Patronal Festival 2017: Sermon by The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling, Dean of the Order of St John

I am very grateful for Father Kevin’s invitation to come here this evening. I was last in this church over 40 years ago, when I came to talk to the then Parish Priest about a family who lived locally, and he gave me a conducted tour. It is a wonderful building, beautifully kept, and a real joy to return.

Two Sundays ago, I returned to another church, to my first parish, off the Old Kent Road in Peckham, to preach on their Patronal Festival. The church has the unusual dedication to St John Chrysostom. He was a fourth century Bishop of Constantinople who was exiled from his diocese for condemning the rich and the powerful for their neglect of the poor. It was an opportunity to reflect on the cost of St John’s discipleship, and the motivation which he offers to present-day followers of Jesus Christ.

Your Patrons are rather different: St Michael and the Angels – all of them – present challenges of a different kind; so I ask myself, what is a preacher to say on this particular feast which is so special to this church and parish?

Well, the preacher’s task is to offer some insight, with reference to the Scriptures as they have been read and heard. In short, he must attempt to offer some word from God; and the reading from Genesis is a good starting point.

Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his father’s blessing and his birthright. What happened at Bethel in Haran sustained him during many years of wandering before he was able to return. In that place, in spite of his former disgrace, Jacob had an experience of direct communication with God, and he set up a shrine there to commemorate it.

The story of Jacob was so important in the history of Israel, so embedded in people’s minds, that Jesus referred back to it in the call of Nathanael, which formed our Gospel reading. In Jacob’s vision he had dreamed of a ladder, set up between earth and heaven, and God’s angels going up and down on it. ‘Know that I am with you’, said God, ‘and will keep you wherever you go.’ So vivid was that dream that Jacob was left in no doubt: ‘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 this is the gate of heaven.’

Nathanael was no less certain when he encountered Jesus: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’ ‘Do you believe because I saw you under the fig tree?’ said Jesus, ‘ you will see greater things than these… You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ It is an extraordinary and affecting vision which speaks to people across the centuries.

An elderly priest who long pre-dated the compulsory retirement age for the clergy, and who was happily in post in his parish at the age of 91, was celebrating the first 50 years of his incumbency in that one church. In his sermon, he reflected:

‘Ministry is an adventure, grounded in the everyday and with no boundaries. There’s no telling where and in whom you will meet Jesus in disguise.’

That is surely an invitation to think about ministry as it is revealed in Scripture, most of all, the ministry of Jesus himself. The mission of Jesus was summarised in his first sermon in the Synagogue at Capernaum:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

That is, or should be, the pattern for every bishop, priest and deacon; but, more than that, it should be a pattern for the ministry of all faithful people.

‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.’

All of us, whether ordained or lay, new Christians or reflecting on a lifetime of believing, have learned that our ministry is a call to witness to Christ in a community of love and mutual service – a community which relates to the world in loving outreach; which honours God in worship and work, mindful of the connection between the two – between creeds and deeds. Everyone is a minister of the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit and by virtue of their Baptism, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us – every one of us.

That is not to devalue the special grace conferred by ordination – of course not, because ordination is a particular call to particular service. But ministry is an adventure for all of us, to use the word of that old priest, and it is a mistake to speak of ‘vocation’ as if it applied only to the clergy. Indeed, to use a once more common analogy, it is you lay Christians who are usually nearer to the coal-face, and most directly confronted with the challenges to faith which arise in people’s everyday lives.

There are many trials and tribulations in the contemporary Anglican scene, some of them occasioned by a preoccupation with secondary issues, which detract from our primary task of building God’s Kingdom on earth. But a Patronal Festival is a time to re-examine our primary task, and yours gives us a very particular opportunity.

This is the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. If we have been specially blessed, we have had our own Jacob moments – our vision of angels ascending and descending. Perhaps for you it has been a moment in your prayers when all has seemed to make sense; or a meeting with a very spiritual person; or a piece of music; a work of art, a very special place. Whenever and however, at those times – or, as we might say, in our best moments – like Jacob, like Nathanael, we have known the presence of God with us. And we have been sure beyond doubt that that ‘the Lord is in this place.’

And if that is so, even fleetingly, then there must be consequences. Our world, and for that matter our nation, are splintered with ethnic and religious sensitivities (to put it no more strongly), and social turmoil of one kind or another, from which, sadly, the Church is not immune. Without avoiding our responsibility to foster a sense of community within society as a whole, the Church is where we Christians ought to start. If community does not exist within the household of faith, it doesn’t stand much chance of becoming a reality elsewhere.

That does not mean that all Christians have to be the same, or think the same way: Jesus brought together people with radically different temperaments and opinions, from tax collectors to zealots, the impulsive and the cautious, thinkers and doers. Followers of Jesus are as diverse as can be; and why should a local congregation be any different?

Within denominations and congregations, there are issues about which people do not agree, and quite possibly never will. As Christians, we can, like so many others, let our differences divide us; or we can emphasise what unites. Then we may begin to learn from one another, and discover, that, in Christ, it is possible for the many also to be one.

I began by contrasting the feasts of St John Chrysostom and St Michael and All Angels, but in reality they have much in common: good and evil, exile and ecstasy – not a hallucinatory drug, but awareness, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, that ‘the Lord is in this place.’

The old priest who I mentioned, after 61 years in the Ordained Ministry, 50 of them in one parish, could still see every day as an adventure. He was in no doubt that there are endless opportunities to meet Jesus in all sorts of disguises and every unlikely situation. I wonder, does that ring true for you? During the years of your Christian life, be it long or short, have Jesus’s words ever filled you with wonder and excitement, when you have realised that ‘You will see greater things than these’?

Lily, an often worse-for-wear lady at Liverpool Parish Church, sometimes used to stand up when she agreed with a declaration that had been made from the pulpit. She would call out, ‘You can’t say fairer than that!’

Well, she was right: you can’t; because, truly, ‘You will see greater things than these’.

Bedford Park, St Michael and All Angels
Patronal Festival 28.09.2017