concerns before God in our prayers, He may speak to us. He may inspire us to take action. We can give, or we can agitate, we can even be political.

Canon Andrew White said yesterday that in his work in Iraq, the most important help and support had come from the people of the UK. Britain more than anywhere else had tried to help the Christians in Iraq. So let us consider what we can do to help the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief based in St George’s Church in Baghdad. Look them up with the help of Google – http://frrme.org. Look them up. Give them some money, if you can. And say a prayer.

Sermon for Easter Day, 20th April 2014
Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Matt. 28:1-10

When David Cameron published an article in the Church Times (which of course was widely quoted in the Telegraph and other less specialist newspapers than the Church Times), there were lots of people who said how good it was that the Prime Minister had said publicly that he was in favour of the Church of England and that the C of E should stick up for itself more.

Mind you, said the Prime Minister, he didn’t actually go to church very often, and his Christian faith ‘came and went a bit,’ he said. He did remind me a little bit of the caricature figure in WW2 dramas signing up for army service, where the recruiting sergeant asks what his religion is, and he mumbles, ‘Agnostic’, whereupon the sergeant writes down ‘C of E’.

On Thursday there was a big service at Guildford Cathedral for the renewal of vows of all the people in ministry in the Diocese. The Bishop of Dorking, giving the sermon, said that the Prime Minister’s article had been ‘somewhat surprisingly good’. Somewhat surprisingly. His caution might be explained by the comments on the Prime Minister’s article which had been made in various quarters, which tended to focus on the question how Mr Cameron’s Christianity didn’t seem to extend to making sure that people in Britain are not starving and going to food banks.

All this doesn’t take away the fact that the Prime Minister thought that it was important enough, in his busy life, to affirm his Christian faith in a public article. So for that much, I think we must be grateful.

Never mind the Prime Minister; Christianity has been getting a better and better name this year with the advent of the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Both of them are seen as very good adverts for the faith: very good examples of what it is to be a good Christian.

Today on Easter Sunday they reckon that 1.3m people will go to church in the UK. This really isn’t very many, out of the roughly 70m people who live here. So even if the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope are all valiantly pointing up the importance of Christianity, the message doesn’t really seem to be getting through to that many people.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with that message? Our lessons from Acts and St Matthew’s Gospel have the key things. Jesus went about doing good, teaching and healing, but he was arrested and condemned to death as a troublemaker – a freedom-fighter, a terrorist (because always remember, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter). He was put to death publicly in the cruellest fashion, being crucified. And He rose again from the dead.

The Gospel story is the most important bit. The story of the empty tomb, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I would risk saying that, unless there had been a first Easter Day, and unless there had been a resurrection from the dead, we would not be here, celebrating Jesus and worshipping God in the way that we are today.

Leave aside for a minute the fact that there are only a million or so of us in the UK who will bother to go to church today: if you take the worldwide figures for people celebrating Easter, it’s a very, very large number – and it is a growing number. Christianity is a very fast-growing religion: I believe it is still the fastest-growing religion in the world.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul explained the significance of Easter. St Paul said, ‘If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin’ (1 Cor.15:17).

Now pay attention! Resurrection from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus, is, of course, completely contrary to the laws of nature. It’s a super-miracle, the super-miracle. It is the sign, the sign by which we realise that Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher or a prophet: it’s how we know that he was God incarnate, God in human form.

I’m not going to argue here why I believe in the resurrection – which I, and you, surely do. This is, after all, a gathering of the faithful. But maybe I should encourage you a bit. It’s like adverts for Mercedes-Benz. Merc don’t need to advertise. They can sell every car they make, just by word of mouth. But they have great adverts, nevertheless. Have you seen the one with the chicken? It’s far and away the best ad on the telly at the moment. The reason they made it, and no doubt spent millions on it, was to reassure their customers: to reassure them that they have indeed made the right choice.

