Summary: "The Spirit speaks - especially through Scripture, but ALSO THROUGH HISTORY and the heart" - a sermon for All Saints Day
Past, Present and Future.
Sometimes Christianity can have a reputation for being “stuck in the past” - “out of touch with today’s world” - which at first sounds a bit weird because people get very excited by the past.
At the high brow end of the market we have “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing up the bodies” - two Booker Prize winning best sellers set in the Machiavellian court of Henry VIII. At the pop culture end of the market we have Game of Thrones - yes not the real past. But this franchise which has raked in $3.1 billion is explicitly inspired by England’s Wars of Roses. High Culture, pop culture, people are attracted by the mystery of history, this world so different and yet so the same as ours.
So why do people accuse us Christians of getting “stuck in the past” - the answer is because sadly they can be sort of right. Sadly we can get stuck in the boring bit of the past.
In 2003 I arrived as a 30 year old vicar at Holy Trinity Church. Some people in the Church said they liked “Traditional Hymns” - so alongside more modern things I made sure we sang some good old Victorian tunes - and they didn’t know any of them. When I asked them which tunes from the 1950s- the tunes which when they had been children had been all new and shiny and exciting and now they thought of as “what we have always done”. In the same church - the walls were beautifully wood paneled, the wood being taken from the Victorian pews which had been removed many decades ago. Yet when we suggested removing not all the pews but a couple of rows at the back to make a coffee area, people faced agony about removing something that had been there forever. The ancient pews, as I said, had been cut down and used to line the walls. The ones they sat in had only been there 50 years…..
On all saints day we can learn not to get stuck in the past - by going back deeper into the past. On all saints day we celebrate the heroes of faith not from 50 years ago, but from 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, 1500 ago. Rather than assuming things were like 50 years ago when everyone assumed this was a Christian Country we can look heroes like Cuthbert or Aiden or Augustine who first brought Christianity to this land when there were no (or few) Christians here. Or we can look back at heroes like John and Charles Wesley in the 18th Century - when the industrial revolution meant meant that millions of workers had moved from the countryside to the towns - still nominally Christian but completely disconnected from the church, John and Charles didn’t expect people to come to Church, but preached Jesus at the factory gate or the mine shaft entrance. Or we can look back at heroes like Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian - Christians witnessing in the multifaith world of the Roman World - where intellectuals had lost faith in the official state paganism, but a multitude of foreign religions like Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Christianity had to compete in the multi-religious marketplace.
Times can be tough now as we go through a pandemic that the world hasn't seen the like of since the Spanish flue of a hundred years ago. But it’s not the first pandemic the world has seen and as we look at figures like Fr Charles Lowder minister in Wapping during the Cholera outbreak of the 1860s or Cyprian who ministered during a third century plague in Carthage - we Christians see that what we are going through is not unprecedented but that Christians kept their faith in Jesus and kept serving their fellow men and women during these times of pandemic
The spirit speaks through Scripture - BUT ALSO THROUGH HISTORY and the heart
Often when you get a new cult there story goes as follows “once upon a time in the days of the bible and book of acts the Holy Spirit was at work - but the moment Acts 28 finishes, the Holy Spirit went and took a tea break and for 2000 years he didn’t come back until he descended on our glorious founder…”
But mainstream Christianity teaches the Holy Spirit has been at work in every generation. The book of revelation talks about heaven being“ a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” but it could equally add “a great multitude from every century and generation”
The beatitudes in Matthew 5 -
“3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit... 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, ….5 ‘Blessed are the meek, ….6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,....7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, ….8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, ….10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,...”