All posts by Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 20

Servanthood – Rev’d Christopher Miles

 Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – 17th October 2021

Isaiah 53 vv 4 – end    The suffering servant

Mark 10 vv 35 – 45    Challenge to Christlike service

  1. Introduction.         A senior government official was being driven home from an important visit to a foreign country.  Passing through an area of many square miles of desert, he was surprised to see a lone man by the side of the road.  He ordered his driver to stop.  He offered the man a lift, which the man readily accepted.   The man, named Philip, recognised the book that the Official was reading and asked him if he understood what he was reading.   The Official responded, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”   The book was that of the prophet Isaiah.   The passage, our first reading this morning.   Philip explained that ‘The Servant’ is Jesus of Nazareth, who had recently been executed in Jerusalem, either shortly before or during the Official’s visit to Jerusalem, that this was all part of God’s plan of salvation. The Official gave orders for the chariot to stop at an oasis and Philip baptises him (Acts 8 vv 26 – 39).   The Book of Isaiah contains four servant passages or ‘songs’, perhaps more appropriately poetic verses, of which today’s reading is the major part of the fourth climactic servant passage.   Thus, we have the clear authority of the New Testament for seeing Jesus as the one who fulfilled the poetic prophesy of Isaiah.   Let’s then relate today’s Old Testament reading to our gospel reading today.

In Isaiah we see the contrast between ourselves, the straying sheep and Jesus as the suffering servant who achieves sublime salvation for the straying sheep.   The whole concept runs counter to that of other religions and philosophies.

  1. Straying Sheep.     Soon after my parents obtained the tenancy of a small farm in 1943, they bought a flock of about 50 sheep.   Petrol was rationed, it was difficult to get a transporter so we drove them the 3 miles, from the farm of purchase to our farm.  We had no sheepdog.  The sheep were exploring new territory.  Frequently one would try to get through a hedge into a field beside the road.  On my bicycle I, aged 8, acted as a sheepdog to keep a stray sheep on track along the road.   Sheep have been domesticated and farmed over several thousand years and are common to many countries of the world.   It is easier in the fenced fields of much of England to keep sheep from straying, albeit not so easy on the Yorkshire moors or the Lake District Fells.  It is not only sheep that stray but human beings who stray from God’s plan for humanity, as revealed fully in the Christian Scriptures and not so completely in other religions.   As Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each has turned to his own way” (53 v 6).   The theme of this phrase is taken up in the Book of Common Prayer, General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer in the opening words, “Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”   In our Gospel today, we find James and John seeking power and glory in the soon-to-be re-established Kingdom of God.  Probably James, the elder brother, wanted to be Deputy Prime Minister and John, Chancellor of the Exchequer.   One only has to read a national daily newspaper, watch a news programme on TV or listen on the radio to be aware of the straying of humanity, the sin in the world.  Any theology, ideology, system of government and criminal justice must reckon with sin, at least in its effect on other people.    How do we counter it?   By more laws, more police, more education or what?   Sin though is more than an offence against one’s neighbour.  It is an offence against God, breaking our fellowship with God.  Just as the poor and marginalised need help to achieve better standard of living so we all need the help of God, rather than judgement and condemnation, in the salvation of our souls.  How do we bring people into harmony with God’s plan?

The Suffering Servant.   The suffering servant is introduced initially outside the context of our sin.   He is described as having ‘no beauty or majesty to attract us to him’, ‘as being despised and rejected by others’, and ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’ (53 vv 2, 3).   Isaiah goes on to say, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (53 v 5).   James and John, the sons of Zebedee, seem not to have taken in a few weeks before, Jesus talk to the twelve about the fact and the manner of his own death in Jerusalem, that he must undergo great suffering (Mk 8 vv 31 – 33).   Nor had they taken in, following their presence with Peter, at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mk 9 vv 2 – 8), when he discussed with Moses and Elijah, the import of the manner of his departure from this life (Lk 9 v 31).

Sublime salvation.    Isaiah goes on to link his description of the Suffering Servant with our sin in the well-known verse, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (53 v 6).   Sublime salvation!   Let’s use a simple illustration.  Let this book represent my sin, my left hand, represent me, and my right hand, represent Jesus.  My sin is a barrier between me and God.   God has taken my sin and placed it on Jesus.  Now there is no barrier between me and God.   This of course is not the whole story, for if my sin has marred my relationship with my neighbour, with any person, there needs to be reconciliation there, in the form of an apology and as far as possible a full re-establishment of a good relationship.   Often public apologies take the form of, “If my words have caused any offence, then I apologise.”  Usually, the apology has been made because clearly what the person said did cause offence.  The inclusion of the word, ‘if’ is not only redundant but it tends to carry with it that the person’s statement was, in his or her eyes, right and true and therefore that the person offended is actually being oversensitive.   There are times when something needs to be said which will almost inevitably cause offence.  Jesus never said to the religious leaders of his day, anything like “If what I said caused you offence then I apologise.” 

Christian salvation is fundamentally different to that of other religions.  In other religions the path to Paradise, Nirvana or Heaven is achieved by a person’s own efforts.  Christian salvation is through acceptance of what Christ has done for us.  Our good works follow, out of love for Christ, our love for God, rather than love for ourselves in our own spiritual progress.

  1. Service.       Jesus makes clear not only to James and John but to the other 10 of his immediate disciples and more widely, all his followers, including ourselves, that the outcome of this sublime salvation.  The conclusion of James and John’s request is, in the words of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to be first among you, must be the slave of all.  For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10 v 45).   We call those who hold senior positions in government or those who exercise leadership in the Church, ‘ministers’, to convey the concept of service that should be embedded in such posts and positions.   The suffering servant offers to the straying sheep, sublime salvation.  This sermon explores but one main theme of the passion of Christ, theologically known as ‘substitutionary atonement’.  I conclude with the collect from Common Worship Morning Prayer for Friday as encompassing a wider view of Jesus’ passion.

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son,

out of love for the world:

lead us, so to ponder the mysteries of his passion,

that we may know eternal peace

through the shedding of the blood of our Saviour,

Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Sermon – Trinity 17

Co-operation – 26th September 2021 (Trinity 17)

Readings:  James 5 vv 13 – End   Prayer of faith Mark 9 vv 38 – End  Those not against us are for us.  Causing to sin

