Archives for posts with tag: revelation

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘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 vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Second Sunday of Easter, 28th April 2019

Revelation 1:4-8, Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=423140630

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This Sunday our Bible readings take us back vividly to the life of the apostles just after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Each passage illustrates a different angle. First in the Book of Revelation.

What is your favourite hymn? A little while ago there was a series in the parish magazine – well, actually in the old parish mag, before the beautiful St Mary’s Quarterly came out, of course – anyway, the series was on ‘favourite hymns’. People were invited to pick their favourite hymn and to explain what it was they liked about it. What would my favourite hymn be? One strong contender in my heart would be ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’, one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns. It’s number 31 in our hymn book, if you want to look it up.

Like many hymns, it contains several sermons and profound theological insights. It’s based on our first lesson, from the Book of Revelation, which says:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

   every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;

   and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

 

The hymn covers the same ground – in rather better poetry, I think.

The Book of Revelation is a book about the End Time, a vision of heaven, a vision of the divine. It’s a vision of God, and of Jesus sitting at his right hand, ‘up there’. Since Bishop John Robinson’s great little book ‘Honest to God’, or Don Cupitt’s BBC series called ‘The Sea of Faith’ in the early 1980s, we haven’t tended to see God as a man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds. Even if we weren’t influenced by Bishop John Robinson or by Don Cupitt, you might remember that according to President Krushchev, when Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, returned to earth, he is supposed to have mentioned that he hadn’t seen God ‘up there’. The great vision in Revelation is a metaphorical one; its truth is not literal. Our reading from it says

Every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

‘Those who pierced him.’ We have to be careful not to take early accounts of the passion and resurrection of Jesus as being very anti-Jewish. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the ‘the whole body of the elders of Israel’, did, as a matter of bare facts, cause Jesus to be crucified: but as Jesus himself said, they did not know what they were doing. They were not consciously killing the Son of God. In the early encounter between the Jewish authorities and the disciples which we heard about in the words of Acts chapter 5, if you read a bit more of the chapter after this, you’ll see that it isn’t simply a question of a brush between the Jewish leaders and the apostles, not simply – or at all, actually – a kind of repeat of the persecution which had resulted in Jesus’ death. The full story tells that the High Priest and the Sadducees, motivated by jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in prison. But ‘an angel of the Lord’ opened the doors of the prison and let them out during the night, so that when they went to get them in the morning, the police reported that they’d found the prison locked, but no apostles inside. They’d gone back to teaching in the Temple. They sent the police and fetched them to appear before the Council – but without using any force, ‘for fear of being stoned by the people’.

Then comes the passage which was our second reading, the exchange between the High Priest’s group, the Sadducees, and Peter. They asked, ‘Why did you ignore our injunction to prevent you from preaching?’ …. And the answer was, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ Then Peter went on to rehearse the crucifixion story. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you had done to death’, and most important, ‘We are witnesses’. The Sadducees, extraordinarily, wanted to kill them. They couldn’t cope with how popular the gospel message had already become. To the apostles, it must have felt horribly reminiscent of the time immediately before the crucifixion.

But then another Jewish leader, a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a ‘teacher of the law held in high esteem by all the people’, stood up in the Sanhedrin council and said, ‘Keep clear of these men, I tell you; leave them alone. For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put them down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God.’ These were wise words – and they came as much from a Jewish source as any of the cruel Sadducees’ threats. Both sentiments came from Jewish sources, enlightened, Gamaliel, or cruel, the Sadducees. You can’t really blame the Jews. They really had no idea what the big picture was.

A quick look back, before we move on to consider Doubting Thomas. An ‘angel of the Lord’ organised the apostles’ gaol break. What was this angel? Given that the name ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ in the original Greek, rather than thinking about angels as being superheroes like Superman, let’s think instead that they could just have been ordinary Christians, doing the will of the Lord. You can understand quite a few of these apparently supernatural terms in natural, normal terms. Most likely it was just ordinary humans who got them out of jail – but in so doing, they were doing the work of God. But of course, if you want to believe in angels as something magical, between gods and mere men, fair enough. I’ve got no proof either way.

Then we do go on to think about Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas has strengthened so many people’s faith. It certainly did mine. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That’s us. We haven’t been able to do what Thomas did and verify empirically that they were encountering the risen Jesus. Our understanding, our trust in the whole Gospel, has to have been based on things we ourselves haven’t seen.

