Collect of the Day
you have ordained and constituted
the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’
47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
There’s something wonderful about preaching here at St Faith’s which most people in the pews rarely notice. While I speak to you, my eyes are often drawn to the great windows at the West End – in which we find images of the angels Michael and Gabriel. Look behind you – and you’ll see what I mean.
They have a bit of a salutary effect on me. Angels, after all, are messengers of God. That’s what the word ‘angel’ means – ‘messenger’. According to the stories of the Bible, their function is to act as an intermediary between God and humanity. They are sent with instructions or warnings from God. And their whole being is bent towards communicating faithfully God’s will to humanity. So, as I preach, and I gaze upon the stern faces of Michael and Gabriel – it reminds me to be faithful to that task as well. I am warned and encouraged to be a faithful messenger of God as well!
The other function of angels, according to Scripture, is to act as God’s warriors in the heavenly realms – battling against the forces of evil. Michael, is pictured as the General of the heavenly armies – and as we just heard from the book of Revelation, it was Michael and his army of angels who cast the Devil down to earth.
Angels are a rather mysterious thing. They entered fairly late into Christian theology. I recently enjoyed the theological debate of the movie ‘The Two Popes’, which explores the different theologies of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, by putting them into dialogue with each other. In one rather amusing scene, Francis reminds Benedict (the great traditionalist) that angels didn’t really feature at all in the early church. They only came to the fore in the fifth century after Christ. “And now,” says Francis, “they are suddenly all around us, like pigeons”! According to history, a basilica near Rome was dedicated in the fifth century in honour of Michael on 30 September, beginning with celebrations on the eve of that day, and so the 29 September is now kept in honour of Michael throughout the western Church.
The notion of a guardian angel has gained some traction in recent years. It’s not altogether clear where the idea comes from. It may be linked to the Gospel story of God sending an angel to comfort Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. According to the book of Revelation, churches are assigned a guardian angel too. When, in Revelation, Jesus writes to seven churches with words of encouragement and warning, he addresses the letters to the angel of each church. The idea of a guardian angel also be attributed to Islam. Many Muslims believe that they have two guardian angels – one in front, and one behind them. Then they have two further angels on their right and on their left whose task is to record a person’s good deeds, and bad deeds, ready for the final judgment.
Personally, I’m not so sure about the idea of guardian angels. I don’t think it has any warrant in Scripture. God sends an angel to comfort Jesus in the garden, but only for a specific and pivotal moment. And if there really are guardian angels, protecting us from accidents and misfortune in life, then (judging by the number of accidents which happen to us all) they don’t seem to be very good at it!
One rather fanciful idea which has also gained traction in recent year is the notion that our loved ones become angels when they die. This idea, I have to say, has no basis in Scripture. Angels, according to the Bible’s accounts, are an entirely separate creation to human beings. They have a specific function – either as messengers or warriors for God in the heavenly realm. But angels are separate to human beings, in the divine order. They live directly in the presence of God. The story of Lucifer’s rebellion indicates that, like us, they also have free will. But angels are not human beings, and human beings don’t become angels.
You see, God values and loves us for who we are. God wants us to grow to become all that we can be as human beings, with all our humanity intact, the same humanity he inhabited as Jesus Christ. But there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that God wants to convert us into angels. A cow does not become a horse. A dog does not become a cat. And humans do not become angels. To do so would rob us of our humanity – something so precious that Christ died to save it. It would be to suggest that the glorious future we are offered, of being saved, loved, and drawn ever upwards into Christ is not, somehow, sufficient for humanity. So, my friends, be cautious of believing that your loved one, who has gone before, has somehow been changed into an angel. They have not. They are still the human being you knew and loved…except that they now, together with the angels, dwell in the eternal light of God.
So, in summary, there’s a lot of myth and story-telling around the whole idea of angels. The Bible doesn’t really offer us much in the way of concrete theology about them – the Bible writers simply accept angels as a reality which sometimes breaks into our reality. Take, for example, the writer to the Hebrews, who warns us all to be hospitable, because we may find ourselves entertaining angels.
But whatever angels might be, and however they relate to human beings, the stories about them can serve to inspire us. They dwell in the presence of God, eternally praising and worshipping our Creator and Redeemer. Let us also never cease to offer God the praise and worship he deserves. Angels are faithful messengers of God – and we are called to be faithful witnesses and carriers of Good News too. They are warriors for God, and we too are called to ‘fight the good fight with all our might’. So, whatever our suspicions about the myths of angels might be (and I have many such suspicions!) let us at least leave here today emboldened by their example. Let us commit ourselves anew to being people whose lives are poured out in worship, faithfulness and the courage to fight for the Kingdom of God.