  1. Introduction.         “I tell you mate if you are not going to join our gang, you’ll be one of the enemy.  You’ll need to watch out.”    This is the sort of conversation you might expect amongst the young men involved in some of our urban gangs.  But it is not far removed from the disciples’ response to an exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name, as the Apostle John reported it in today’s gospel reading, when he says, “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”   This leads on to Jesus’ teaching about co-operation with other disciples.  In our Epistle, James teaches us about co-operation with God.  Our co-operation with God and our co-operation with people and for that matter the whole of creation are linked.
  2. Co-operation with God.   Firstly, co-operation with God.   James has several things to say about prayer.   The foundation of prayer is our relationship with God.  As Paul said two or three weeks ago, intercessory prayer is not trying to twist the arm of a loving God, but rather aligning ourselves with God’s will.  As Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done”.    I suggest that this is one of the reasons why James says that the sick person should call for the elders to pray for him.  Two people can be better than one, in some circumstances, in discerning the will of God.   James also speaks of singing songs of praise.  The whole of our service this morning is in principle aligning ourselves with God.  Our Sunday worship together, should help us to pray and live more effectively during the week. 
  3. Co-operation with Creation.      Secondly, co-operation with creation.  James gives us the example of a man of faith who knew how to pray in line with God’s will.  He gives us quite an extreme example of Elijah praying for a drought, which lasted for 3½ years and then praying for rain for the crops to grow again.  His prayers were answered.  Can we pray for appropriate weather?   I recall an occasion when I was at theological college in Oxford and attached to three country parishes in my first year of training.   One Sunday afternoon before I conducted evensong in one of the parishes, the Vicar rang and asked me to include a prayer for the farms, as we had experienced a very wet April, with rain nearly every day and the farmers were anxious about their spring crops becoming waterlogged.  As a farmer’s son I sympathised with their predicament.  I duly included a prayer for a period of dry weather.  I recall coming out of Church and it was gently drizzling and I thought, “Oh dear, is our prayer going to result in fine weather or not!”  From the next day, there was no rain for 6 weeks and the waterlogged ground was able to recover.   More recently Julia and I were due to attend a service of thanksgiving at Trottiscliffe, one of my previous parishes, for a thanksgiving service of a well-known member of the Church and farming community.  Trottiscliffe Church has pews to seat 65 people, so it was planned to relay the service to the churchyard.  The forecast was for an overcast day with showers.  I thought it right when Julia and I had our breakfast prayer to pray for a dry period for the service. We were sitting outside in the churchyard ready for the service to start at 1.30 p. m. and it was very gently raining until exactly 1.30 p. m. when the rain completely stopped, until about 6 p.m.  We thanked God for the dry periods.  Addition – we prayed for a fine period for the post service coffee at Follyfoot on 3rd October.   There is a danger though that we regard rain as ‘bad weather’ and sunny, dry, weather as ‘good weather’.  We need a combination of rain and dry weather, sunshine and clouds, calm and wind.  All are good, all are part of God’s creation, in which he continues with an active role, not as a clockmaker, who has built the clock of the universe and set it running in a rigid regular way.  I am sure we all have examples both of prayer answered in the way we had hoped and prayer answered in other ways.  We don’t always by any means discern God’s will accurately.  Let us though continue to try to align ourselves with the will of God, saying, ‘Your will be done’.
  4. Co-operation with people.      We have thought about co-operation with God and co-operation with creation.  Now let’s think about co-operation with people.  This is where Jesus’ views and that of the 12 differed radically.   John reported to Jesus that they had seen a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name and they had told the man to stop because the man was not one of them. Jesus’ response was “Do not stop him”.  Despite this, if one looks at the history of the Church we see huge conflict between different sections of the Church, sometimes because the Church was too politically involved and identified with one political strand.  One thinks of Bishops Ridley and Latimer, protestant bishops of the Anglican Church, being burnt at the stake in the reign of the Catholic monarch, Queen Mary.  John Bunyan, the free church preacher and writer was imprisoned for many years in Bedford town jail.  Much of the emigration to America in the 17th and 18th Century arose from the Anglican Church in this country seeking to enforce its rigid worship on everyone and similar action on the European continent.   Thank God for the 1910 Edinburgh missionary conference which began to end conflict between denominations and ‘sheep stealing’ in the mission fields.  The modern ecumenical movement has done much to reduce conflict between Christian denominations and to encourage a real desire to recognise Christians in other denominations as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  I believe that it matters not too much that there is a variety of denominations.  To believe in the ‘catholic’ church, catholic meaning ‘universal’, is to recognise the essential unity we have in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

How far though can we go in co-operating with other religions?   Whist holding firm to the essentials of the Christian faith as expressed in the creeds, we can recognise the good aspects of other religions and on a personal level work with people of a variety of faiths and beliefs.   I read in the Church Times that the family of a dying, already unconscious, woman in St Thomas’ Hospital, was unable to get an Imam to come and pray with her and said, “Please would anyone pray with her.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was on duty there as a Chaplain, knelt by the bed and prayed for her.  He said, “There was such a beautiful sense of the presence of God, of the love of God, it was such a profound moment.”   In my role as a Regional Chaplain of the London and South East Region of the Air Training Corps, I agreed to take on a new commitment as the Corps’ multifaith coordinator. As such I was responsible for the appointment of a Hindu Chaplain as an adviser in our Region and as a Chaplain to Middlesex Wing, particularly to minister to the many Hindu cadets within the squadrons of that Wing.  At a Wing parade I would say a couple of prayers and invite him to say a Hindu prayer.  However, when it came to our annual service for London and South East region, held in the RAF Church, St. Clement Danes Church in London, that service was entirely Christian in a Christian Church.

As a lightning protection consultant, I work with people all over the world and generally do not know what their religion or lack of it is.  I am very happy to work with people who have a concern for practical application of the truth, as expressed in scientific principles. However, when one of our members died, I was happy to accept the invitation of our Italian Chairman, a Roman Catholic, to say a Christian prayer of remembrance of the member who had died.

What limits should we place in the ordinary things of everyday life?  Paul in his second letter to the Church at Corinth says that Christians should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.  This has been interpreted in the context of marriage and even, within a strand of the Brethren, of business partnership.  The context of Paul’s injunction is however primarily about the general social relationships in a city of much idolatry and sexual immorality.  The principle seems to me that one should avoid relationships which may undermine one’s faith and the purpose of one’s activities.  Generally, there is not the same stark contrast in modern society, albeit there may be in some places.   In marriage it is important to have a common philosophy with a good understanding between husband and wife about acquisition and use of money, of the desire or not to have children, a good understanding about roles. Sometimes cultural differences can create tensions.  For both parties to have a strong Christian faith can be a great basis for marriage.  I have though known good marriages where this is not so.  In W London, a parish clergyman, who was one of our ATC chaplains, was married to a Hindu wife. It probably helped him in his ministry in a strongly Hindu parish.    Thinking of other areas of life, one can be keen on action to minimise climate change, but not wish to associate with some forms of demonstration to bring about needful change.

  • Conclusion. In conclusion, may our lives be so rooted in Christ that we can be guided in prayer and discern how we can best reach out to and co-operate with other people of other denominations, other faiths and other races and cultures, according to God’s will.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 13

Hand Washing – 29th August 2021

James 1: 17 – End   Listening and doing; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14, 15, 21 – 23  True cleanliness

  1. Introduction.          How many times a day do you wash your hands?   For myself, I haven’t tried counting but it must be at least a dozen times and perhaps a lot more not to mention the use of sanitizing gel.  When I was at a boarding school, in the junior house we had to line up on the way to a meal and pass Matron, showing both sides of our hands to show that our hands were clean.   I guess I am one of only a few people here present who has done an NHS hand washing course with its practical test at the end.  As a hospital chaplain I had a personal clip-on sanitiser, so that after visiting patient, if we had shaken hands, I could readily disinfect my hands before going to another patient.  Perhaps we have some sympathy with the Pharisees’ remonstration with Jesus, that his disciples were not washing their hands before eating!   Sometimes I get a little annoyed with a person when I ask a question and the person’s answer is to a different question to the one I asked.  It may seem to you, that Jesus even deliberately ignores the Pharisees’ question, apart from a reference to cleanliness and in response asks them a question.   If either of these points resonates with you then this sermon is for you as we look more deeply at today’s Gospel and at the end briefly tie it in with to today’s Epistle.

