Thursday, September 29, 2022

St Michael and All Angels

Collect of the Day

Everlasting God,

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.

Revelation 12.7–12

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!’

John 1.47–51

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.


Sunday, September 11, 2022

Sermon on the Sunday after the Death of Her Late Majesty the Queen

 What can I say about Her Late Majesty the Queen that has not already been said in 24 hour news-coverage and the saturated internet?  What superlatives can I employ which have not already been ascribed to her (more eloquently than I ever could) especially by those who knew her well?  

Whatever we think, for example, about our late Prime Minister, he can certainly craft a phrase!  In his tribute to the Queen, reflecting on the national sense of loss, he said that she was “a changeless human reference point in British life…so unvarying in her Pole Star radiance that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way, eternal.”

In a similarly eloquent phrase, our new Prime Minister described the Queen as “the rock on which modern Britain was built” and “the very spirit of Great Britain”.  The Leader of the Opposition described Her Late Majesty as “the heart of this nation’s life”.  He praised “her deep devotion to the country, the Commonwealth and the people she loved.  In return for that,” he said, “we loved her”.

From His Majesty the King, we have glimpsed a more personal perspective.  He spoke of her as “my beloved Mother” who, he said, was an inspiration and example to me and to all my family….Queen Elizabeth”, he went on, “was a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept, and she is mourned most deeply in her passing.”

But this speech of mine is billed as a Sermon, not so much a tribute.  So permit me to focus on another important aspect of the Late Queen’s character and life – specifically, her faith.  Allow me to do so, in her own words.

In her Christmas broadcast of 2017, she said this:

“Jesus Christ lived obscurely most of his life and never travelled far.  He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong.  And yet billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives.  I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love”.

I find that notion of ‘doing small things with great love’ utterly inspirational.  It is estimated that during her long reign, the Queen met directly some 3 million people (to say nothing of the billions who have glimpsed her over the years).  That is 3 million people who have had the privilege of shaking her hand, and exchanging a small (and always-interested word).  3 million small acts of great love from someone whose faith inspired her to a lifetime of duty and service.  This is of course to say nothing as well of the immeasurable number of letters, telegrams and condolences and sound advice which have flowed unceasing from the Queen’s desk, throughout her reign.  Paul Keating, the former Australian Prime Minister, put it so well when he said:

“The Queen understood and attached herself to the public good against what she recognised as a tidal wave of private interest and private reward - and she did it for a lifetime.”

The phrase “Jesus Christ: the man for others” is one ascribed to Jesus by theologians like Dietrich Bonhoffer and Paul Tillich.  It condenses, rather beautifully, the idea that Jesus lived only to serve humanity.  His entire life was poured out in the service of others – and this is the example which inspired the Queen.  And it inspired our new King to say that her “promise of lifetime service I renew to you all today”. 

I pray that, whatever our personal views about the institution of monarchy may be, we can all draw from the example of our Late Queen, and from the promise, made on Friday, by her heir the King.  We are ALL capable of performing ‘small acts with great love’ – to one another, to our neighbours, by our gifts of charity, and by living (as Christ modelled) for others. 

Let us imagine, for moment, a society in which ‘living for others’ was our primary driver, and primary goal.  Let us contemplate what our world would be like if private interest and private reward could be turned towards the benefit of others.  Can we imagine a world in which Dictators and grubby warlords no longer seek to possess the lands of others?  Can we imagine a world in which billionaires use their resources to benefit all humankind?  Can we imagine a world in which the swords of the nations are beaten into ploughshares to feed and heal the world?  On a more parochial level, can we imagine a world in which foodbanks were made unnecessary, and in which every homeless person had a warm bed.  Can we imagine a world in which every human being, of every nation, of every economic background, is valued and enabled to become all they can become as a loved child of God.  These concepts are at the heart of the Christian faith, the Hebrew Bible, and the faith of Her Late Majesty the Queen.  Let them be our guiding concepts too.

It is also worth reflecting for a moment on the great burden that our new King, Prime Minister and Government are forced to bear.  Just at the point in which a major economic intervention was required in our Nation’s life, the Queen’s death has inevitably placed much on hold.    This will undoubtedly cause worry and concern among the millions who find themselves in fuel poverty, and who are battling for higher wages to meet the challenges of rampant inflation.  We do well to hold our King, Prime Minister, Government and Parliament in our prayers as they navigate the difficulties of the economic challenges, while at the same time performing their duties to the Late Queen’s memory.

