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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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‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019 

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.’