2. Pharisees’ question.         As Jesus points out, the Pharisees’ question is not directly based on the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, for us, the Old Testament.  Rather it is based on the interpretation, known as the Talmud, originating from the time of the priest and prophet Ezra of the 6th Century BC and continuing perhaps 200 years or more into the present era, comprising both written interpretation, known as the Mishnah, and the oral tradition, known as the Midrash.  Mark as the gospel writer also expands on the Jewish practice at that time.  The practice of hand washing, washing of food bought in the market and washing of cooking and eating vessels was all good and accords with what is common practice today by many of us, especially in this Covid pandemic.

3. Old Testament.      Without even going into the interpretations in the Talmud, it is worthy of mention that there is much in the Old Testament about washing including especially washing of hands and feet. Many of the references are to the required practice of the priests that they should not enter into the Tabernacle or Temple without washing their hands and feet, in order to appear clean in the presence of God.   The general thrust of this is therefore ceremonial rather than that of hygienic practices by the general population.  Thus, as Mark states, the interpretation in the Talmud was seen in ceremonial terms.

4. Jesus’ response.  Now let’s consider Jesus’ response.  First let us remember that Jesus was an itinerant preacher, saying on another occasion, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8 v 20).  We are very accustomed to our houses and flats, all with running water.  However, in my younger years, I lived in two villages with no running water.  In one, in Rutland, we lived in a cottage, dependent on a hand operated pump outside the house.  There was no bath or hand wash basin, just a sink where we washed up and washed ourselves.  In another village, in East Sussex, we had a piped water system in the bungalow, dependent on the rainwater collected from the roof into an underground tank and then pumped by a hand-operated semi-rotary pump, into the roof tank.  I am sure that as a boy I did not wash my hands 12 times a day!  Jesus and his disciples had even less provision, perhaps eating a meal outside, a mile from a well.   I can well understand that Jesus and his disciples didn’t always wash their hands before eating

Secondly, remember that Jesus said in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them”.  Jesus had been brought up in a good Jewish family, obedient to the requirements of the law, as seen in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel.  He was often challenged about healing people on the Sabbath.  He went deeper than the written law, to the principles underlying the law.  He knew that in particular, the Pharisees, the strictest law-abiding Jews, were often out to trap him.

On this occasion Jesus holds on to the principle of ceremonial cleanness, that is, what is pleasing to God, and challenges the Pharisees on the grounds of fundamental unholiness, of the breaking of the commandments.  He is not denying that hand washing is a good thing but that it is not the basis of establishing a right relationship with God and in that respect, it is quite trivial in comparison to the major moral aspects of the law, in particular the ten commandments, which we have writ large on the E wall of the chancel.

If you wish understand the full thrust of Jesus’ teaching, then sometime this week read the whole gospel passage from Mark 7 v 1 through to v 23.  As you can see in the Sunday newssheet, today’s reading, is as one commentator has put it, ‘rather like a shrink-wrapped supermarket fish’, with its simplified selection of verses.

5. Application.           How do we apply today Jesus’ teaching in his response to the Pharisees’ challenge?   We should not neglect good hygiene, using sanitisers, washing our hands, having Covid vaccinations.  We should do these things so that as far as possible we remain in good health and therefore are not a burden on other people and also, out of concern for one another that we are not passing on infection to others.   What we are doing is living out the second commandment of Jesus summary of the law, ‘loving our neighbours as ourselves’.  We need to see that all people are made in the image of God, whatever the colour, race or religion of the other person.  Our relationship with God should motivate our relationship with one another, and I believe to a large extent it does.  But as we look out at the worldwide scene, we see in so many countries that this is not so.  There are personal and corporate struggles for power, there is little concern for those who ‘get in the way’, in that struggle.  We are particularly concerned at present about the desperate situation in Afghanistan, where those who sought a new freedom and way of life, now live in fear of their lives.  

Let us not be quick to condemn the legalism of the Pharisees or even the Orthodox code of living of Jews today.  We live in this country, as in most countries, circumscribed by a mass of law, regulation, codes of practice and formal guidance.  We live in a complex technological age with huge populations.  As someone involved in writing of international standards, in my case, relating to lightning protection, I am conscious that I am contributing to that mass of requirements.  I try to do it bearing in mind a concern for the safety and wellbeing of people, both directly from the effect of lightning strikes and indirectly in care of the buildings in which people live and work or are served by, with a particular responsibility for churches.

I said at the beginning of this sermon, that I would refer briefly to today’s epistle, from the epistle of James, whom I said in my sermon in July, was almost certainly not the James the son of Zebedee, but possibly James, son of Alphaeus, another apostle of the 12.  One can sum it up by saying that we should be good listeners and good doers.   In other words, we should not be in a rush to speak but rather be willing to listen.  Sometimes in parish ministry, someone has said to me something like, “Christopher, thank you so much for visiting me two months ago when I was going through a difficult time, you were so helpful to me then.” I think back to the occasion and realise that I hardly said anything. By articulating a problem, the person has seen the solution.   Secondly it is not enough to leave Church today saying, ‘That was an interesting sermon.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I going to do differently as result of that sermon.’

Jesus was a man of prayer, thought and action, listening to God the Father, guided and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.  Let us like him see the underlying principles of our religion and act on them.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 8 James the Apostle

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4: 7-15  The treasure of the Gospel in jars of clay (the apostles)

Matthew 20: 20-28 The sons of Zebedee seek prime position in the kingdom of God

  1. Introduction.         We are no longer in the Easter season but every Sunday is a recollection that on a Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. I therefore invite you join in the response of the Easter greeting on this Sunday as we mark the increasing freedom from Covid restrictions, ever rejoicing in our freedom in and through our risen Lord Jesus.

Alleluia Christ is risen

He is risen indeed Alleluia

A new government was about to take over.   The prime minister had already been declared, having a strong popular following.  He had been campaigning for the past three years and immediately before that his cousin, John, had prepared people for an enlightened rule.  Even before John was born to aged parents, his father had a prophetic insight that his son would have this preparatory role and that his nephew would be raised up as a mighty saviour of a nation, subject to foreign rule of a strong empire. Into this situation comes the pushy parent of two of the new leaders within the immediate band of followers, with a special request that her sons should be number 2 and 3 in the cabinet of the new government. That was the subject of our Gospel reading in which Mrs Zebedee comes to Jesus asking that her sons James and John should have prime positions in the about-to-be- re-established Davidic kingdom, free from Rome, under the rule of God’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of the great king David.  Jesus makes no direct promise to James and John.   

