Sermons & services

A sermon for Michaelmas

Published Monday 28th Sept. 2020, at 9:13 a.m.

I shouldn’t really be surprised, but it really is amazing how much the people of our nation have forgotten their Christian roots, their Christian heritage, their Christian language, their Christian beliefs. Today we live in a post-Christian world where possibly the majority of people in the UK have very little idea about the fundamentals of Christian belief. Which is why clergy often run into a problem when someone suffers a bereavement. It’s not unusual nowadays to hear, when someone has died, loved ones talk about how the dead person is now one of the angels in heaven. As a priest you hear this quite a lot. And it’s tricky, because, on the one hand, you want to be pastorally sensitive to someone who is grieving. But at the same time there is gnawing temptation to correct people who are saying something about the Christian faith which is just simply, well, just wrong. When human beings die, they don’t become angels. Why? Well, because angels are angels, and humans are humans. They are just different. Angels are pure spirit: part of the invisible creation we proclaim our belief in when we recite the Creed. We believe in all things visible and invisible. Spirit is what they are: angels, as St Augustine pointed out, is what they do: the word angel means messenger or servant of God. We are not angels: I know this because my mother would never cease to remind me and tell other people of the fact! He’s no angel!! There are, though, similarities. Angels and humans have free will. It’s long been a part of the church’s teaching that Satan was once a good angel but one who used his free will to reject God and his love. The devil has “sinned from the beginning"; he is "a liar and the father of lies", as St John reminds us in his first letter. But the main point I wish to make is that for centuries, belief in angels stemmed from belief in the supernatural. And one of the things that has characterised Christianity in the last half a century – and this might sound a bit odd – is our rejection of the supernatural. Like many people of a certain generation, I grew up in an age of faith and my natural life was saturated with the supernatural. I lived in a world of saints, and angels, and miracles. For many people, 21st-century Christianity has become an earthbound religion. We are to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted. We are to fight for social justice, locally and globally. We are to see the health of this planet and its creatures as a prime responsibility of care. And this is all right and good. But for decades now, many theologians have downplayed the importance of the supernatural and the devotional life that springs from that. Sometimes, they have even ruled out the possibility of divine intervention in people’s lives. And that’s where I have an issue. After all, ours is a religion that was founded by a man who cast out demons, miraculously healed the sick, rose from the dead, and appeared to his followers after his death and then ascended into another realm of being beyond the visible and natural: it was super-natural. Jesus believed in the world of angels – as we heard in today’s Gospel – and prayed to his heavenly father. He believed in an existence after death. This is the core of our Christian faith: we believe in one God who exists above and beyond the created world. There is a gulf between his perfection and our imperfection, his infinity and our finitude. And this God created us to share in this earthly existence – with all its joys and sorrows – with the promise of a share in his existence for eternity: sharing in the divine life, as St Peter puts it. And this divine God intervenes in human life. The supernatural bursts through into the natural. It’s what the scriptures tell us over and over again. It’s what the story of Exodus tells us and, of course, finds its ultimate expression in the coming of Jesus: that the supernatural world breaks into the natural and changes it. Or, rather, restores it to what God originally intended. So this is today’s big question on the Feast of St Michael and All the Angels: do we believe in the supernatural? Or are our eyes firmly fixed on the earthly? Do we believe that there is an existence after death? That there are creatures of pure spirit called angels? That the supernatural can change the natural? That we can be changed? I bumped into a guy in a park last week who told me how he’d once been an alcoholic who’d hit rock bottom. Then one day he was sat in my old church – St Luke’s in Shepherd’s Bush – when his life changed forever. He felt the presence of God break into his existence, taking away the need and the desire for alcohol, and giving him an experience of peace he had never known before. That was ten years ago, and he’s not touched a drop since. Another guy came into St James this week with a similar story of divine intervention in his life when he felt the intense, personal, presence of the God who is Love. His story reminded me of the film, American Beauty when one of the characters says: That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. That’s God, breaking into human lives. Coincidence, my non-believing friends would tell me. Just one of those things. Maybe. Maybe not. The Christian church is filled with people whose lives were changed forever by the supernatural breaking into the natural. Last week, we celebrated St Matthew: the tax collector who encountered Jesus and whose life was changed forever. Then we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham: the story of a Saxon noblewoman who was given a vision of the house in Nazareth where Jesus grew up and was moved to build a shrine that became one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in England. The church is filled with saints – ordinary men and women just like me and you – who are testament to God’s supernatural intervention changing lives in ways that I think are inexplicable without a belief in the divine. Without a belief in the supernatural. Amen.