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Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.

Sermon for Evensong after the AGM of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society, 15th June 2013
Psalm 78: Judges 7: Luke 14:25-end. Human ‘flourishing’: ‘that peace which the world cannot give’

On Wednesday I went to a very interesting panel discussion in St Paul’s Cathedral, chaired by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC economics correspondent, in a series called ‘The City and the Common Good – what kind of City do we want?’ under the auspices of St Paul’s Institute, which, even if it may not actually have been set up in response to the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s, certainly has raised its profile since.

The title of the session was ‘Good Banks’, and the panel was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the keynote presentation. As you can imagine, it was a fascinating evening. Archbishop Justin is a leading member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, so he definitely knows what he is talking about in the banking area as well, of course, as being the temporal head of the Church of England.

Archbishop Justin talked about what it was for a bank to be good. The ultimate objective, Archbishop Justin said, was that a bank should contribute to the common good; and the common good he explained as ‘human flourishing’. ‘Flourishing’. I’ll come back to that.

The panel all, in various ways, talked about what it was for a bank to be ‘good’, or what ‘good’ things a bank could do – or what bad things a bank could do. Although they were sitting under the dome of St Paul’s, even the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t spend very much time on what it was that made things good or bad. He just said that the key objective was to promote ‘human flourishing’.

I think ‘human flourishing’ is one of those almost circular terms dreamed up by philosophers and theologians to get away from terms like ‘rich’ or ‘successful’ or ‘happy’, which might invite objections of one kind or another, if they were put forward as ingredients of ‘goodness’. ‘Flourishing’ has perhaps some connotation of St Irenaeus’ famous saying, that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. A human being who has realised his or her potential, who is fulfilled in that: not just successful – not necessarily successful at all. Antony Jenkins of Barclays, another panel member, recalled that, when he was being questioned by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he was ticked off by Archbishop Justin for forgetting that Barclays was originally a Quaker company. Their values were derived from their Quaker Christian faith.

It’s just not the case that everyone will automatically agree on what is good and bad. There’s a famous instance in Herodotus’ Histories, written right back in the 5th century BC, [Book III.38.3f], where the Persian king Darius asks some Greeks how much he would need to pay them in order to persuade them to eat their fathers’ corpses when they died. They replied that would never do that, not at any price. After that, Darius summoned some Indians of a tribe called Callatiae, who did eat their fathers’ corpses, and asked them how much money it would take to persuade them to cremate their fathers’ corpses. They, the Callatiae, cried out in horror and told him not to say such awful things. Our perception of what it is to be good or bad has always been heavily influenced by our surroundings and our culture, what it is that we agree on to be a good thing.

However, these days we don’t very often go very deeply into what it is that makes something good or bad, what it is that makes us generally agree that something is good or bad: what the quality in the thing which is held out to be good or bad, what quality in that thing will make us decide that it is good or bad morally. But if we do think about it, it is that as Christians, just like the founders of Barclays Bank, we derive our justification, our perception that something or other is good or bad, from our Christian faith: from the 10 Commandments, from Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament.

There is of course a spectrum of opinion within Christianity concerning whether you can simply refer to what the Bible says, as being the Word of God, the literal Word of God, as being decisive in all moral questions, or whether you have to understand the Bible in the light of experience and scholarship.

For instance if we take another current moral conundrum, what to do about Syria, it seems fairly clear that, certainly in the Old Testament, in our Psalm and in our lesson from Job today, the use of force was regarded as being a perfectly legitimate way of settling differences between nations.

It seems odd, in the light of this, that the 10 Commandments quite clearly include the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. What has happened is that over time, scholars such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas have developed the doctrine of the ‘just war’. You not only need what’s in the Bible, but also scholarly interpretation in the light of experience.

Now we are here to worship at the time of our meeting, as members of the Prayer Book Society. We are celebrating and supporting the use of the Book of Common Prayer. How is it that the orders of service and words for worship which were composed by Cranmer, evolved in the century beginning after 1549 and turned into this little book, the Book of Common Prayer – how is it that these are still valid for use today, in the face of these contemporary moral issues?

What are we doing in worship? We are coming to God in prayer, to ask forgiveness for our sins, to thank God for the blessings which we have received, to praise God – just a minute: we are coming ‘ … to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.’ I think that those words, in the Prayer Book, really can’t be bettered as a neat and comprehensive statement of what we are doing in our services of daily prayer.

In this little Evensong service, expressed in the most beautiful words, we are bringing ourselves before God in the best way we know how. Cranmer’s words are full of meaning; they give us the widest scope in prayer. If we say or sing Mattins and Evensong each day, if we use the psalms and the lessons prescribed in the Prayer Book, we will read the whole Bible from end to end, and we will have before us each day powerful examples, in the Prayer Book, of Jesus’ teaching and the meaning of the divine revelation.

Look at Mary’s song, Magnificat, which is all about Jesus’ almost revolutionary message. ‘He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden … 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.’

What a strong message for the G8 Summit on Monday and Tuesday! Who is this message for? In the Magnificat, ‘He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel’, but in Nunc Dimittis also, ‘Thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’
Christianity is for everyone.

Back to those moral questions, for the good bank and for those who want to stop the killing in Syria, or who want the G8 nations to deal with world hunger and poverty. Where does goodness come from? What is the standard that we can rely on? As Christians, it comes from revelation, from the revelation that is the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty …’ Again, it’s there in the Prayer Book. That is the mystery in which we believe. That is what Christian morality is rooted in. God is not just an unmoved mover, the great creator, but He has revealed Himself personally to us in Jesus.

We can’t stay silent in the face of that great and wonderful truth. So we pray. We pray in the Prayer Book, in the way that Jesus taught us: ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, …’ In the Lord’s Prayer we glorify God; we pray for His kingdom; we pray for our physical needs – ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we pray for forgiveness for our sins and we pray for grace to forgive people who do things against us. We pray not to be put to the test, and we pray to be good – ‘deliver us from evil’.

In the set prayers, the collects, the state prayers for the Queen and for the Royal Family, the prayer for the clergy and people, all wrapped up together in the great prayer of St Chrysostom, the Prayer Book encompasses and puts into words all the other things that we will want to lay before God. These prayers are very inclusive. Anyone can say these prayers, and mean them. You don’t have to believe in particular types of theology in order to use the Prayer Book. An evangelical, charismatic, waving their arms about and chanting worship songs, can still use these words just as effectively as a learned chaplain in an Oxford college or a canon in one of the great cathedrals. This is truly common prayer.

It is liturgy. It is the ‘work of the people’, which is what liturgy, λειτουργία, means in Greek. The Prayer Book is still a practical guide, a powerful tool which gives us the best words to bring ourselves before God. ‘Give us that peace which the world cannot give’. That peace – that flourishing, even, as Archbishop Justin would put it.