  1. Which James? This Gospel reading makes it quite clear which James we are celebrating today.  We are celebrating James the son of Zebedee, not James, the brother of Jesus, who having initially scoffed at the claims of his elder brother, seems to have come to be a prominent leader in the early Church as we learn in reading the Acts of the Apostles, albeit references in Acts simply say ‘James’, possibly referring to another of the 12 apostles, James the son of Alphaeus. One quite clear reference to James son of Zebedee, is a single verse, Acts 12 v 2, referring to his martyrdom, where Luke writes, “Herod had James, the brother of John, put to death by the sword.”  This happened about 44 A. D.   We can therefore say with a fair degree of confidence that the epistle of James was written by another James, having been written much later.  
  2. James in Scripture.  What then do we know of James?    Other than his martyrdom, we look to the four gospels for our authorative insight into James.  He and his brother John were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in the family fishing business managed by their father Zebedee. On a number of occasions Jesus had taken an inner group of disciples, namely Peter, and the two brothers, James and John, to be with him at special times, as for example, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and his Transfiguration.  James was therefore one of a select inner group of three, together with his brother John and with Peter, being prepared for leading roles in the early Church.  They needed to learn to reach beyond the boundaries of their tradition enmity of other races and peoples, to be inclusive not exclusive and judgemental.  This is seen rather well in the incident, recorded solely by Luke, when Jesus and the 12 are travelling to Jerusalem via Samaria.  A Samaritan village refuses them hospitality because they are travelling to Jerusalem.   The two brothers offer to call down a lightning strike on the inhospitable village. But Jesus rebukes them and they travel on to another village. This incident was near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, but I suspect that the brothers were still thinking that he would establish the Kingdom of God as an earthly kingdom with Jesus as Head of State. After the example of the great prophet Elijah, who had appeared to Jesus at his transfiguration, their task was to oppose zealously and physically those who refused to support the coming regime.  This then comes to a climax in the event recorded by James’ brother, John, who later became known as the Apostle of Love, of their mother requesting special authority for her sons in the revived kingdom.  Mark records the event, but as a direct request by the brothers themselves. 
  3. James in the Church.       You may be surprised that the only reference in the Acts of the Apostles to James, son of Zebedee, other than in the list of the 11 apostles in Acts 1, is that one verse stating he was martyred. One has to remember that the book is really the ‘Acts of the two Apostles’, namely Peter and Paul.   I think it is fair to say that Luke, the author of Acts, wrote the book as a defence of the Apostle Paul in preparation for his trial in Rome, showing firstly that the Christian Church was essentially a peaceful institution, supportive of Roman authority, and that the riots and opposition to Paul’s preaching arose from Jewish irrational jealousy and bigotry and secondly to authenticate Paul’s position as an apostle of the Church, showing that anything Peter did in the way of preaching, healing and even raising someone from the dead, Paul also did, and more.  I think though it is highly likely that Herod Archelaus one of the three sons of Herod the Great, ruling Judea and Samaria from Jerusalem, saw James, an active, leading, member of the Christian Church, as a threat to his rule.  There are many countries today where the Church seems to rulers to be a threat and in autocratic states, active, leading Christians are imprisoned or put to death.  It may be that in the 10 years or so between Jesus’ death and James’ death that James had an effective and fruitful ministry in Jerusalem, Judea and even in Samaria, where previously he had wanted to call down a lightning strike on an unfriendly village.
  4. Application.   I doubt if any of us will get a mention in history or other books, read by succeeding generations, but to some extent, as the Apostle Paul says to the Christians at Corinth, the treasure of the gospel is held in us, in fragile earthenware jars. Our lives may be long, like James’ brother John, or comparatively short like James’.  Death has been confronting us every day during the Coronavirus epidemic, either in the news or maybe through the death of a friend or even a member of your family.   What matters is that our lives are lived in the light of the glorious light of the knowledge of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus didn’t promise to give the two brothers their wish, but he did ask them to be committed in following him, whatever the cost of that might be.  As I read the Church Times each week, I glance at the clergy deaths and realise the many of my brothers and sisters in Christ were younger at their death than I am now.  I recall a preacher many years ago saying, “I do not fear death, but I do fear the process of dying”.   Yes, that can sometimes be very unpleasant as in Coronavirus deaths.  Alternatively it may be like that of the great 19th Century missionary, Robert Moffat, whose daughter married David Livingstone, that death may come very easily.  At the end of 4 years retirement in Leigh, after some 50 years in South Africa, he said to his wife, “I am feeling rather tired, I will just go upstairs and lie on my bed for a while.”  And so he died.

I conclude with the words of a previous Bishop of Rochester, “Onward and upward.  Alleluia!” and a prayer from Common Worship Morning Prayer for Thursday, based on the Book of Common Prayer’s Second Collect for Morning Prayer:

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord,

to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom.

Defend us your servants from all assaults of our enemies; 

that we, surely trusting in your defence, 

may not fear the power of any adversaries;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Rev’d Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 4

Trinity 4 – The Church as place of healing27th June 2021

Rev’d Christopher Miles

Readings: Lamentations 3 vv 22 – 33    God’s faithful love

Mark 5 vv 21-E     Healing of the sick woman and raising of Jairus’ daughter

  1. Introduction.         As we progress hopefully towards the end of Covid restrictions it is good to have the two positive readings today to encourage us.  The reading from Lamentations, speaking of God’s love for us and the reading from Mark’s Gospel with such positive accounts of Jesus’ ministry to those in distress.   It is good that, with these accounts in mind, we should consider both the spiritual input to the healing process and the Jesus’ ministry in relation to the specific ministry of the Church as an institution.  There are also difficult questions that I cannot even touch on, such as “Why does God inflict plagues on this worldwide level?”  Firstly a few words about the readings. 
  2. Lamentations.       The book of Lamentations follows the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In the older, Hebrew, Jewish Bible it is simply labelled ‘Lamentations’ but usually attributed to Jeremiah, because in the 2nd Century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, it is entitled ‘The lamentations of Jeremiah’ and opens with the introductory words, ‘And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive and Jerusalem was made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said’.   Much of the book is the author questioning why God seems to have deserted his people and brought this terrible desolation on Israel and especially on the capital city, Jerusalem.  So, its theme is appropriate to our current national and global situation.  It is good that within that context Jeremiah can come in with such a strong positive note as we had in our first reading this morning, beginning, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end (3 v 22).”   There is one verse that seems a bit difficult and calls for comment.  V 27 reads, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth”, in otherwards to experience some hardship when young.  When I was young, I experienced all the usual childhood diseases, namely mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles and German measles.  Perhaps that has given me some immunity later in life.  In a wider sense I think that this is what Jeremiah is saying.
  3. Mark’s Gospel.     Now let us turn to Mark’s Gospel.  What a wretched time the sick woman had had.  She had suffered a great deal under many doctors.  Medicine has developed a long way in the last 2000 years, but still does not have all the answers.   It is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate the woman’s dilemma.  She was aware of Jesus’ healing ministry, yet for a woman in public to approach a man, other than of her own family, was a ‘No, no!’ and certainly not to touch him in any way, yet she had both a strong belief that Jesus could heal her, that he had healing power, and that healing power needed to be transmitted physically.  Her scheme was a cunning compromise, that in the crowd, she could come up, perhaps from behind and just touch his robes.  How terrified she naturally was, when Jesus called out, ‘Who touched me’.  She was in danger.  Because of her bleeding she would have been regarded as ‘unclean’ and to deliberately touch a rabbi was a serious sin.  No wonder Mark records that reluctantly and trembling with fear the woman admits to what she had done.  Far from condemning her, he responds, “Daughter your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your sufferings.”  An attitude towards women that we are only now 2000 years later, catching up with!

Mark then goes on to narrate the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  These two accounts occur in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One may consider the event an equivalent of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel.  Jesus’ strict instruction to Jairus, his wife and the three disciples, who had accompanied him, not to tell anyone about the event may seem surprising.  You may feel that he had tried to provide a cover for the situation by saying “The girl is not dead but sleeping”.  Matthew tells us, “News of this spread through all that region.” (9 v 26).   Jesus knew though that such a dramatic miracle would arouse the concern and even wrath of national leaders.  His instruction is in contrast to that in the previous chapter where he tells the healed demoniac, Legion, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” (5 v 19).  On that occasion He was in the tetrarchy of Philip on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, well away from national leaders, whereas in today’s events he has returned to Galilee on the W side of the lake.  Albeit not in Judah, he was nearer to Jerusalem and in an area of Palestine of greater concern to the national leaders. 