So maybe I should also just comfort you, in the same way, about what you already believe. There are plenty of eminent scientists who believe in the resurrection. For the atheists there is Richard Dawkins: for the Christians there is John Polkinghorne: both equally eminent scientists. Similarly in philosophy: for the atheist Daniel Dennett there is the Christian, Richard Swinburne – and Brian Leftow, another formidable logician, whose formal proofs of the existence of God were published recently [God and Necessity, ISBN 978-0-19-926335-6]. Or Roger Scruton, who plays the organ in his parish church.

If you want a good refresher course in why it’s intellectually respectable that we can believe in the resurrection, there’s the famous book, first published in the Thirties and still in print, ‘Who Moved the Stone?’ by Frank Morison. [ISBN 978-1-85078-674-0]. Morison was a sceptic who set out to prove that that resurrection couldn’t have happened, and ended up convincing himself that the weight of all the evidence went exactly the other way, and it did happen. Or of course you can read Richard Swinburne’s ‘The Resurrection of God Incarnate’ [ISBN 978-0-19-925746-1], for a heavyweight philosophy-of-religion treatment from the celebrated former Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford.

Back to St Paul. In the lesson from his letter to the Colossians, the very short lesson this morning, he underlines the significance of Easter for us.

‘Were you not raised to life with Christ?’ he asks.

He then says, perhaps rather mysteriously, ‘You did die, and your life has been hidden away with Christ in God’. [Col.3:1,2 (NEB: my translation, resp.)]

Of course this doesn’t mean that somehow we are all ghosts. We have died in the sense that we die in baptism: we die to sin, and have new life in Christ. In that sense, we rise with him. We have been ‘raised to life with Christ.’

And we say He died to save us from our sins, to redeem us. In the words of the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’, Mrs Alexander wrote, ‘He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good,’ and, ‘There was no other good enough | to pay the price of sin’.

The language is apparently language of ransom, of kidnap and ransom, even. But I think that’s not the right way to look at it. If you think of sin not so much as specific sins, specific crimes – although sin can make you do those bad things – if instead you think of sin as whatever it is that separates us from God, then Jesus’ redeeming work was really to bring us back to God, bringing us back home to the true ground of our being. In the words of the lovely prayer,

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.

Even here, where things seem to be very spiritual, very mythical, there isn’t a conflict with science. In her 2012 Gifford Lectures, Prof. Sarah Coakley looks at the idea of sacrifice, sacrifice in the context not just of religion, of Jesus’ sacrifice, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, but in the context of evolutionary biology. Apparently the latest analysis is that evolution doesn’t depend on the ‘Selfish Gene’, but much more on co-operation, on selfless behaviour, self-sacrifice. A defining characteristic, the real mark, of humanity is altruism, self-sacrifice, selfless behaviour. We are the most successful species, the theory runs, not because we possess a selfish gene, but exactly the opposite – because ‘greater love hath no man’ is something we can, and do, aspire to.

Professor Coakley mentions in her first lecture –
http://www.faith-theology.com/2012/05/sarah-coakley-2012-gifford-lectures.html%5D – that Charles Darwin was inspired to study biology by William Paley’s argument, that the complex workings of nature meant that they were evidence of the work of a ‘divine watchmaker’. Although the current rather fundamentalist ‘intelligent design’ movement, mainly in the USA, isn’t very believable, nevertheless there does seem to be perfectly good scientific evidence for God, as the creator and sustainer of the universe. It’s really not necessary to be an atheist if you are a scientist.

Oh – and if you want to compare and contrast Prime Ministerial words of faith, you might want to dust off Gordon Brown’s speech in 2011 about his Christian faith, which you can find on Archbishop Rowan’s website. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/903/faith-in-politics-lecture-by-gordon-brown.

Nothing political, honest – but Gordon Brown’s piece is head and shoulders over David Cameron’s: really inspiring stuff, not faith which ‘comes and goes’.

So I say, we should shout it from the roof-tops. It makes sense. Jesus was raised from the dead: Jesus is risen! Happy Easter!