Archives for posts with tag: St Paul

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
2 Kings 4:1-37; Psalm 90; Acts 16:1-15

‘Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men’. That’s what we’ve just sung, in Psalm 90. It means, return to the dust, out of which you were made. Psalm 90 is sometimes used at funerals, and describes the insignificance and fleeting existence of human life when compared with the creative – and destructive – power of God.

 

There’s a powerful novel by P. D. James called ‘Children of Men’. It’s a dystopian vision of the future – just as 1984 suddenly wasn’t in the distant future, in this case, the future is 2021 – not long now.

 

Gradually, no more children are being born. The human race is dying out. Then, years after the last person was born, a woman becomes pregnant. Now read on! I won’t spoil it for you. There’s a film of it too, which is also good, but rather different.

 

One little switch. No more babies. And that’s it for the human race. It’s perhaps more frightening, as being rather more mundane, more feasible, in a way, than a nuclear holocaust.

 

There has been a school of thought – perhaps as a result of too much reading of the Old Testament – that if God does take steps against mankind, it must be to punish them for something they’ve done wrong.

 

So now, for people who think in that way, it will be likely to be rather a worrying time. We have the President of the USA completely failing to condemn white supremacists and Nazis – saying there are ‘some very good people’ among them; in this country, all of sudden, it’s not beyond the pale for people openly to want to shut out from this country anyone who isn’t a white, English-speaking person with useful skills and plenty of money.

 

Nearer to home, did anyone even think for a minute whether it was right to chase away the travellers, the gypsies, who came and camped out on the Leg O’Mutton field in Cobham? Remember, Hitler exterminated Gypsies as well as Jews. How should we treat them? What would Jesus have said?

 

Now again, instead of seeking closer union with our neighbours in Europe, we have set our faces against them with the vote for so-called ‘Brexit’. ‘Sovereignty’, whatever that means, is supposed to be more important than the brotherhood of man.

 

I think that Emily Thornberry was right, although she got into hot water for saying it, about the house with a white van parked in the drive, festooned with English flags. That flag is not benign: it is meant to say, ‘England alone!’ Go away, everyone else. Black, brown, foreign people: go away from our ‘crowded’ island. The crowds are, I would suggest, a myth. There is plenty of room in the UK. The hidden, evil message is that there are too many of the ‘wrong sort of person’ – people who are not like us.

 

I still remember the first time I went to Bombay – the first time I went to India – and walked down the street. I was the only white man. The only white man among thousands of brown and black faces. I began to imagine what it must feel like to be a black person in England sometimes. No wonder that black people may congregate in places where there are already significant numbers of black people. We have a certain innate small-c conservatism, all of us, I think, which makes us easier with people whom we know.

 

Obviously in a country of nearly 70 million people, we can’t know everyone, so I suspect that we fall back on what people look like. If they look like us, fine. If not, there might be a reservation, a hesitation, a query in our minds.

 

This isn’t good. Xenophobia, racism, white supremacy. No thought for the idea that we are all equally God’s creatures, God’s children. God, if He cares about us in the way the Old Testament describes, might well send some plagues down on us for being so awful.

 

Yet so far as I know, God hasn’t worked that way recently. Taken as a whole in the Bible, in contrast with the various chastisements in the Old Testament – and Psalm 90 is said to be a Psalm of Moses, inspired by the complaining of the Israelites in the desert – there are many stories of healing and salvation.

 

Elisha’s two miracles described in our first lesson are cases in point. The first one is a sort of self-help example with a miraculous element, a bit like feeding the 5,000, in that the oil never ran out, and the resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s daughter is like the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter – ‘damsel, arise’ – in the New Testament.

 

We don’t know how these miracles worked – or else they wouldn’t be miraculous. Maybe these stories are just mythical. It’s striking how similar the miracles done by Elisha are, in these two cases at least, to Jesus’ miracles.

 

The ‘rose of Sharon’, the beautiful girl, in the Song of Solomon, ‘nigra sum sed pulchra,’ in the Latin words of the beautiful canticle in Monteverdi’s Vespers, is said to be a ‘Shulamite’, or a Shunammite. Perhaps there’s a link with the ‘great woman’ in our lesson from 2 Kings. She was kind to the man of God, Elisha, and ‘constrained him’ to eat bread. It’s a bit reminiscent of Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, pressing ever more cake and sandwiches on her hapless priestly charges: ‘Oh, go on, go on, go on …!’ Maybe she was Abishag, the most beautiful woman in Israel, who went to comfort King David in his old age – she too came from Shunem.

 

But even in the beauty of Monteverdi there’s a wrong note. ‘Nigra sum sed pulchra’ sings the girl – although often, for mysterious musical reasons, it’s actually a male counter-tenor singing – meaning, ‘I am black but beautiful’. To sing ‘but’ beautiful is awful – but in 1610, when the Vespers was written, that kind of casual racism was unfortunately there. I feel that if we can change the words of the Lord’s Prayer so that we ‘forgive those who’ trespass against us, instead of ‘them that’ do it, we could change ‘nigra sum, sed’ (black, but …) to ‘nigra sum et pulchra’. ‘And’ beautiful. Perhaps you, Robert [Prof. Robert Woolley, Director of Music at St Mary’s], could speak to Harry Christophers or Sir John Eliot Gardner about it.

 

The disciples with St Paul – (including St Luke, who most likely was the author of the Acts of the Apostles as well, and who was an eyewitness with the Apostles, at least for some of the time, which we think partly because of the passage which was our lesson tonight, in their journey, where it says, ‘We’: ‘We came with a straight course to Samothracia’, and so on) – well, he and the disciples went to pray, not just in the synagogues, but in Philippi they went to a part of the river bank, where people went to pray; actually, not just any ‘people’ went there, but a group of women. And there they met and got to know Lydia, who, like the Shunammite woman with the man of God, Elisha, invited them to stay with her. She ‘constrained them’ too; she was another Mrs Doyle!

 

Shunammite women, blacks, and the women worshipping with Lydia on the river bank: all a bit different, according to the lights of the time then; but all variously blessed. To be with Elisha, and with the apostles – and of course, with Jesus – we should be celebrating diversity and welcoming the people who are shut out – shut out by polite society, but also because they are black or strangers or refugees. Let us not shelter behind false distinctions between ‘genuine’ refugees and ‘economic migrants’. Whatever they are, they are here; they are human beings like us; they’re just as good as us; and if they are refugees, they need our welcome, our love, and our help. ‘Come again, ye children of men.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.

Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2017
Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the crowds, because they were weak – ‘because they fainted’, and because they had no-one to guide them, no pastor. There was plenty for a pastor to do: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous’ – but there weren’t enough clergy.

 

So he sent out his 12 disciples. It’s interesting to see what the disciples were supposed to do. Jesus had been attracting big crowds. What were they attracted to?

 

We may tend to use hindsight, at least unconsciously, and think that of course people flocked to see and hear Jesus – he was the Son of God, after all. But actually I don’t think that the crowds could necessarily have reached that conclusion at this stage.

 

Maybe if they had been present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove, and a voice was heard, saying, ‘This is my son, the beloved …’ But more likely they were unaware of this. Surely all those threads would be drawn together by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then it really was clear who He was.

 

Instead, it looks as though the drawing power of Jesus, which he wanted to pass on to his disciples, his students, was a practical ministry, of healing.

He told them, ‘And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

 

On second thoughts, perhaps people did have an inkling who Jesus was. ‘Raise the dead’: what sort of an instruction is that? Obviously the disciples were in on the secret. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

 

But there is this rather odd instruction from Jesus to stay away from the non-Jews. The disciples were to keep the good news just for Jewish believers. Evidently, things changed, even then. Look at St Paul’s letters. ‘In due time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Not for the chosen people, the Jews. Instead things were completely turned upside-down. Difficult to explain the passage in St Matthew’s gospel here. Maybe it is to emphasise the magnitude of the revolutionary step that Jesus brought in. But St Paul’s letter to the Romans was actually written earlier than the Gospels, so I am inclined to think that the pro-Jewish lines are a late addition.

 

In the passage from his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sets out his key idea, his key concept, of how God works: that we are ‘justified by faith’.

 

The idea of being ‘justified’ really means brought back into the family, the family of faith. ‘We have peace with God’. St Paul had an idea that God, or at least his senior angels, needed to be pacified. Man had fallen, in the Garden of Eden, and was no longer perfect in the sight of God.

 

But if one wanted to placate this rather angular, peevish deity, it wasn’t a good idea simply to pile up sacrifices and ignore what was going on outside. You appeased this tough God by placing your trust in him.

 

But – it’s still a bit difficult to see what Jesus was supposed to be preaching about. Absent the Resurrection, what exactly was His message? I think that we can legitimately infer that it was a social gospel. Jesus had compassion on the people he found suffering.

 

Yesterday in the Church’s calendar, we were invited to remember Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, described as ‘social reformers’. This is what one author says about them.

“Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1867 he was ordained to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s,Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. They sought to ensure that social reform was based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.

Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children. She was also a founder of Whitechapel Art Gallery.

In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead.The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income.This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907.When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
[R. Atwell, ed., 2004, Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings, Norwich, Canterbury Press, sub June 17th]

 

When we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the fire at the Grenfell House tower block this week, it is truly shaming that, over 100 years after Canon Barnett died, we still have areas of terrible poverty and wholly inadequate housing for poorer people. Canon Barnett lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, the first step towards the provision of council housing, in 1875. In the 1960s the Parker-Morris standards ensured that council houses were built substantially, with adequate minimum sizes for rooms. Unfortunately, in more recent years, these standards have been swept away.

 

Recent governments have abolished security of tenure for council tenants and encouraged the idea that poor people who need council houses are somehow less deserving than people who can afford to buy their homes. It seems incredible now, but as recently as last year, the government refused to make the installation of sprinklers in buildings over a certain height mandatory. Instead, the manufacturers of sprinklers were encouraged to promote their products so as to sell more of them.
Apparently, on Grenfell House, a council block, £8.7m was spent for cosmetic ‘cladding’ partly to improve heat insulation, and partly to improve the look of the block, which is surrounded by ‘mansion blocks’ of expensive private flats. But a sprinkler system, which would have cost a fraction of the bill for cladding, was not installed. And the cladding was of a less fire-resistant type than you could have specified for an outlay of only about £5,000 extra. Not much in a total budget of £8.7m.

 

I think that the Barnetts would be shocked – partly in the way that we are shocked anyway – and partly because the reforms which they did so much to bring about in providing decent living conditions for poorer people, have now been undone.

You might wonder what this, undeniably serious and concerning as it is, has to do with us at our Mattins service. The point about Samuel and Henrietta Barnett is that they were Christians, as we are. As the vicar of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett was ‘in Christ’, reconciled to God, in the way St Paul described. His life had been fundamentally changed.

 

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17]

 

Barnett was interested in liturgy too. “‘The Worship Hour’ that he introduced, was an innovative service with readings from modern writers as well as the Bible; service leaflets printed in bright colours to ease the dreariness, clergy unrobed and the church kept rather dark so the poor and dirty would not feel conspicuous”.

It all sounds, if anything, quite the opposite of what we in St Mary’s try to preserve and the opposite of how we try to conduct worship. But what is the purpose of worship? Bringing the best of ourselves, using the most beautiful, most meaningful, words before God, and seeking his blessing. But would we countenance turning the lights down – using our state-of-the-art low-voltage LED lighting system – so as to avoid embarrassing ‘the poor and the dirty’?

The Victorian reformers, fired up by their Christian faith, were willing to experiment, and to make their churches accessible and welcoming, welcoming not just to people in nice clothes, but also to the poor people living in the slums of Whitechapel.

I don’t think that the Barnetts would have regarded the service, even said in the fine words of the Prayer Book, as the be-all and end-all. What they sought to do was to draw everyone in, however humble, and worship together. For sure, most of the time their Christian observance would have been conducted in the words of the Prayer Book – and no better way, at least so far as the words were concerned. But the important thing was the social concern that their faith had led them into. They were ‘in Christ’, where God had reconciled them. So they dimmed the lights so as to avoid showing up how scruffy some of the congregation were – not but what these poor people couldn’t help it.

When we had our ‘Vision Day’ last month, one of the major goals which we identified was social concern, practical action for our neighbours, translating our devotion in worship into practical concern, into generous, practical love. What are we all going to do about Grenfell House? Are we going to have a special collection, or maybe each of make a pledge to send some bedding, clothes or food to the Salvation Army, or to the local parish church, St Clement’s, Treadgold Street? Or perhaps by sending some money through the Evening Standard website. Godfrey and I will discuss this with the churchwardens – in the meantime, if you want to give some money now, please write ‘Grenfell House’ on one of our envelopes and put your gift in it. We’ll make sure it goes to one of the funds which have been set up.