  • Implication of Jesus’ healing miracles.            It seems to me that there are three possible responses to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ healing miracles generally:
  • Firstly, some Christians might regard the healing miracles as unique to Jesus, as evidence that he was God’s chosen Messiah, or Christ, to use the Greek term.
  • Secondly some Christians might regard prayer and healing as a phenomenon of the early Church, a ministry of the chosen apostles to give the Church a kick start but not applicable today.
  • Thirdly others might say that with the development of modern medicine, spiritual healing has no place these days.

To the first group, regarding non-medical healing as solely proof of Jesus Messiahship, I would say that Jesus sent out the 12 disciples and then 72 disciples telling them to preach this message, “The kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Mtt. 10 vv 7, 8). Then, when he sends out 72 disciples, he tells them, “To heal the sick and tell them that the kingdom of God is near you” (Mtt. 10 v 9).

To the second group I would point to Paul’s epistle to the Church of Corinth, where he writes of gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12 v 28).

To the third group I would point to the Epistle of James, where in his final chapter (5 v 14, 15) he writes, “Is anyone of you sick?  He should call the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Oil, probably olive oil, was used because of its healing properties. Here the physical and spiritual go hand in hand.

Healing today.       Where does this lead us as Christians today?  It seems to me that scripture and experience strongly point to a place for healing ministry in the Church today.  This ministry may be exercised in direct co-operation with established medical treatment through chaplaincy in hospitals etc.  For 5 years, early on in my retirement, I served as a part-time chaplain in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Health Trust, mainly at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells but also in Pembury Hospital and occasionally in Maidstone Hospital.   I had conversations with a great variety of patients as I went round the wards and generally, I offered to pray for the person I was visiting.  This was nearly always accepted, even in the case of a Muslim.   We had a sizeable chaplaincy team with a full-time ordained chaplain and many lay volunteers, one of whom was a doctor.  We always had at least one chaplain available, day and night.   There was one amusing incident where the doctor had been seeing a patient.  She then said to the doctor, “Now I would like to see the Chaplain”.  “Yes, I am right here” the doctor responded.   The patient had great difficulty in understanding that a doctor could also be a chaplain.    There is of course a place for healing ministry in the local church.  Clergy and lay ministers have the opportunity in visiting people at home to offer to pray with and for people.  There is of course no reason why any of us should not pray with and for friends and acquaintances.  Each Sunday we pray for the sick.  It is not appropriate, nor is there time to speak of the particular needs of individuals.  Let us though consciously pray for these people believing that God will work in their lives.  Perhaps you could remember one name and pray at home during the week for that person.   Whilst touch and physical presence can be valuable, the work of the Spirit is not confined.   Jesus healed by a remote word.  Some churches have an opportunity for specific individual prayer, perhaps in a side chapel so that people returning from receiving communion can receive prayer.  Not every local church has members with gifts of healing.  My gift is more aligned to healing of church lightning protection systems!  That must very definitely be aligned with science, and engineering!   But as shown in my stole I recognise that I exercise that gift under the hand of God.  In conclusion let us develop our belief that our risen Lord Jesus is at work through his Church to redeem, heal and renew us as we seek to serve him. 

I finish with 3 verses from Psalm 103, verses which we said at Morning Prayer on Tuesday, the day on which Jenny Hopkins was licensed as a lay minister.

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits;

Who forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities.”

Sermon – 2nd Sunday of Easter

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on the Second Sunday of Easter 11th April 2021

Readings: Acts 4 vv 32 – 35  Believers share their possessions

John 20 vv 19 – End  The risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later.

Introduction.   I have said before that there are two people in the New Testament who get a bad press, namely Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Apostle Thomas. Today I want to focus on Thomas. In the late 1960s, I had a posting to Royal Air Force Muharraq, accompanied by Julia and our very young son Philip. As a licensed reader in the RAF, I assisted quite often at services in the station Chapel. In my second year in Bahrain there was no chaplain at the main Anglican Church, St. Christopher’s in the capital city of Manama and so I was also conducting services there from time to time.  There were other churches in Manama , one of which cause the Mar Thoma church, providing for Christians from the Indian subcontinent. You may have heard of the Mar Thoma Church. By strong tradition the Church was founded by the Apostle Saint Thomas who is considered to have landed at Crananore in South West India in AD 52.  In the period 1997 to 2003 when our son Philip was firstly senior engineer and then project manager for a project repairing the dry docks in Dubai, we visited him and his wife Karen on a number of occasions. In Dubai there is also a branch of the Ma Thoma church which at that time, like many other congregations, met in the Anglican, Holy Trinity Church.  They now have the own church in the complex of churches a few miles away on land at Jebel Ali, given by the ruling Sheikh. At the first service on the 16th December 2001, it is recorded that there were 5000 participants.   Certainly, one has to recognise that the Mar Thoma Church is a strong Church, probably as a result of Thomas’ initiation in the 1st century.

2. Thomas.   What do we know about Saint Thomas and the early Mar Thoma Church?  There are broadly three sources.  In no particular order there are:

  • Writings ascribed to Thomas but probably written by others,
  • There are brief references to him by reliable historian of the Church,
  • There are references to him in the New Testament from holy scripture.

3.       Books of Thomas.           There are three books named after the Apostle.

  •   There is ‘The Acts of Thomas’.  This is the only one of the five principal apocryphal ‘Acts’ which has survived intact.  Probably written in the late second century or early 3rd century A. D. The setting is almost certainly Indian.  Thomas is reputed to have been martyred in India. There is a  chapel on St Thomas’ Mount, the traditional site of Thomas martyrdom, near Madras (photo at end).
  •  There is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic papyrus discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century.  It is largely comprised of the sayings of Jesus, with many paralleling the canonical gospels.  The Gospel is probably the earliest of Thomas’ books
  •   The Apocalypse of Thomas is one of three principal apocalypses, the other two being attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul.  Thomas’ Apocalypse has a strong emphasis on light.

In summary the books of Thomas give considerable support to his active ministry in India and probably elsewhere.

4.       Historians.  There are two reliable historians, both of the 4th century, who note Thomas’ work.

  • Firstly Jerome, a great scholar, bishop and translator, responsible for the translation of the Bible into Latin in what is known as the Vulgate version.  He notes that Thomas travelled to Persia, now Iran.
  • Secondly, Eusebius, born in Caesarea, where he founded a monastery and was consecrated Bishop.  He drafted the Creed, finalised and approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and which we will be saying in a few minutes.  Eusebius is sometimes known as the ‘Father of Church History’.  He records that Thomas was active as a missionary in the East.

5.         New Testament. I come now to the third and most important source of information about Thomas, the Apostle, namely the New Testament.  Apart from five mentions in list of disciples, there are three significant references to Thomas, all in John’s Gospel.

Firstly, when Jesus tells the 12 quite plainly that his friend Lazarus is dead, Thomas makes the surprising statement, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”  One cannot be sure what was in Thomas’ mind at that point. Jesus had spoken of going back to Judea, but because of the risk of death the disciples expressed surprise at the suggestion.  Then after he had told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus says “For your sake, I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  Did Thomas think that they were to join Lazarus in death?  The raising of Lazarus is in John’s gospel the sixth and final sign pointing clearly to Jesus’ own resurrection.  At the very least we can see in Thomas’ statement a strong commitment to Jesus, even if the belief in resurrection was not yet formed.  A belief as expressed a little later by Martha about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”, a hope shared then by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, a hope to be shared with all of us.

