What would you say to your neighbour, if you were asked what it means to be an Anglican? A lot of people, after all, think that it has something to do with Angling, with fishing! Calling ourselves Anglicans, as we do here in this Church, has as much to do with our history as it does with our present reality. Being Anglican means being a part of the Ecclesia Anglicana, the Church of England, from which we historically stem, and which we still look to as our reference point for communion.
The best definition I have heard about what it means to be an Anglican came not from a wise church historian but from a young girl who was preparing to receive her first communion in the first parish which I ministered in when my wife and I arrived in Australia. In response to the question which I asked her, “what does it mean to be Anglican?” she said that being Anglican was about being in the “Church of the Angels.” When I questioned her further on this proposition, she told me a vivid story about how the angels had originally built that church, and how they watched over it and its members. She told a most wonderful story. Anglicans are people who worship in the churches of angels. Angels and archangels are prominent in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Yesterday the Church around the world celebrated the Feast of Michaelmass, that is, the Feast of St Michael and all the Angels of God.
In our Gospel reading this morning, as Jesus seeks to respond to the ridiculing which he is receiving at the hands of the Pharisees (who Luke describes as lovers of money), we hear a story about a poor man who is carried by an angel to the place of honour after his death, and a rich man who receives no such joy. It is a picture story which reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, those who are on the margins will be thinly in the centre; and correspondingly, those who are in the centre will be left on the margins.
I wonder what we think of angels, these servants of light? In the Bible and in early Jewish literature Michael is one of the angels of the presence of God, and he is depicted as a warrior prince leading the celestial armies against the forces of darkness. And indeed he is depicted as the Guardian Angel of Israel.
Angelology (the study of angels) is enjoying a resurgence of interest in our society at the current time. You only need to go on to the internet or to look at the spirituality section in bookshops, to find out all kinds of information about your guardian angel and how you can harness the power and energy of angels in your daily life. I was driving behind a car yesterday afternoon which had a bumper sticker which read, “I believe in angels.” In England and in America, men and women volunteer to become Guardian Angels and wearing a distinctive red beret they patrol on trains and other public transport networks as a vigilante group to protect ordinary people against the possibility of attack by thugs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one in a long line of angelic figures fighting the forces of darkness on our television screens. The Christian belief in angels has often been misunderstood not only by those around us, but within the Church as well.
In the third century after Christ, Mani, who developed the teachings which became known as Manichaeism, taught that there was not one God, but two gods: a god of goodness and a god who was evil. Mani believed that good and evil were equal powers which have always existed, he refused to believe that the world had originally been created as a place of only goodness. He and his followers taught that what we experienced here on earth was simply a result of the ongoing battle which was taken place in the heavenly realms. What appeared to be reality here, was simply the product of God’s angels, and their enemies doing battle in the spiritual world.
The danger of this kind of dualism which a belief in angels encourages, is that we can be tempted to have a certain. kind of fatalism about our lives. If we believe that angels and demons, (the powers of good and the powers of evil) are somehow fighting it out above us, with little or no involvement from ourselves we can easily feel that we are disconnected from what is really going on at the heart of the universe. This world becomes a charade, an acting out of life which is unimportant because the real action is going on above us. This kind of dualistic understanding of the world, in which what we see is unimportant in comparison to the real spiritual realities which we know little about, can lead us, I think, to become indifferent to the needs of the world around us, and to the responsibility which is properly entrusted to us for the welfare of others, and for the building of our own futures. Having said all of this, I am continually surprised about how many people within our churches hold these kinds of beliefs. The idea that “what will be will be,” and that we are powerless to bring about change.
Whatever the Church believes about angels, it is clear from the life of Jesus that he was absolutely committed to the needs of those he saw around him, so the spiritual battle which he fought, and which we now fight, is worked out not in some other heavenly realm, but in the here and now, as we respond to the suffering of the poor and the injustices of the world.
There is a wonderful story about a man named John Paton, who was a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands. One night hostile natives surrounded the mission station, intent on burning out the missionaries and killing them. Paton and his wife remained inside, praying during that terror-filled night that God would deliver them. And when daylight came they were amazed to see that their attackers had left. A year later, the chief of that tribe was converted to Christianity. Remembering what had happened, Paton asked the chief what had kept the mob from burning down the house and killing them. To which the chief replied in surprise, “who were all those men with you there?” Paton knew no men were present–but the chief said he was afraid to attack because he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments surrounding the mission house.
