Archives for posts with tag: truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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