          The second significant reference to Thomas is in John 14, where we find Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon die, but in so doing will go to God the Father and prepare a place for them.  Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?  To someone like Thomas with an enquiring mind he found Jesus’ enigmatic statements difficult to follow.  Was Jesus going to Bethany to see how his old friend Lazarus was getting on? Or was he going to risk going right into Jerusalem where the national leaders were keen to arrest him.   Or was he perhaps going to some of the dispersed Jews such as those in the great centre of learning, namely the city of Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible had been translated into the Greek language in what is known as the Septuagint Version, widely quoted from by 1st Century Jews.  Jesus’ response is even more enigmatic, for he says “I am the Way”.

          The third significant reference to Thomas is in our Gospel reading today. In that we are told that Thomas was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus appeared to the 10 apostles.  Clearly though he sceptical of the reports from the 10 as he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.”  Here again we see the enquiring mind of Thomas, wanting good proof, hard evidence, not just secondhand reported evidence.

          What is more, Jesus graciously provides all the evidence a week later.  There is nothing enigmatic about this meeting and Jesus’ response.  Probably Jesus already knows that Thomas is destined for a demanding role in the kingdom of God, by establishing a church in Iran and another in India.  A truly apostolic role.  Jesus, after his initial greeting of “Peace be with you” to all gathered there, then invites Thomas to put his finger into the mail wounds in his hands and to put his hand into Jesus wounded side.  Thomas has witnessed Jesus come through locked doors, no problem if one reckons on one extra dimension for a resurrected person.  Thomas doesn’t need further proof but rather, responds with the strong affirmation, “My Lord and my God”.

6.       Our response.  What about our response?   We live in a strongly scientific world.  Science and mathematics underly much of our practical life, whether in medicine or transport, building or communications.  Many people like Thomas want to ask questions, and this can apply to matters of faith as well as the practicalities of daily life.  The Christian faith has stood up to 2000 years of questioning.  Faith is strengthened by an enquiring mind.  Do not be afraid to ask questions, to read, both the scriptures and helpful books.

          Maybe, like Thomas, you have had a ‘bad press’, perhaps been put down when you were young either at school or at home.  Maybe compared unfavourably to a sibling.   God hasn’t written you off.  He can use each one of us in the work of his kingdom.   Take inspiration from the way God used so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ in the foundation of an important branch of the Christian Church.

Christopher Miles.      

photo from The Lost Bible by J R Porter 2001, phot Ann and Bury Purless

Sermon – St John the Apostle

Sermon – St John the Apostle,  27 December 2020

1 John 1   God is Light – walk in the light; John 21 vv 19b – End – Jesus’ rebuff of Peter.   John will probably outlive Peter.

  1. Introductory.   Christmas has ended.   Thankfully Christmas was not completely cancelled although it wouldn’t have been the first time.   During the period of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, 1642 to 1660, the celebration of Christmas was firmly prohibited by Parliamentary decree.   Looked at it in its historic context it was not surprising.   During many reigns, our royal families and nobility had set an example of riotous and immoral celebrations.   I said ‘Christmas has ended’ because in the popular mind Christmastide is coincident with Advent and therefore the Christmas season ends with the climax of Christmas Day.  By government decree we were originally allowed 5 days for Christmas, ending today, albeit it ended up by being more like one day.  I have often wondered why in the Church calendar, Catholic and Anglican, we have a slightly strange grouping of major festival days, immediately following Christmas, namely St Stephen’s Day on the 26th December, St John’s Day, as today, on the 27th December, and then on 28th of December, Holy Innocents’ Day.   I suspect, albeit I can find no authority for it, that the Church in its wisdom decreed these days of obligation to ensure the masters and mistresses gave their servants a good 4-day break from work, an enjoyable holiday.   Today then we celebrate the Apostle John, the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee.   John, with good reason, is the traditionally accepted author of both the gospel in his name and the three epistles in his name, hence the readings today from I John and the Gospel of John.   Rather than focus on a particular verse or group of verses, I am going to give a broad overview of John’s Gospel and First Epistle.

John’s Gospel.      I start then with the purpose that John had in mind in writing the Gospel, stated quite explicitly in the penultimate chapter, where he writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.   But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20 vv 30, 31).   Much, but by no means all, of John’s Gospel, is structured around selected signs or miracles of Jesus.  Signs point to the way ahead, as in road signs, certainly in the days before sat navs, to guide us to our destination and perhaps to tell us from where we have come, so that we don’t go round in circles.   John has selected and records six signs, which I will describe briefly:

The first miraculous sign is at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where the host runs out of wine to give to his guests, and Jesus turns water into wine, one of the two physical elements of the Eucharist.   John quite explicitly states, “This is the first of his miraculous signs that Jesus performed, at Cana in Galilee and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2 v 11).

The second sign is one of the many healing miracles of Jesus.   Again, He is at Cana, when he is approached by a royal official, who begged him to come and heal his son who was seriously ill with a fever.   The son wasn’t there in Cana but more than 15 miles away in Capernaum.   I guess that the father had been at the wedding feast and knew about the water being turned into wine.   Jesus doesn’t go with the father to Capernaum, but says, “You may go, your son will live.” (Jn 4 v 49).   John records, “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.” (Jn 6 v 54).    Healing at a distance, and the Church says that in a Zoom service the elements cannot be consecrated remotely!

The third sign is the feeding of the 5000, in which the second element, the bread of the eucharist is the focus, as well as fish, which later became a Christian symbol.   John tells us, “The People saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.’” and there were those who intended to come and make him king by force, but he withdrew. (Jn 6 vv 14, 15).   The reference to ‘The Prophet’ is almost certainly to Moses’ prophetic statement recorded in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet, like me, from among your brothers.” (Deut 18 v 15).

Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as he goes out to join the disciples in their boat as they crossed to the other side of the Sea.  John probably reckons by now that there is no need to keep numbering the signs; his readers will have begun to get the message.

So far, we have been in the North of Palestine with an entirely sympathetic audience.   The next sign occurs in the South, in Judea, when Jesus restores the sight of a man born blind by telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem (Jn 9 v 11).   Having had two cataract operations this year, I am mindful of benefit of improved sight but cannot comprehend what it must have been like for a man who had been born blind, and his healing happened without all the modern medical and surgical advances.   The miracle arouses opposition from Pharisees because Jesus was apparently breaking their strict interpretation of the Sabbath law (Jn 9 vv 14 – 16).   There were though those who challenged the Pharisees, saying, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (Jn 9 v 16).  

The sixth sign is quite tremendous.   It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Despite Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness, he deliberately delays his departure from the East side of the River Jordan, for two days, knowing that he would be performing this supreme miracle as a sign pointing to, and giving veracity to, his own resurrection.  This miracle resulted in a meeting of the chief priests and a group of Pharisees calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin.   The Pharisees said “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

  What an amazing selection of six miracles pointing to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, without whom nothing was made that was made, leading up to the supreme miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection and thus fulfilling John’s purpose for those who seek after truth, that “You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” (Jn 20 v 31).