I have never had an experience of angels like that, but I have had an experience of meeting an angel which is still very vivid to me. A number of years ago, I was one of the organisers of a large conference of Christian thinkers which was meeting in Croatia in Eastern Europe just after the end of the Balkan War, when the countryside was still filled with unexploded landmines, and when the UN were still patrolling the streets of the cities. And due to a mis-communication the man who had driven for four hours to collect me from Zagreb to take me to Osijek where the conference was being held, failed to connect with me at the airport, he was looking out for an old man!
With no knowledge of the local language at all, I managed eventually to get a bus for myself from the airport to the bus station in order to try and make the journey on a public coach. At the bus station I found myself in a real mess. I had two large cases with me, no one spoke English, and in order to purchase a ticket for the coach I had to go to the ticket office which was up two flights of stairs. I could not carry the cases up there, I could not leave them because they would be stolen. I had no local currency, and there was nowhere to use a bank card. I simply stood next to the coach, not really knowing what to do, but knowing that it was the last coach of the day, and as I stood there a driver spoke to me in Croatian and I spoke to him back in English. He pointed and I pointed back, and it was clear that we were going to get nowhere. Then a young lady came and joined us, just before the coach was due to leave, and said to me in broken English, “I’ll go and buy a ticket for you, I am a nanny on holiday from London,” and she told the driver to wait until she returned. And when she did come back I was able to join the coach and travel to where I needed to be.
Now I don’t know her name, the extraordinary thing was that she was on my plan a couple of weeks later when I flew back to England. I have never seen her again, but it seems to me that regardless of whether or not she was a normal human being like you and I, she was the kind of angelic figure that we find in a number of the stories in our Bible.
I heard the other day about a monastic community, a monastery which welcomes all of its guests with the words, “we greet you as an angel of God, just in case.” We might not feel able to use those words here, but we will be more attentive to the messages which God has for us, if we truly and openly listen to every new potential angel who walks through the doors of our church and through the doors of our lives.
In past times in our Christian tradition there were separate days to commemorate the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God, and for the Archangel Raphael, who has held a strong place in the Christian tradition as one who heals. Nowadays all of the angels are celebrated in this one feast which (as I have said) the Church celebrates this weekend. It is a prayer to St Raphael, the other archangel, which I want to share with you this morning, because St Raphael is also known as the angel of happy meeting, the angel of connection. Listen to this wonderful prayer:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, and those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
May all our movements be guided by your light and transfigured with your joy…
Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life,
we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings,
so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy,
all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong,
you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful,
always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
Angels can remind us not of our disconnection from all that is real, but of our connection and purpose. They are messengers, signposts, to help us each in our chief vocation to become all that God intends us to be in Christ. We welcome everyone as angel messengers here, because the image of angels is a sign for us of our connection with one another and with God. Angels are signs that we are not alone, and that there is a God who loves us personally, who is always trying to reach us despite our best attempts to avoid the message of love which is for us; reminding us finally this morning, of our own angelic nature. We may not have wings, or a halo, but God may use us as a messenger of grace and love for others. If we are open and available we may be God’s angelic messenger and helper for someone this very week.
That is what Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission is all about. The idea, right at the heart of the life of the first churches, and throughout Christian history that everyone of us is called to be a part of the ministry of the Church. Not as bystanders or spectators, but (according to our gifts) in the active ministry of the Gospel. The Parish Council here has made a commitment for all of us to study and reflect on this vision together. That is why we are beginning in this parish to explore the Bishop’s study, “A New Vision for Our Church” and I hope that as many of you as possible will be involved in those groups. So that we can then make a clear and informed decision about how God is calling us to proceed. As Fr Glen says, “we have built the building, now we need to continue to build the church.”
Angels in our Christian tradition remind us that we are called to be messengers of God’s love and hope. The vision of us becoming a Ministering Community in Mission, building on the great foundations which are already in place, is in many ways an angelic vision, reminding us that the chief aim of any church is to share God’s message of love to those who live around us, and to transform the society around us into a model of God’s love. If we embrace that vision after studying it together we will be making a commitment to mission being our top priority.
lead us toward those we are waiting for, and those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, angel of happy meeting,
lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
I pray that the angels of God may watch over us, and as messengers of the grace of God ourselves, we may watch over others.