Archives for posts with tag: saints

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

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 at All Saints’ Day, 4th November 2018

Isaiah 65:17-25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

As you can see, you’ve got some neighbours in church today. 17 silhouettes, each one representing a soldier from Stoke D’Abernon who died fighting in the First World War. There are little plaques in front of each one of the silhouettes which tell you the name of each of the soldiers and the regiment that he belonged to. There are two pairs of brothers, you will find. All over the country there are churches with these silhouettes in. They have been created by a new charity called ‘Remembered’ and our Vanessa Richards is a trustee of the charity. A number of us have subscribed to buy the silhouettes which are in the pews.

These soldiers are ‘there are but not there’, which is the name of the campaign, launched by this charity called Remembered, to remind people, and especially people like me who have never been in a war, to remind us of the great sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers – in what they had hoped would be the ‘war to end all wars’; and also to raise money for the relief of mental conditions caused by war such as PTSD, combat stress, which used to be called ‘shell shock’.

Our silhouettes were first installed in the pews on Friday, for the All Souls service, when we remembered the dead, our dear departed, and today is All Saints, when we remember and celebrate that ‘cloud of witnesses’ that was mentioned in our second lesson from Hebrews.

We will of course come back and make our main act of remembrance next Sunday. Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Day, which follows very closely after our celebration of All Souls. Using the word ‘souls’ reflects the idea that we are made up of a body and a soul and that in some sense our souls are immortal and eternal, carrying on after our bodies have died. So All Souls is the great commemoration of the dead.

Today we focus on the idea of saints and sainthood. Through both these festivals we may get a glimpse of heaven; this is a chance for us to reflect on what we can understand of heaven, at All Souls on life after death and today on the saints, the great ‘cloud of witnesses,’ in history – and perhaps nearer to home as well.

We can think of ‘saints’ in two ways. On one hand we can understand the expression ‘saint’ to cover all Christian people. St Paul’s letters refer to the ‘saints’ at Ephesus and in Rome and in Jerusalem, meaning the normal members of the congregation in each church. So in that sense we are all saints. We are the saints at Stoke d’Abernon.

The other sense, which is perhaps the one which we would normally think of when we use the word ‘saint’, is to identify people who lead exemplary and virtuous lives, who are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus through the self-denying love which they show.

We should notice that there is a difference between the beliefs of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church where saints are concerned. Roman Catholics see the saints as being so close to God and to Jesus that they can intercede for us. In other words, Catholics address prayers to one or other of the saints and ask them to pass on their prayers to God. As Protestants we use the same language and perhaps adopt the same thought when we end our prayers with the words ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’, but this is as far as we go.

Praying through a saint, through a person who speaks for us to God, is a very old idea, a mediaeval idea, but it was one of the things which was attacked by Martin Luther and the Reformation theologians. If you look at the 39 Articles of Religion at the back of your little blue Prayer Book, if you look at article 22 on page 620 and article 31 on page 624, you will see what the reformers were objecting to.

Article 31 was against people saying masses for the dead – at first sight, against what we were doing on Thursday. Before the Reformation, people left money in their wills to pay for masses to be said for them after they had died, to help them to get to heaven and not be stuck in ‘Purgatory’, a kind of half-way house for those whose virtues were not clear enough for them to pass straight through the Pearly Gates. People built ‘chantries’, chapels where they could be remembered and prayed for.

Our Norbury Chapel is an example of a chantry. It was built for Sir John Norbury after the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Sir John died in 1521, before the Reformation, or more particularly before Henry VIII. His original statue must have been destroyed in the Elizabethan purge on ‘monuments of superstition’, and now his monument is the little figure of a kneeling knight, whose armour is in the style of Charles I’s time, 100 years later.

I think that we can agree with Article 31 that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only thing we need, in order to be reconciled with God and forgiven our sins. We don’t need to make a ritual sacrifice as well, in order to buy forgiveness for someone’s sins. But remembering our dear ones by reading out their names doesn’t go against this, I believe.

Martin Luther, who started the objections to ‘masses for the dead’, was aiming at what he thought was a racket run by the Roman church, getting money for saying masses and building chantries, although there was no theological justification for it. We should remember that Jesus’ salvation is for all, not just for the ones whose names we read out in church – but that’s not a reason for us not to remember our dear departed ones.

Article 22 is even more specific about the worship, or ‘veneration’, as it was called, of saints, their statues and pictures. It reads:

‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’.

The reformers thought that there was an element of idolatry, that people were worshipping the saints rather than God, and that there was really no need to use an agent in order to be able to say your prayers to God. There is a reflection of John Calvin’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ here. Again, in the Jewish faith, only the High Priest could enter the the Holy of Holies, in the Temple, to come close to God, once a year only, without being consumed (cf Moses in Exodus 33:20). This is one place where the idea, that God needs to be approached through somebody, comes from. In our first lesson from Isaiah there is also the example of prophecy, where God speaks through the mouth of a human, a prophet.

Because St Mary’s is so old – its origins are 7th century Saxon – if you look around, it shows you signs of all this historical theology. You will see some images of saints in some of the windows, but the only statue of a saint is the statue of Mary, the Madonna and Child, at the front. Actually pretty well all the images of saints, the windows and the statue, although they are often of mediaeval origin, were imported during Revd John Waterson’s time (1949-1983), because whatever was here before the Reformation was removed or smashed up. In the Baptistry some of the windows contain bits of the remains of pre-Reformation windows, but I think that is all.

The Church of England is often called ‘catholic and reformed’. Henry VIII was a faithful Roman Catholic, except for his little difficulty with the Pope! The question of how we look at saints today is a good example of how our church’s theology and history are combined in a rich mixture. The greatest of the saints is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was always closest to him, even at the end; his mother stood grieving at the foot of the cross. Who better, who closer, to intercede, if you feel you need someone to do it? The words of the ‘Hail Mary’, which Roman Catholics use almost as much as the Lord’s Prayer, end with

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

And at the hour of death’.

Indeed Mary is the saint preferred by more people than any other to pray through, in the Roman Catholic Church, where veneration of the saints and praying through them still thrives – they still create saints, for instance recently Archbishop Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador, who was martyred on the steps of his cathedral in 1980, and who was renowned as a liberation theologian, concerned to minister to the poor.

So I have taken you through the story of what it could mean to be a saint. We can be one of the saints at Stoke d’Abernon, one of the people who turn up faithfully in the pews, contribute to good causes and are happy to let people know that this is what we do on a Sunday and indeed, perhaps, what we do on other days. Church saints are involved, involved in church activities.

Or you could be a witness. You could stand up and say to other people what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. You could do things, things which actually take a little bit longer than signing a cheque or turning up to a meeting. You would have to show commitment. The touchstone for being this kind of saint is selfless giving.

Or you might even be a martyr. ‘Martyr’, after all, is just the Greek word for a ‘witness’. Your being a witness may have a price. People may not approve of what you have to say. You may be put to the test as a result. Being a saint, being a witness to the gospel of Christ, may be tough.

There have been occasions when some of you have said to me that my interpretation of what it is to be a practical Christian, to be a practical witness, shades over into politics. Well, on this occasion, I leave it to you. You work out what it would be for you to be a saint. All I would say to you is that I think we all have it in us to be some kind of a saint. Which one are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on 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.