The essence of that faith is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s not just an extraordinary miracle, something to amaze and delight you, which is really what the word ‘miracle’ meant originally, (something to amaze and delight), but also most crucially it means that God, however we understand him to be, the unmoved mover (according to Aristotle), the creator and sustainer, the Almighty, all-powerful, all knowing, He, has a relationship with the human race, with us.

God is bigger and infinitely more detailed than I, certainly, can comprehend. The Bible says, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, that whoever has seen him has seen the father (John 14:9). I suppose if you take literally the passages which have Jesus sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, then those glorious images of a heavenly palace above the clouds will resonate with you.

But I think that I am too much a prosaic, matter-of-fact person to believe literally that that is how things are. I’m with Yuri Gagarin. I don’t actually think that God lives above the clouds, or indeed that he can be tied down to a particular time or place. Except of course he can. He can be tied down in a sense to the time and place of Jesus. If we didn’t know about Jesus we wouldn’t know anything at all about God except in purely functional terms, making stuff, creation, and knowing stuff, omniscience, and so on. And the story of Thomas is the most powerful expression of this.

But hang on a minute: if God isn’t somewhere, if there isn’t a sort of Mount Olympus somewhere, with God and his angels and Jesus together on top of the clouds on their thrones in some glorious palace which looks just as we would imagine 20th Century Fox and perhaps one of those great directors like David Lean would portray it, larger-than-life for sure; if that’s not the way it is, and if Jesus was not saying something completely fanciful, when he said that if we have seen him we have seen the father, then can we actually know God a bit more after all?

I wonder whether the angels are a clue. As I said earlier on, when the angel of the Lord came to let St Peter and the apostles out of the gaol, I did just wonder who the angel was. It occurred to me that, just as we say that the Holy Spirit – which is God in one form – just as we say that the Holy Spirit is in our church, is in all of us, and that we are called ‘the body of Christ’, here today as well, so it means that angels, messengers of God, could be ordinary people, just as Jesus was an ordinary human being in one sense.

So we could be angels. Surely we are angels, when the Spirit is at work in us and when we do God’s work. I’ve preached before about saints. I’ve made the point that the saints are all of us Christians. Another hymn:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed.

That’s us. We are in that wonderful ‘apostolic succession’, as it’s sometimes called, from the earliest Christians; and thousands and thousands of new Christians are coming forward every minute, who haven’t seen, but yet believe.

Well that’s great. It’s a very major thing – and we could stop it there and go away from this service feeling perhaps that we’d come a little closer to God. But the other major thing that we must consider is that, if we are to be saints and angels, real saints and angels, we must behave like them.

So today in a society where there is a terrible xenophobia, where people say things against immigrants, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like us, where people blame those who go to food banks, for being in some sense feckless or undeserving, where we turn our backs as a country on our relationships and treaties with other countries, where we fail to take our fair share of refugees, where we allow a government ministry to uproot people who have being here working and making their lives among us for decades, and send them to countries which they have not seen for those decades, on the grounds that they are in some way here illegally, where there are so many instances of our society’s meanness and failure properly to provide for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, where we justify it by shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all very sad but there isn’t enough money to go round; but then, miraculously, the government finds billions for Brexit.

Yes, what I’m saying is political; but it is not intended to be party political. It’s true whether you’re Labour or LibDem or Conservative. The important thing is that we’re Christians. I’m saying that, as Christians, we should have a view on these things. We should call them out; we should stand against them, because we are Christians. We should, if we have a spare room, consider welcoming some refugees to stay with us when they first arrive. We should tell our politicians that it’s not acceptable not to put sprinklers in high rise council blocks like Grenfell Tower, (even though government ministers have promised to do it); tell our politicians it’s not acceptable not to pay proper compensation to the people whose lives have been ruined by the Windrush scandal; it’s not acceptable that thousands of people – last year, over 4,000 – are denied benefits on the grounds that they are fit to work, and then are so ill that they die within three months of that decision. It’s not acceptable that the newspapers should be full of pictures of a poor man, Stephen Smith, so emaciated that his bones are sticking out, so obviously desperately ill, denied benefits, on the ground that he is ‘fit to work’: he died. But not until he had won an appeal in court, as 70% of the appeals are won. [See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/22/stephen-smith-benefits-system-dying]

This institutional meanness doesn’t just come out of the air. Just as we are saints and angels with the Holy Spirit in us, we have God’s power in us. We are not impotent. We have God’s power to do something about it. We need to speak to our MP, to write letters, to demonstrate on the streets if necessary, to rise up.

So today the message, the Easter message, is that we have seen the Lord. We have seen him at work in our fellow saints and angels. Let us join them, let us take that divine power and use it.

Stephen Smith

Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28; Revelation 4

‘WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity..’

I turned to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance about Trinity Sunday. Near the beginning is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, also known by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult, which means ‘whoever wishes’ or, as it says in the Prayer Book, ‘whosoever will’; whosoever will, whosoever wishes, that he be saved, he must hold the ‘Catholick Faith’. And that faith is that we worship ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’.

We worship one God, in three persons, as the hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ says. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tonight’s lessons, from Ezekiel and Revelation, aren’t really relevant to Trinity Sunday, except insofar as they are pictures of the divine, of God and heaven – or perhaps more accurately, they are visions of the divine, as the the prophet Ezekiel and as St John the Divine portrayed their visions of God.

Ezekiel had a vision of fire, and of living creatures, and a throne above them upon which was seated ‘the appearance of a man’. The heavenly figures, the living creatures, had, according to Ezekiel, ‘the appearance of a man’. Some man! I’m not sure what sort of a man has four faces – including the faces of lions, oxen and eagles – or wings, or which every one had four, four wings. I was going to say that perhaps this image is one that got people thinking of God as a superhuman being living in heaven above the clouds, but actually Ezekiel’s vision isn’t tied to a particular place, up or down. The vision was of a whirlwind, and fire ‘infolding itself’ in the whirlwind, with a bright light in the middle, where God and the four creatures – his angels – were to be seen.

In St John the Divine’s vision, he was ‘in the spirit’, and saw into heaven, where there was a throne with someone sitting on it who looked like he was made of jewels – ‘to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone’; there were 24 ‘elders’, and around the throne was a sea of glass, with four ‘beasts full of eyes before and behind.’ These beasts had the look, respectively, of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle. There is clearly a reminiscence of the living creatures in Ezekiel. Here there are four creatures, looking like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle: there were also four creatures, but each one had multiple aspects, each one had four faces, looking like a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle respectively.

The other day I was talking to someone about saying our prayers. I think it may have been in the context of the recent ‘novena’, nine days of prayer, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which all the churches were encouraged to join, so as to create a worldwide wave of prayer. A sort of Mexican wave of prayer round the world.

My question to my friend was, ‘Who are you praying to?’ My friend said, ‘I’m praying to God’. Without going into too much detail, what worried me was that I wasn’t sure that the god which he was thinking about was the same as the one I thought of.

There’s a new book, by the philosopher John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, which I want to read. [John Gray, 2018, Seven Types of Atheism, London, Allen Lane] So far I’ve just learned about it from the Church Times and Guardian reviews. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that in a sense, it helps to understand better what something is, if you think about what it isn’t. We understand what it is to be good, partly by contrast with what it is to be bad. Similarly with black and white, and so on.

So when you meet an atheist, one thing that can be quite illuminating is to ask what this god is, that they don’t believe in. The atheist has to say what the putative god, say, the god he wants to rubbish, looks like, or acts like. That’s what John Gray is setting out to do in his book, identifying seven types of atheists. He doesn’t, according to the reports, end up saying who is right, atheists or believers. But he does ask pertinent questions of the atheists, which, he suggests, leave them looking either like believers in disguise or else they are very simplistic in a way in which believers aren’t.

I won’t spoil your anticipation, but we’re going to sing ‘Immortal, Invisible,’ as our last hymn. When we sing that hymn, we are, I think, being properly cautious about what God is. He is ‘hid from our eyes’. This is not a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, who is somehow ‘my God’, in the sense of being my boon companion. It is still a matter of awe and ultimate respect, I would suggest, for us to come before the Almighty.

One atheistic understanding, Richard Dawkins’, puts up a god who is a ‘blind watchmaker’, a creator who may indeed have made the world, but has just set it ticking and left it to its own devices. That kind of god has no continuing interest in what, or whom, he has created. Strictly speaking, that’s not atheism so much as ‘deism’ – a belief in a sort of god which might as well not be there, or who has, as some philosophers have argued, died, or simply disappeared. God is dead, they say. Just like children who have lost a parent, we have to do without the absent god.

I could see the force of that, see the attraction of it, if we had not come to know about Jesus. God has another aspect, another face. If we believe that Jesus was both human and divine, then we believe in the second part of the Trinity. ‘The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate’; uncreate, which means, not created. Because if the Son were created, were one of God’s creatures, then He could not be an ultimate creator, creator ex nihilo, from nothing – which is the most basic, stripped-down understanding of what it is to be God.