Yesterday I said similar things in the sermon which I preached to the Prayer Book Society’s service at the Founders’ Chapel at Charterhouse. Afterwards we had a nice tea in what they call the Saunders Room.

The name of that room where we had tea sparked a thought in me. Do you remember Winnie the Pooh’s house? He ‘lived under the name of Saunders’. It had a sign over the door with the name ‘Saunders’ on it. Perhaps some of the children from Grenfell House would like a teddy bear like Pooh.

Sermon for Mattins at Sexagesima, 19 February 2017

Romans 8:18-25, Matthew 6:25-34

‘Don’t worry: be happy’. I think I remember a pop song along those lines. You might think that it sums up the idea in both our Bible lessons today. St Paul: ‘For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’ and Jesus himself in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? … [and] Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

Actually I think those are rather challenging passages today. Why wouldn’t we be worried? Why shouldn’t we ‘take thought for the morrow’? What with Trump and Brexit and the rise of ‘populist’ politics around the world – which some commentators have likened in many ways to Nazism – how can we not worry?

This last week, the Church of England did its own collective bit of worrying, when its governing body, its parliament, the General Synod, met. 

On Wednesday, I watched the General Synod live stream from Church House, Westminster. It was the debate on the bishops’ report on their shared conversations concerning sexuality. In particular the report was about the church’s attitude to homosexuality: whether there could be marriages of homosexuals in church, and how to deal with homosexual clergy.

Would it be possible for the church to regard homosexuality as not being sinful? Could gay clergy in active relationships be accepted in the church? Could gay unions be blessed in marriage ceremonies in church just like heterosexual couples? The report is 17 pages long but you can sum up the main conclusions in a couple of sentences. The bishops did not see any reason to change the church’s traditional understanding of marriage, i.e. a lifelong union between a man and woman, not gays. Instead they wanted to demonstrate the church’s willingness to welcome gays by developing new teaching material and seeking ‘maximum freedom’ in pastoral matters.

The motion was for this report simply to be ‘noted’, which seemed rather odd. The Synod was asked not to express approval or disapproval of the report, but rather simply to note that the bishops had been doing this work – as they had, for the last three years – so that they could continue with it. People clearly didn’t buy that explanation. The intended sense, I think, was that the subcommittee of bishops (it wasn’t all of them) wanted Synod to ‘take note’ of their work in the sense of seeing the way the subcommittee’s thoughts were developing, and indicating thereby that they were content for them to carry on along the same lines.

If that was the intention, it didn’t work. Speaker after speaker in the debate said that the trouble with the bishops’ report was that it looked to normal people in the outside world like homophobia and a justification for it. There was only one speaker who actually said that homosexuality was sinful, although, as Christians, she said, we should still be nice to the sinful homosexuals.

There was a lot of talk about how people in the various moderated discussions had changed their views, although I have to say that eventually in the report, nothing seems to have changed since the last major church report on sexuality in 1991. 

One younger delegate, Lucy Gorman, from York diocese, said very simply that it was difficult to attract young people into the church and get them to listen to the gospel of Jesus, in circumstances where they perceived that the church was institutionally homophobic and did not seem to reflect Jesus’s commandments of love. 

Various people, including some of the bishops themselves, stated that the problem was that the church is seemingly irreconcilably divided. 

On the one side, so-called traditionalists or conservative evangelicals argue that Scripture and tradition uphold the proposition that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, and any other possible combination of sexes is sinful. It is however possible, they say, to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

On the other side are liberals who argue that all the supposed biblical authorities for the proposition that any kind of homosexual love is sinful are either to be understood within the social context of the time or can be accommodated within a liberal theological understanding. The more important thing is that a loving union should be blessed and upheld.

I’ve got a feeling that there ought to be a health warning about the use of the various terms to describe the parties like ‘evangelical’ or ‘liberal’, as it tends to make people behave in tribal ways rather than being rational in their analysis. So I would ask you today not to get hung up on the labels which I’m using. It might be better if I simply said that the yellow camp believed so-and-so, and the green camp believed so-and-so else. Try to identify them by what they believe rather than by their colours!

Many speakers told how the church’s current position is hurtful to many people, both ordained and lay. Faithful people with many years of membership of the church mentioned how hurtful it was to be told that you were sinful, and there was even a story of one teenager who committed suicide because, recognising that they were gay, they believed that the church would never accept them.

The bishops’ paper was couched in terms that people were being influenced by the standards of society today, and that in some sense immutable truths of Biblical teaching were in some sense being overturned or or challenged for the sake of earthly values; in other words, ‘It doesn’t matter if everyone else in England thinks I’m wrong, if I can find a biblical authority for what I believe.’ 

At the beginning and end of the debate the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, spoke. In his introduction he said one thing which nobody else in the debate picked up, but which I think could be a key to an amicable and just resolution of the controversy. 

What Bishop Graham James said was that, since the Church’s last document, which came out in 1991, called ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’, insufficient attention has been given by the Church to scientific and medical understanding as it has developed concerning homosexual couples. 

My perception is that the scientific research concerning homosexuality can be summed up in two simple propositions. Whether one is a heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, or bisexual is not a question of volition but of genetic inheritance; you don’t choose, but you are born that way. The second proposition is that it is possible to understand maleness and femaleness against a spectrum of sexual orientation rather than according to a hard and fast duality. 

To put it another way it is not simply a question of whether people are physically male or female, that is, all-male or all-female, but it is possible that in many instances people may exhibit sexual characteristics which come from both the male and the female side which do not match their physical make-up. You can be physically male with many female attributes, for example.

All the Biblical authorities, it is said, reflect a basic proposition that marriage requires the union of a man and woman. I suggest that it might be better, in the light of the advances in science, if we talked not of ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’, but rather, of a husband and a wife, male and female parties to a union.

I wonder whether a possible area for further discussion which might be fruitful is as follows. Because of the infinitely graded spectrum of sexual orientation, one finds gay couples referring to each other, one as the husband and the other as the wife. Even though, physiologically, they may both be male or female, as between themselves, one is treated as male and the other is treated as female. I think that if ‘male’ and ‘female’ are understood in that way, behaviourally, one might say, rather than physiologically, then one can accept the Biblical and Prayer Book terms without having to explain them away.

I don’t think it can be right that God created some people in such a way that they are flawed, sinful. Indeed use of the word ‘sin’ has a connotation of behaviour, bad behaviour, the sort of thing which separates us from God. I cannot see how it can be sinful for someone to behave according to the way they were made.  

I wonder whether one could also bring in St Paul here. Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans contains some of his most famous passages. In our lesson, we have heard the perhaps rather puzzling passage, 

‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ (Romans 8:22-23) 

The ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ on the one hand, and ‘the redemption of the body’ on the other. It is one of St Paul’s key ideas, the distinction between the body and the spirit. It is reminiscent of the Platonic concept of ‘forms’ – in Greek τα είδη , ideas. Plato distinguished physical objects, like tables, say, from the ‘idea’ of tables; what it is to be a table.  

I wonder whether one could align ‘the body’ in St Paul with the physiological man, or woman: and the ‘spirit’ could reflect the behavioural aspect, the being a husband, or being a wife. On the one hand, the physical human being; and on the other, that they are a husband, or a wife. And what it is to be a husband, how we understand what it is to be a husband, or a wife, doesn’t necessarily coincide with their physiology. 

It can’t involve sin. Look what St Paul himself says, at the end of this great chapter:
‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Well, you might say that the Church of England is still miles away from any understanding along the lines I’ve just suggested. But the heartening thing, as I see it, is that the Synod didn’t vote to ‘take note’. I think they saw through the rather artificial way it was being considered. Not by very much, but nevertheless by a majority (except among the bishops), the Synod didn’t ‘take note’ of the report – it meant, they didn’t want anything to do with it. The Church needs to do better, they said.

I say ‘Amen’ to that.

