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
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