1 John.        My overview of 1 John will be much briefer with a focus on two words, light and love.   Just as with his Gospel, John states quite clearly the purpose of his first epistle.   In his concluding words he states“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5 v 13).   Broadly, John’s gospel brings people to faith and his epistle gives assurance to those who have come to faith.   The theme of light is a continuance from the Gospel in which he has written “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (Jn 1 v 4).   In our epistle reading today, John writes, “God is light;” and he invites the Christian readers to walk in that light”.   In His Gospel, John records Jesus saying to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (Jn 13 v 34).   In his epistle he writes, ‘God is love.   Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him.”  (1 Jn 4 v 16).   In Greek there are three words that are translated as ‘love’ in English.  There is ‘phileo’, typified as a brotherly or sisterly love.   There is ‘eros’ from which we derive the word ‘erotic’, a more emotional love and thirdly there is ‘agape’ with the sense of a self-giving, sacrificial love.   It is this third word, agape, which is used in the two quotations that I have just made.   Our love for others is to be a sacrificial love after the example of our Lord Jesus.

Conclusion.    We come today almost to the end of a very difficult year and the prospect of anyhow a difficult start to a New Year.   If this has in some way shaken or disturbed your faith, I invite you to read John’s gospel, particularly pausing to think about the seven signs, as a means of strengthening your faith.   In this difficult year people have spoken about light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps particularly with the Covid 19 vaccination becoming available.   Let us as people of the light walk now in the light, being positive about life now.   I finish with a quotation from Winnie the Pooh: Pooh asks Piglet, ‘What day is it?’   Piglet replies, ‘Why, it’s today’, to which Pooh responds with gusto, ‘My favourite day!”

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Advent Sunday

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow
on Advent Sunday 29th November 2020

Isaiah 64 vv 1 – 9   A prayer for God to intervene
Mark 13 vv 24  – E The distress of the last days

  1. Introduction.   “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Perhaps many Christians, and others would echo that prayer of Isaiah at the beginning of our first reading, to come down and save us from this plague or as we prefer to call it in modern times, pandemic.   We long for an end to the restrictions associated with Covid19, especially having just been put in Tier 3. We may be fearful of the impending effects of climate change.  As I write a robin settles in the hawthorn bush at the end of our garden, and bobs up and down in agreement.  Birds, as well as humans, are under threat. The world seems to be in turmoil.   We long for God to come and sort out our mess, to save us in every sense of that word, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “God saves both man and beast” (Ps 36 v 6).

          Jesus, in our gospel reading, warns us that cataclysmic times not only on earth, but in the heavens above, will preceed his return to earth.  

          Today we begin not only the season of Advent, but the beginning of the Church’s year.  In the Book of Common Prayer there was not so much consideration of Christ’s return, going straight from the last Sunday after Trinity to Advent Sunday. The Alternative Service Book introduced us in 1980 to the Sundays before Advent and this has been continued into Commom Worship.  We have had quite a lead in to the climax of Advent Sunday, not only on the last few Sundays but also in weekday Morning Prayer, reading right through the book of Daniel and much of Revelation.  Today we begin Common Worship Year B with a focus on Mark’s Gospel in our Sunday readings.   In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns us to be prepared, to watch, to which Luke adds Jesus saying, ‘and pray’ (Lk 21 v 36).

2. Be prepared.           ‘Be prepared’, but for what?  As three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were  writing the their gospels, there were two events that were still in the future for them.  The first was the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular of the Temple and the second was Jesus return to earth.  One needs to read the whole of Mark 13 to understand what Jesus is saying.   As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of temple stones.  You may have seen some of these huge stones in the Western Wall, where Jews today pray individually and conduct religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah.  Jesus, whilst having a great respect for the temple, prophesise that the temple will be destroyed in the lifetime of many of them.  This may explain the difficult verse at the end of today’s reading, where Jesus says emphatically, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A. D, following a 4-year siege of Jerusalem, some 40 years after Jesus was speaking and so within a generation. However the verse is difficult because it seems to refer to his Second Coming, as this preceeds it in today’s reading.  I would like to think that Jesus is saying,  “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have been generated.”  I am told that neither the Aramaic nor the Greek texts support such a translation.   The Greek word for generation is ‘genea’, which actually can be translated ‘age’.   It could well be that Jesus is saying of the destruction of the temple that it will happen within a generation, but his coming will happen at the end of the age.    There is a link between the two, for the destruction of the temple is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ return will be the climatic end, the full accomplishment, of the New Covenant.    It is of course Jesus’ return for which we must ‘Be prepared’, to use the motto of the Scouts, or to ‘Watch and pray’ to use Jesus’ words.  

3. Signs.            ‘Watch’ for what? Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree.  He tells us to watch out for the leaves coming, because soon the young figs that have over- wintered as little lumps, no bigger than my little finger nail, will start growing, then in summer to develop into full-grown ripe figs.  Last Autumn I cut down our fig tree, as in 19 years it produced no more than about 5 edible figs.  What though are the signs of fulfilment that we should be watching out for?   As I mentioned earlier, in weekday Morning Prayer in the pre-Advent season we have been reading through the books of Daniel and Revelation.   Not easy books to read and I am wary of trying to select from them precise signs of the coming fulfilment of  the Kingdom of God at the return of Christ.  I will just point up two signs from Jesus’ own words in the gospel accounts of the end of the age.

Firstly, Luke records Jesus as saying, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21 v 24).   This time, I suggest, clearly began with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A. D.  From that time forward Jerusalem was under Gentile control right through to the 20th Century, when in 1919, the UK was given a League of Nations mandate to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jews, with finally Israel becoming an independent state in 1948.

Secondly Jesus says, as recorded by Mark, “First the Gospel must be preached to all nations.” (Mk 13 v 10).   You may say, hasn’t this now happened?  I think there is not a country without Christians.  Perhaps North Korea is the only country without an established Church, but the Gospel has been preached there.  Let me though just amplify this a little from the book of Revelation.  John says, “After this (this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel), I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7 v 9).  Several chapters on, John says, “I saw an angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14 v 6 ).  In Mission Aviation Fellowship’s book, ‘Above and Beyond’, in the final section, entitled ‘To the end of the age’ it states, “ According to the Joshua Project, today over 40% of the world remains unreached with the Gospel, and our teams remain committed to going above and beyond to make sure those living in extreme isolation are given the best chance to thrive in the fullness of Christ.”   So this second sign may take another 100 years to be fulfilled.  Very appropriately the book concludes by saying, “It is our hope that you will join us in the Great Commisssion, knowing that our Heavenly Father will always be with us, to the end of the age.”

4. Prayer.        Finally, I will take up the point made by Jesus as recorded in Luke’s gospel, that we should not only watch but pray.  When we talk of prayer, we so often think of asking God to do something for us or for other people.  There is nothing wrong with that. I began with Isaiah’s prayer, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Let us though put a stronger emphasis on prayer as aligning ourselves with the will of God.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven, your kingdom come.’  The kingdom of God will not come in all its fulness by us trying to twist God’s arm, praying for him to hurry up, but rather by us seeking his guidance, being open to the Spirit, in His prompting about the little things of life, as well as discernibg the way forward in the big decisions of education, career and life partnerships.