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1st May 2016 Zephaniah 3:14-20
‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.’ (Zephaniah 3:14-15)
Zephaniah, in his short book – it has only three chapters – gives a snapshot of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. The people of God having turned away from the Lord and worshipped the Baals, God would punish them. The description of the punishment takes two and a half chapters out of the three chapters in the book! Then the ‘remnant of Judah’, the ones who were spared, suddenly find that God looks kindly on them and they are saved.
What a strange idea the people of the Old Testament seem to have had about God! As they saw things, God took sides. They were the chosen people: therefore they expected God to favour them and help them to overcome their enemies. In the weeks after Easter, at Morning Prayer during the week, Common Worship offers as a canticle ‘The Song of Moses and Miriam’, taken from Exodus chapter 15.
Here is some of it.
‘I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song

and has become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will praise,

the God of my forebears whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior,

the Lord is his name.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power:

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
At the blast of your nostrils, the sea covered them;

they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
In your unfailing love, O Lord,

you lead the people whom you have redeemed.’
And so on. ‘The Lord is a warrior’: ‘your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy’.
Quite apart from the divine sneeze – ‘At the blast of your nostrils’, this sounds very strange – quite unlike how we think of God. What about God’s love for all mankind? Surely we were, we are told, all made in the image of God. How can He favour one lot over against another?
God, in the Old Testament, does seem to be a kind of superhero, a sort of almighty trump card. If you have God on your side, you will prevail, you will succeed. Clearly this God, the one who comes down in a cloud or in a fiery pillar and speaks to Moses, is a sort of superman, who has a direct relationship with His chosen people, through his prophets. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, is being God’s mouthpiece.
But we really don’t believe in that kind of God any more. The God who blows people away with a ‘blast of his nostrils’ is of a piece with the image of heavenly king, sitting on some kind of magic carpet throne above the clouds. He didn’t really survive the Age of the Enlightenment. A God like that is limited in time and place. He is ‘up there’, or ‘out there’. That’s not consistent with being all-powerful, the creator from nothing, ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only wise’.
The thought is that Jesus has changed our outlook on God. God has come to us, our interface with God isn’t in a burning bush or through a prophet, but by His being a man like us, human as well as divine. Easy to say, but really difficult fully to understand.
Now this week, on Thursday evening we will remember and celebrate Christ’s Ascension. ‘While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9). Up – He goes up, He ascends. He went up, He ascended. And then ‘two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ (Acts 1:10-11)
In one way, it looked as though Jesus had gone up, gone up to a heaven above the clouds. But then these angelic figures contradict it. The ‘heaven’, where Jesus has gone, isn’t up above the clouds. Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’
Indeed, the lifting up on Ascension Day is not the same as lifting up was generally understood to be, something shameful, being lifted up on a cross. In the Jewish tradition, to be lifted up was a sign of shame.
Today is Rogation Sunday, so called because the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘calling’ or ‘asking for something’. In anticipation of Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we call on God, we anticipate Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. For the farmers, the call to God is in the context of springtime, a call for God to bless their crops and make their flocks thrive.
Going to heaven is at the heart of our faith. What did happen to Jesus? Indeed, what does happen to anyone who dies? In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 4:14-17], and in the beginning of Acts, we read this rather enigmatic reference to Jesus returning to us from the same direction as he went off to. ‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn puts it.
He’s not ‘up there’ in a conventional sense. God, Jesus, transcends space and time. He is ‘at the ground of our being’, as Paul Tillich put it. It’s something of absolutely central importance. Think of all the things which we confront today. There are elections on Thursday as well as Ascension Day – and a referendum, the outcome of which could radically change our country’s place in the world. There is the most catastrophic war going on in Syria. Our doctors feel so strongly that they are going on strike. What difference does it make, where Jesus ascended to, or whether there is a heaven?
Think of all those Bible lessons that you have at funerals, when people have to confront this ultimate question. Is there life after death? Think of St Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians, in particular chapter 15. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and our faith is in vain. But He was raised: Paul lists all the people who saw him, who met him, in that amazing time. They were witnesses, witnesses just as serious, just as certain, as in a court of law.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate incarnation. Because He entered into our human life, and because He was resurrected, so we will be resurrected. There is life after death. But Paul is properly cautious about exactly how it will happen.
He says, ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor 15:42-44)
Now frankly that is hugely, hugely important. God is involved in our world: God cares for us. There is life beyond death. And Jesus, as he met again his faithful followers, after He rose from the dead, tells them – tells us – not to skip over it, but to
‘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 always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:18-20). It was the Great Commission, the great challenge. Our faith isn’t a quirky weird little secret society. It can give hope to all people, and that hope is the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life.
So on this May Day, Rogation Sunday, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’ Among all the challenges, there is hope. Just don’t keep it to yourself.