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Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

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Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.

Sermon for Mattins on Trinity Sunday 2014
Isaiah 6:1-8, Mark 1:1-11

Today is Trinity Sunday. We commemorate the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you turn to page 27 in your little blue Prayer Books [Book of Common Prayer], you will see that there is a rubric which tells you when the words which follow can be used. That includes Trinity Sunday. So instead of what we did chant, the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth … and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, ….’ and then, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost …’, instead of that, we could have said the Creed of St Athanasius, called ‘Quicunque Vult’, Latin for ‘Whoever wants’, that is, whoever wants to be saved; this is what they must believe, if they are to be fit for salvation at the day of judgment.

If you read it afterwards at home, you’ll see that this Creed really goes into the question who God is, and what He is. This all comes from the revelation of Jesus: that Jesus appeared on earth, as a human being.

‘Day by day like us He grew.
He was little,weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us He knew.’
[Mrs C.F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s City, Common Praise, hymn 66]

But He did more than a normal human being could possibly have done. Specifically, of course, He did miracles. And the biggest miracle of all, He was resurrected from the dead. So whatever else you might say, He wasn’t exactly like other men.

‘Thou art my beloved Son’ [Mark 1:11]

Then, when Jesus had ascended, after His wonderful life and death and resurrection, at Pentecost, last Sunday, Whit Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples. They realised that God still cared for them. Their Lord was still there. His Spirit is with us.

So when we think of God, the Christian way to do it is to think of the three ‘persons’ of God, as they’re called: the father, the creator; the son, and the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’ we sing in the hymn [Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Common Praise, hymn 202], but what does it really mean? It’s a slightly odd way of thinking about our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Normally we approach those sacred mysteries one by one, and especially through thinking about Jesus Himself and studying the Gospels, His life and teaching here on earth.

The voice from heaven said, Thou art my beloved Son’. So if we accept that this was the voice of God, He said he had a Son. Somehow related to, or representative of, that god, but in the form of a human being. God is not just the Creator.

But then, perhaps those two, Father and Son, are no longer visible: but surely, we are still able to discern lots of greater or lesser occasions when it becomes apparent in various ways that God is still at work here among us. That is the third face of God, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

If there hadn’t been Jesus Christ, or if we hadn’t accepted that He was more than just a prophet or a great teacher, and if we had not recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit, then one would be left with worshipping God as Creator, but not knowing whether He was still actively involved with us; whether He cared for us, or whether in fact God had simply wound up the mechanism of life and set it going: and then gone on to look at other things.

(Incidentally that is roughly where the Jewish and Moslem religions are. They recognise the life of Jesus and they acknowledge Him to have been a great prophet: but nothing more.)

But we know that He did things that would normally be completely impossible, culminating in His glorious death and resurrection. Resurrection from the dead. So Jesus has god-like powers. He isn’t just a great preacher. He really had power to heal, in fact even to raise people from the dead; and when He Himself died, power to be resurrected, three days later. We read they heard the voice of God, saying, Thou art my beloved Son’.

The early church had big debates about how to understand the true nature of God and of His Son. One of the early fathers, Arius, decided that in fact, God was not just God in three persons, but that there were effectively three gods: father, son and Holy Spirit were all gods independent of each other. But if that were true, our understanding of God would be very odd indeed. If the father created the son in the normal way, and if the father and the son together created the Holy Spirit, then who created the creators?

Is it true, or would it be true under that arrangement, that Jesus was divine? It’s a very difficult thing to hold in our heads. ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ There is a distinction made, in all the early theology, between ‘persons’ and ‘substance’. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply. A person is who we are: a substance is what we are. Thomas wrote:

‘We can say the Father is another who from the Son, but not another what.’ You can say God is one ‘what’ but not one ‘who’. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol 6, 31-2] The answer to the question ‘who?’ can give you three separate persons within the divine nature, within the Godhead, within the ‘Godness’.

You have in the Nicene Creed, which we say in the communion service, a reflection of this. Did the Holy Spirit come from the father or from the father and the son – and if the latter, was there some kind of family tree, so that the father created the son and the son created the Holy Spirit, so that the son and Holy Spirit were not really God? So that was the controversy. The Council of Nicaea, 325AD, decided that the right answer was that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded from the father and the son. Who with the father and the son together is worshipped and glorified’ [Nicene Creed].

That corresponds with what the Athanasian Creed says (at the beginning of the Prayer Book, on page 27). ‘But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one…. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.

(Not completely impossible to understand, but impossible for us to understand every bit of it.) It goes on:

‘So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

… He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.’

The key thing in this whole area is how to think correctly about Jesus. ‘It is necessary to everlasting salvation: that [you] believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read this part of the Athanasian Creed (on page 29), it sets it all out:

‘… Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: …
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ.’

So that is the Trinity: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.