5. Conclusion. In conclusion, Jesus warned us that the end of the age would not be an easy time.  We are still passing through the the restrictions, the heartache and the myriad impacts of the coronavirus, Covid 19.   As the writer of a recent article in the Church Times, wrote (Voice from out of the rubble by Anna Carter Florence, Church Times 20th November 2020 p15) “We can choose to walk through the pandemic, dragging the carcases of our predjudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.   Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”  Let us go into this Advent season, this new year of the Church, trusting in Our Lord Jesus Christ, in hope of a wonderful future.   I conclude with the final verse of Stuart Kine’s hymn, ‘How great thou art’.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 14

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 14,

13th September 2020

Exodus 14 verses 19 – End    The Lord protects the Israelites Matthew 18 verses 21 – 35 The unforgiving servant

  1. Battle of Britain.  Last weekend, on Saturday 5th September I met three members of the family of Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, who 80 years ago as Commanding Officer of 19 Squadron RAF took off with his Squadron from an RAF airfield in Essex and who was shot down by an incoming a German Luftwaffe aircraft somewhere over the River Thames, crashing on the North Downs just above the Pilgrims Way in Birling parish.  We met to remember the sacrifice of a young man of 25 who, in common with many other pilots in the Battle of Britain, lost his life in the defence of his and our country.   I had the privilege of dedicating a new memorial cross at the place where he died and saying a prayer of thanksgiving with the family members and others at this place with its marvellous view Southward to West Malling and Borough Green.  As Mayor’s Chaplain I was able to convey the greetings and the appreciation of Cllr Jill Anderson of this act of remembrance just within the boundary of our Borough.

2. Exodus.   During the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites lived through  a very stressful and uncertain 40 years.   As we look back on that period of the formation of the nation of Israel, with a record written from a theological perspective it is easy to miss the uncertainty that many ordinary people felt.   There were those who often criticised Moses’ leadership saying it would have been better to stay in Egypt as slaves than to endure the hardships of life in the desert.   Our first reading this morning reminds us of the early stage of that uncertain period.   The Egyptian army was pursuing the escaping Israelites and so, suddenly they were confronted with the Red Sea in front,  the Army behind and possibly soon be round their flanks as well – no escape. “Help.  We have had it now”, many of them must have been thinking and even voicing aloud.   Suddenly a dark cloud comes down between the Egyptian Army and the Israelites, the wind gets up and blows with gale force to thrust the shallow waters of the upper Red Sea out towards the Indian Ocean and the Israelites are able to move forward in the early morning light.

Sunday 15th September 1940 is regarded as the turning point in that Battle; a point when the Royal Air Force began to gain the upper hand and obtain air superiority over the German Air Force.  Hitler was intent on invading England, but he knew that he could not do that until he had air superiority.   He was taken aback as the Luftwaffe with superior numbers began to loose the upper hand.   Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command revealed in his memoirs that he attributed the success in the Battle of Britain to ‘divine intervention’.   Incidentally, on that Sunday our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with his wife Clementine, visited the Sector Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, to witness at first hand the progress of the battle that day.  The operations room was restored about 25 years ago, with the plotting board as it would have been at some point on that Sunday.   Although RAF Uxbridge closed as an RAF Staion about 10 years ago the operations room has been retained and is open to the public (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk).   Usually Battle of Britain Services are held on or close to the 15th September.   This is not a full Battle of Britain Service, but it seemed appropriate to recall today that critical time in the life of our nation, a time of great uncertainty, 80 years ago. 

A word about the walls of water on either side.   They have been portrayed quite often in children’s Bibles and in films as huge vertical walls of water perhaps 100 feet high.   Quite sufficient to cause a thinking person that the whole account is either made up or grossly distorted.   In the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, there are two words, translated as ‘wall’.   One is ‘Chomah’ used of a defensive wall such as a city wall or of an enclosure such as an orchard or vineyard.  The other is ‘qir’ used of the wall of a house or other building.   The word used of the Exodus is ‘chomah’.   It therefore is describing the water as a protection of the Israelites, since it prevented a flanking movement by Pharaoh’s army.   The water needed to be only 3 or 4 feet deep to prevent such a flanking movement and didn’t have to be vertical as in the wall of a house.

Some Israelites did not share the belief of their leader, Moses, in the God of all creation.   They did not perceive that God was using his own creation, with the laws of its operation, including providing air superiority, to facilitate their escape from Egypt.  They did not see that God was laying the foundation of a great plan of salvation that succeeding generations would celebrate in the Passover Festival as God’s supreme act of salvation of his chosen people.   Such people would easily have looked back on that night and said “Phew! That was a lucky escape!”.  Such people, without faith in God, found the deprivations and uncertainity of the wilderness experience more that they could bear.  They repeatedly complained about their leaders.

3. Uncertainty.            Most of this year we have been living and are still living through a time of uncertainty.   Restrictions were easing but with the possibility of a resurgence some restrictions have been reimposed, both in this country and in other countries.   No longer is it a fight between one country or alliance of countries and another, but rather of all countries fighting an unseen, a hidden, enemy.   However the threat is also a global force for unity and even cooperation against this common enemy.   There have been plagues throughout history, there are always illnesses abounding and it is difficult to understand the causes and the working of such things.   The human race, with its huge population, is having unexpected effects on the whole natural world.   In dense populations disease spreads more readily.   It is difficult to understand the place of viruses in the created order.   The chief certainty of life is that each of us will die.   Part of the wisdom of life is to live positively, through uncertainty, towards that end,.   This in part is done by a firm belief in God our Creator, who knows us each one, who loves us each one.   The Exodus and wilderness experience was a challenging time for the Israelites.   By no means all rose to the challenge.   When the twelve spies were sent out to make a reconnaisance of the Promised Land, only two came back with a report based on faith in God and his promise.   We have the evidence of the supreme and loving God in his great saving act of the New Covenant, achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was but 4 years old at the time of the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from Kent to Devon.   For those living here in Kent, those in London enduring the nightly bombing, it must have been a very challenging time, when some lost hope.   One of the good things to come out of the Second World War was the founding of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, as three former RAF officers, two pilots and an engineer, believed that God was calling them to use the skills that they had acquired in wartime to serve him in peacetime in serving countries in Africa.   That new venture which has flourished over the past 75 years, now flies in around 26 countries in the world.   The last surviving founding member, the Engineer Officer, Stuart King, who continued throughout his life to take an active interest in MAF, died on 29th August at the age of 98.   We thank God for a humble, dedicated and visionary servant of God.

Let us, who are living in a particular time of uncertainty, not only because of Covid 19 but also not knowing how we will progress as a country, when we fully leave the European Union in a few months time, continue to trust in God, a loving and faithful God.

1418 words                                                                                                                                                  Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 11

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10    Birth and upbringing of Moses

Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20  Peter’s confession of Christ

Introduction.       Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall.  On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying.   This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers.   About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship.  Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon.  Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall.  I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’.   ‘Yes’ was her reply.   I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman.  I did.  The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents.  Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels.    Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.  

Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus.  It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others.   In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.

As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth.    Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.

Moses.   ‘Call the midwife’.  It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live.  The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life.  They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.

Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people.  When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled.  Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen.  If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river.   On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current.  Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.

Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.

We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby.  Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do.  God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans.   She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.

So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.

Peter.       Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers.  Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death.   The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time.  They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew.   To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role.  He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading.  Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah?  To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was.  People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.

  Some surprising answers come back.   Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded.  What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus!   Some were saying that he was Elijah.   There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6).  Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome.   Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy.  Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.

    Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”    It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge.   In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population?  Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock.   We must get personal.

Our response.  Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet.   Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy.  This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths.  I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.”  I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.”   Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess.   But what about ourselves?   Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom.  The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving.  Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”    

Christopher Miles