The Nicene Creed was adopted in order to nail down the controversy that Arius, who was a theologian in Alexandria in the fourth century, who, perhaps influenced by Plato and Aristotle, suggested that Jesus as ‘son’ of God was not ‘uncreate’, but was by his very sonship lesser than God. A great controversy broke out in the early church, and the Roman emperor Constantine convened a great conference at Nicaea in the year 325, at which it was decided that Father and Son were ‘of one substance’. The theological opponent of Arius was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius: and the Creed which is called ‘Quicunque Vult’ is also known as the Creed of Athanasius. In Athanasius’ creed, ‘The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.’ We say the Nicene Creed in the Communion service, which reflects Athanasius’ interpretation:

I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…’,

and when it gets to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed says:

‘And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

‘… who proceedeth from the Father and the Son’. Now even today, in the Common Worship service book – at page 140, there is an alternative text of the Nicene Creed, which, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, says,

‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father,..’

Not, ‘from the Father and the Son’. This is so that it may be said ‘on suitable ecumenical occasions’, that is, when you are holding a service with other Christians who don’t accept the outcome of the Council of Nicaea – as for instance the Orthodox churches don’t.

At Evensong we use the Apostles’ Creed, which is simpler, and doesn’t get into whether Jesus was created or not:

‘I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,… ‘

The Apostles’ Creed really emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, as god and as man. God: ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’; man: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.

Now, you may think that this is all impossibly complicated. It is surely part of our understanding of theology that we don’t fully understand: that the nature of God is beyond human understanding. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, from trying to get a better understanding.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what Christians believe in. The father, the creator, the heart of being: the creator in person, Jesus: and the creative force, the love force, the Comforter, as the Holy Spirit is called in John 15:26, for instance. Three ways of seeing God.

That’s all quite difficult to deny, actually. As a lawyer, I knew that one of the most difficult things is to prove the absence of something. Relatively easy to show that something happened, but not the other way round. So I would say that you needn’t be coy about saying you believe in God, even ‘God in three persons’. It’s perfectly respectable philosophically – indeed, if John Gray is right, the ‘new atheists’ are intellectual lightweights by comparison. So you could say, ‘ What is this god you don’t believe in? Bring it on!

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Here is the text of the Creed of St Athanasius.

Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.

QUICUNQUE VULT

WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

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

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

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

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Text from The Book of Common Prayer, the rights in which are vested in the Crown,

is reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.

Sermon for Mattins on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity, 16th November 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4

At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

People are always telling us that we’re doing rather a bad job of making disciples of all the world. Because in the UK at least, the churches are declining in numbers. According to statistics that I was reading, the Church of England is losing 1% of its members each year at present.

But Canon Giles Fraser in an article yesterday [‘Loose Canon’, The Guardian, 15th November 2014, http://gu.com/p/43bvq%5D pointed out that about a million people go to a Church of England church every week. That compares pretty well with quite a lot of other important organisations.

Compared with the total membership of the Conservative Party, which is 134,000, with the Labour Party, 190,000, and the LibDems at 44,000, as Giles Fraser says, if you add all the political parties together and even throw in UKIP, you still don’t have half the number of people who go to church. He adds, ‘More people go to church on a Sunday than go to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday.’

I bore that all in mind as I went to the St Andrew’s PCC ‘away-day’ yesterday. This was set to consider a Church of England statistical study called ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, [The Church Commissioners for England, 2014, http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk ] which had identified all the various things which made for growing churches rather than declining ones.

Incidentally, you’ll be very pleased to know that as far as I can see, St Mary’s does have ingredients identified in the study for being a successful church. There’s a emphasis on having young people and children (we’ve just had a great family service with nearly half those attending being kids or young parents); on having a clear mission and purpose; and on having strong leadership. I think that St Mary’s does meet the criteria identified.

I was intrigued because this week, now at Mattins and tonight at Evensong, there are lessons from the Book of Revelation which offer a counterpoint to the Church statistical study.

This morning there’s the vision of heaven – ‘a voice which said to me, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.’ This was a vision of a throne in heaven, and a figure on the throne surrounded by 24 elders – a vision of God.

And this evening, going backwards, the lesson is from the beginning of the Book of Revelation, introducing John’s vision, John’s ‘apocalypse’, as it’s called. Αποκάλυψις, ‘Apocalyse’, is the Greek word for ‘revelation’ – lifting the veil, revealing what is hidden underneath.

