Monthly Archives: September 2019

Angels

September 29th is the feast of Michael and all Angels – a day to look into things beyond our experience and often understanding. That in itself is no bad thing! The idea that we know it all, or even all that matters (to us), is dangerous as well as arrogant.

The Bible does not tell us a great deal about angels. Michael appears in Daniel, Jude and Revelation as warrior. Gabriel, perhaps better known from the Christmas story, is also in Daniel. (The Apocrypha adds Raphael, with a major part in the book of Tobit, and Uriel in 2 Esdras). There are other un-named angels in the gospel story, visiting the shepherds near Bethlehem, and with Jesus in the wilderness and later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus mentions them many times – but never to say much directly about them. He assumes their presence in Heaven.

Perhaps that is what we need to know. Angels are largely beyond our experience and understanding. They remind us that there is a great deal we do not even begin to understand. But God is in charge, God the One, who is also Father, Son and Spirit.

That brings us to the letter to Hebrews, and the reading for Michael and all Angels – Hebrews 1:5-14. Hebrews is written to a community tempted to leave their new Christian faith and default to their Jewish roots. The comment on angels in chapter 1 speaks of them as “ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation”. It insists, with Old Testament quotations, that even these glorious creatures are far inferior to Jesus, who alone holds the greatest power.

Does that leave us humbled, by what we do not know? Does it perhaps remind us of the greatness of God’s Son, who exceeds in importance spiritual powers not subject to our limitations? Are we encouraged by the thought of forces beyond our vision fighting evil ? Or perhaps we simply wonder if this might be the beginning of an answer to the question, “What if we are not the only form of intelligence in the Universe?”. We can be thankful for Michael and all Angels, while we still admit the very limited understanding we have of angels and their doings.

Meta What?

What do you know about Post-Modernism? If your answer is nothing, or even not much, you are wrong. You may not know the name, but you know the attitudes, and their effects. Post-Modernism is the view that says everyone can have their own life, even their own truth. It is the force behind the demand for choice, and the philosophy behind the assertion that everything is relative. It claims that – in the jargon – there is no Meta-narrative. That is, there is no overall meaning; it is no use asking why things are as they are or why the happen as they do – they just are, and you make your own meaning.

This is presented as something new, but many parts of it have been around many times before. Remember Paul, visiting Athens in the first century, and finding all sorts of temples and altars (“take your pick”); or remember Jonah, when on the ship in the storm, and the captain wakes him up (Jonah 1:6) to pray to his god, in case that works better than any of the other “gods” the crew and other passengers pray to for relief from the dangerous storm.

You may realise that I am talking about 1Timothy 2. (1 Timothy 2:1-7 is the reading for Proper 20c, or this year the 14th Sunday after Trinity) Christians have a distinctive attitude. We respect other people and beliefs – not because all beliefs are equal, nor out of fear or inability to do anything about it. We respect all people because God made them, loves them, and wants them to be saved. We respect their beliefs, because God does not force anyone in this life, so we also must allow them freedom within the limits of harm to others.

Now look at 1 Timothy 2. Prayer is to be offered for everyone! Can’t we just be concerned with ourselves, or those like us? No. We serve a God who cares for all, and our care must reflect his. We pray for those in authority, depending on them, but more. Verse 5:

“there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

What this is saying, as a summary of the Christian gospel, is that there is a Meta-narrative – one overall purpose. God, by definition, is one. He is the supreme being. Yes, our world has lost sight of him, and given up trying to make sense of everything. In some ways Christians haven’t helped – they have sometimes contributed to oppression, sometimes just let it happen. Some of their explanations have not honoured God, but made him anything but loving and just. We live with the results, in a curious mixture.

Our faith says, v5: “there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

Our world says there is no right way, do your own thing. I suggest we do as we are told (but as we are told by a God who is just, and loving, and understands what we never will on earth). What are we to do? Live as God asks, praying for all around us, making clear that our choice is for Jesus, and there is both the possibility and welcome for others to do so too.

Worst of Sinners -?

We don’t like the word “sinner”, and we certainly tend to think that if we have a few stains on our conscience, there are plenty others much worse. But Paul has a surprise for us

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost. ( v15 in the reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17 )

WHAT? Of course, Saul had led the persecution of Christians, rooting them out and putting them in prison. But he doesn’t say “I was”, he says “I am”. Perhaps we have to think again about our status, and doubt that great sinners are so different from us!

Who has never ever said “I hate you!”; never driven too fast; never lied, been glad at someone else’s failure, caused trouble between friends, … we don’t like recognising evil in us; but that doesn’t take it away

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost.

But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

Don’t imagine that you escape the label of “sinner”,
but don’t despair either. God is concerned about sinners, given the chance, he goes looking for them, brings them home, sorts them out –
and does it all very gently and patiently.

That’s why he has given us examples of those who found his love;
that’s why we are told about how concerned he is
not with the good, but with the outsider

You may know people in pain or difficulty, perhaps pray for them. Don’t forget those who may have caused the pain or difficulty. God cares – for all his children. Even the worst! There’s hope for everybody, if they want to take it.

And that’s why Paul pauses for a short hooray. Well, to be exact

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God is good, with a goodness not overcome by terrorism, or any other form of sin, including yours and mine.
we celebrate that goodness (not our own)
and have the responsibility to take advantage, and to announce:
“ The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Freedom, for beginners

What can a story from a time when slavery was legal teach us about freedom? Well, perhaps we should read the letter to Philemon!

A slave escaped from his owner, possibly stealing in the process, and headed for the bright lights, and anonymity, of the big city. There, somehow, he met a Christian – Paul. And during, and despite, Paul’s imprisonment, the slave became a Christian, and one Paul valued for his help. There’s a pun (you’d expect me to pick it up!). The slave’s name was Onesimus – ”useful”.

That’s wonderful! We can always celebrate when someone finds faith and new life. But Paul can’t and won’t keep someone else’s slave, even if he belongs to an old friend. So Onesimus must go back, knowing that his master could have him executed for escaping, wondering if he will pause long enough to read this letter before losing his temper.

Paul’s letter really works hard, explaining how the useless runaway has become very useful; offering to repay anything that was taken (but hinting heavily that Philemon really owes Paul everything); making it very clear that he would like Onesimus sent back to help Paul in his work, but saying that he can’t tell Philemon what to do (though his voluntary action would be a credit to him …).

No doubt the first readers knew what happened next – and we don’t. As time went on, the letter might have been lost as irrelevant, dealing only with people long dead. I wonder if it was kept and valued for what is said of Christian freedom? It would be many years before Christians would lead the fight against legalised slavery – a proper and important fight, but not the most important.

Paul is telling us that Onesimus found his freedom with his faith. He would remind us elsewhere that life could be lived (for everybody) as slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness – but that it had to be one or the other, there was no “independence”. We need to hear that. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme, thinking we owe nothing to anybody – which is not true!

But also many Christians today will say “If things were different, I could do more about my faith” –

  • if I was free
  • if I didn’t have such a demanding job
  • if my family responsibilities were less
  • if I had better health, was younger, more talented …

We need to understand that faith makes us free to do what is right: to be a Christian at work, or at home,
or, as a Christian, to change our priorities, lifestyle, and use of time.

Yes, Paul will advise slaves who have the chance, to obtain their freedom, but as something less important than their eternal freedom from the power of evil. Onesimus, travelling back to his master, is already free – so much so that we are not told if he was ever formally relieved of his slave status.