But, finally, as we mourn the passing of Her Late Majesty, and welcome the accession of the King, let us hold fast to the faith they both have professed, in Jesus Christ: the man for others.  And let us pray, in the opening line of the National Anthem we will sing at the end of the service, those prayerful and heartfelt words, “God save the King”.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Mary's birthday!

This was my first sermon after a period of 5 months off work with stress.

It’s Mary’s birthday!  This festival of the birth of the mother of our Lord is celebrated on this day in both the eastern and the western Churches. It’s a traditional feast, without any specific biblical reference to consider – but we can certainly infer that Mary must have been born!  So marking her traditional birthday as a significant moment in human history is certainly worth doing.  What, however, is its true significance?

Falling nine months after the feast of the Conception of Mary on December the 8th, this feast stands, as Andrew of Crete says, ‘on the boundary between the old and the new covenants and ushers in the new dispensation of grace. Today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe.’  Which is a rather theological statement!  So let me unpack it a little bit.

As you know, I’m sure, the bible is separated into two sections – commonly referred to as the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments.  Another word for ‘testament’ is ‘covenant’ – and this refers to the Covenants established by God with his people.  The ‘Old’ covenant can be thought of as the Covenant of Law.  Essentially, prior to the arrival of Jesus, God was believed to have set his Laws for humanity in motion.  To gain God’s favour, humanity was required to keep God’s laws.  The problem, however, is that time and again, humanity failed.  We are not capable of keeping all the Laws of God.  We are just too distracted by our own needs, dreams, and aspirations.  Time and again, we sin.  Our behaviour and choices cause separation between us the perfection of God, and prevent us from becoming all that we could become by ever closer union with God.

So, in response, God established a New Covenant, a New Testament, which we can think of as the Covenant of Grace.  Through Jesus, God frees us from the strict requirements of the Law, and offers us his graceful forgiveness and new life.  Now, we are able to find peace with God, and connection to God, not by our own efforts at keeping the Law, but because of God’s loving grace.

According to tradition, the moment when this New Covenant of Grace begins is the moment of Mary’s birth.  Her conception, nine months earlier, is another significant moment – but it is more of a moment of potential.  During her gestation, inside her own mother, Anne’s womb, Mary is not yet independent.  The day of Mary’s birth is the moment when she who will bear the Christ-child takes her first breath. Her independent life from her mother begins.  This is when, in the words of Andrew of Crete, ‘today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe’.

Mary’s birthday reminds us of something we sometimes overlook – the simple fact of her humanity.  She was one of us.  Conceived like one of us.  Born like one of us. She would make mistakes, just like us – such as time she accidentally left the boy Jesus in the Temple, without realising it for about a day!   Or the time when she, with her other sons and daughters, tried to interrupt Jesus’ ministry – no doubt out of fear of what would happen to him.  Mary is one of us.  Fragile, like us.  Not perfect, like us.  But she is also ‘full of Grace’ (as the Archangel describes her).  The Lord is with her.  Mary is a human being who has opened herself fully to God’s Covenant of Grace.  And in doing so, she obtains the privilege of bearing the creator of the universe into the human world.

What does this mean for us? 

As you all know, I’ve been off work for the past several months, due to stress.  Over the time I’ve had to study, and to pray, I’ve learned much about myself and about my own humanity.  I’ve had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy that I had 20 (or even 5) years ago.  I’ve had to come to terms with my humanity – and to the fact that like all of us, there are limits to what I can cope with.  It’s not been an easy lesson to learn.  When we are young, we believe that we can take on the world, don’t we?  We have the mental and physical energy to burn the candle at both ends, working from before dawn to after dusk to make a difference in our chosen profession.  We take pride in our accomplishments – for the campaigns we’ve led, and the difference we’ve made.  But pride comes before a fall. 

Mary, born like us, human like us, failed too.  But she also opened herself to God’s grace – to God’s healing and saving activity in the world.  She learned, and to an extent was taught, to ‘F.R.O.G.’ – that is, to ‘Fully Rely On God’.  She understood that God was intimately and personally engaged in the salvation of the world.  She learned to trust, to rely, on God’s plan for the future – not hers, not her husband’s, not her religious leader’s plans.  God’s plan. 

So, that’s the journey on which I am now embarking.  As I ease back into parish ministry, I intend to let go of some of many plates I’ve tried to spin in my own strength.  I plan to ‘let go, and to let God’ – as the old saying goes.  I want to be more watchful, more open, to the paths that God lays out before us, and to rely on Christ’s promise that he, not I, will build his church.  I want to embrace the Covenant of Grace first inaugurated at the birth of Mary.  And I hope you’ll accompany me on such an exciting journey.  Amen.