I don’t think that the Book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally, but it does contain a lot of powerful metaphorical images, covering a world which is way beyond our comprehension. We can’t know what, in Revelation, is in any sense ‘true’, but I think we can agree that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good a description as any other, more prosaic, description of a heavenly world there might be.

Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 – your homework before lunch today – contain the passage which I think is directly relevant to the question what makes a good, effective church. John reports that Christ appeared to him and instructed him to write letters to seven early churches. In each letter Christ, though John, identifies particular characteristics which marks out that church, and which distinguishes it in good and bad ways. It is a sort of early Ofsted report.

So the church at Ephesus is noted for its love; the church at Smyrna for being long-suffering; at Pergamum for not denying their faith; at Thyatira, there is love, faithfulness, good service and fortitude; at Philadelphia, he writes, ‘Your strength, I know, is small, yet you have observed my commands and have not disowned my name.’

He lists their faults as well. He writes to the church at Sardis, ‘though you have a name for being alive, you are dead. Wake up, and put some strength into what is left,..’; and to the church at Laodicea he writes, ‘I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish that you were either hot or cold!’

Those early churches, which had been started by St Paul or by others of the Apostles, were being assessed by Jesus Christ, through the mystic seer John, for various aspects of their faith. Were they keeping fast to the true faith, or were they in error?

There’s not much about falling numbers – except perhaps the call to wake up at Sardis. There’s not much organisation theory: what the proportion of young people in the congregation is, whether they are open to new ideas and new types of worship, whether they give new people responsibility for church activities. None of those techniques seem to have worried the earliest churches.

In the church research document ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, the work is prefaced by St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’. God made it grow. I can’t help feeling that, certainly in the early history of the church, whether the church prospered or not had nothing much to do with the management skills of the early ministers.

The biggest break that the early church had, of course, was in the fourth century, when on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of Christ telling him to paint the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields, and he would win the battle: and they did, and they won the victory. It doesn’t sound a very Christian story; but there it is.

As a result, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. All of a sudden, Christianity stopped being more or less a secret sect of small cell churches subject to persecution, and became the Catholic Church, the church throughout the world.

Huge growth; but nothing to do with management skills or growth strategies. If we look at where the church is growing in the world today – and Christianity is the fastest-growing religion of them all, today – in Africa, in South America, in China, in Russia – there is still huge growth: and I wonder what it is that is bringing that growth, at the same time as the Church of England is gently and gradually declining.

I think that a clue may be in today’s lessons. You may say that the pictures of heaven and the pictures of the Almighty which are in the Book of Revelation are too far-fetched to be anything other than picturesque stories. ‘Immediately I was in the spirit, and behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

And in the first chapter of Revelation, ‘I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp-stands, and in the midst of the lamp-stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; ..’

‘Look, he is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him … “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’.

Now we may well not believe that God is a man with a big white beard in heaven, (which is above the clouds). We may well decide that that is just a picturesque metaphor: but I think we do still find great significance in ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending’.

The point about an ‘apocalypse’, a revelation, an unveiling of ultimate truth, is that we are confronted by God. Perhaps the reason that our church here at home is not growing as fast as in the other places in the world is precisely because people’s eyes are closed to God: they are not seeing the revelation; they don’t see what its immediate importance could be.

Many people, I think, would agree that there is a God, in the sense that there is somebody or something which made the world, a creator. But a lot of people, I think, today, don’t give it much more thought than that. Perhaps people no longer really worry about the story of Jesus Christ. They rule out the possibility of His resurrection from the dead.

People in England are conveniently blind to the way in which, in many other places in the world, the Good News of Jesus, the story of His life, death and resurrection, still has legs, still has huge power, because it is an indication that the God which Revelation portrays, the God, the Lamb on the throne of heaven, (however picturesque these images are) still has power, has significance, today.

These revelations are revelations that God does care for us. The fact of Jesus, the fact of His time with us, is in itself a revelation, it is an uncovering of the deepest truth.

Perhaps these days you need to be ‘strangely warmed’, like John Wesley, or to be ‘born again’ at a Billy Graham meeting. Perhaps not: but once you have ‘got it’, once you have realised what the revelation of Jesus Christ is, then your life will be changed, and there will be no danger that you will drift away from the church.

Let us pray that we will all be given that revelation: that in the church, those of us who are tasked with preaching and evangelism – as John in Revelation puts it, those of us who are ‘in the Spirit’ – surrounded by the Holy Spirit – let us pray that we will be able to bring a vision of heaven, a vision of the Son of Man, the Son of Man who was at the same time the Son of God, into our lives, so that we can no longer just take Him or leave Him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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