Posted by on September 30, 2019

Sermon by Kenneth Padley

for St Michael’s Patronal Festival Communion

29th September 2019

Readings: Revelation 12.7-12 and John 1.47-51

I went to Vicar school in a place called Cuddesdon. Cuddesdon is the Church of England’s version of Hogwarts. It is the only Vicar school which is set in the countryside and it looks like a gothic fortress. In the vacations when nobody is around, the wind rattles the windows and makes eerie noises as it blows down the corridors.

In the village beyond the theological college there is a church. And in the church there is a stained glass picture of heaven. It shows the perfect Jerusalem [Rev 21] descending from heaven to earth. And in this window, the design of the heavenly city bears remarkable resemblance to… Cuddesdon theological college.

Now, I enjoyed my time at Cuddesdon. And it had many good points. But it certainly wasn’t heaven on earth. Nonetheless, I like the aspiration of that window. And it’s got a real point for us as we celebrate this feast of dedication. It is saying that this church – despite its failings – is meant to be a reflection, even an embodiment, of the Kingdom of God.

And this idea of heaven being bridged to earth is especially relevant because this church is named after an angel. As we heard in the gospel reading, Jesus had a sense of angels traversing the gap between the realm of God and the life of earth. And because as an ancient Jew he might have thought of heaven as being ‘up there’, beyond the clouds, he imagined the gap between earth and heaven bridged by a ladder on which angels came up and down.

This was a concept that Jesus nabbed from the Old Testament, from Genesis 28, a passage in which the patriarch Jacob dreamt of a ladder of angels between heaven and the place where he lay. When Jacob awoke he pronounced that ‘surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it. How awesome is this place? This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.’ That is the sort of encounter I long for, and pray for people to have when they come to this church, either as visitors or when they attend an act of worship, that they would encounter a bridge beyond their everyday life, into the inspiring and energising presence of Almighty God.

Angels are there to help us on this quest. Now, let’s be honest, there are a whole raft of whacky ideas out there about what angels are and what they do. Let’s bust a few of them.

  • Firstly, angels are not female. The popular imagination thinks of angels as female because that’s what girls do in the nativity play if they don’t make the cut as Mary or the inn-keeper’s wife. But angels in the Bible have male pronouns, and male names – Michael not Michaela, Gabriel not Gabriella.
  • However, angels in the Bible are not really male nor female like you and me. This is because they are not humans. Here is another important thing to note: contrary to another popular myth, humans don’t become angels when they die. Dear departed Aunt Agatha is no more an angel in heaven than she is a twinkling star in the night sky. Rather, Biblical angels – as we have started to discover – are intermediaries. They act as messengers from God to his creation. Literally, ‘messenger’ is what ‘angel’ means.

Given this, there were some in the early Church who thought that Jesus was an angel, a special messenger come to share God’s word.[1] However, this belief doesn’t sit well with the idea that Jesus is also fully human: John’s gospel is emphatic that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. Angels, by contrast, are conceived in the Christian tradition[2] as invisible, a distinct created order of God’s helpers.

If you are finding all this a bit head-scratching I would say that angelology is hardly front-rank doctrine. Some Christians find the idea of angels not much use at all. But others clearly do, that sense of God surrounding us with invisible protection, especially when we need it most.

In this vein, did you know that there are over fifty angels in this church alone – in stone and wood and glass and paint? Tiny Tots came in on Tuesday morning and added them up for me. I had no idea there were so many! There might be a point in this – about God surrounding us with protection and help – even when we have little or no awareness that it is there [Heb 13].

There is one other way of looking at angels, and that is to say that they hold up a mirror to humanity.[3] In the Abrahamic traditions, discussion of angels has often been a roundabout way of talking about human beings: angelology is disguised anthropology. Our first reading is an example of that: war in heaven between good and evil. The standard interpretation of this text is that the pitched battle between Michael and the dragon is a heavenly parallel for what Jesus does on the cross. The warfare against evil led by Michael is a metaphor for the crucifixion.

I reckon that JRR Tolkien made a deliberate play on this idea in the last cataclysmic battle in the Lord of the Rings. On one side of the Black Gate, the warrior king Aragorn (like Michael in Revelation 12) leads the combined armies of good against the vast forces of Mordor. On the other side of the Black Gate is Frodo, weak and isolated, engaged in an utterly different but intimately integrated mission to destroy the ring of evil on Mount Doom – just like Jesus on Calvary.

Angels therefore take us into the realm of mind-blowing stuff with many layers of overlapping, mysterious meaning. As incense rises before God like prayer, its smoke making visible the swirling air we cannot see, just so may we come to perceive how God surrounds our voyage through this life with invisible friends, and lift up our hearts in this place to join with saints and angels around his throne. Amen.

[1] David Albert Jones, Angels, p 54f.

[2] Aquinas et al.

[3] Jones, Angels, 118f.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons