Homily St Mary’s Marlborough, 29th September 2019
St Michael and All Angels: Genesis 29.10-17 & John 1.47-51
Today, on the 29th September, the Church celebrates the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. A belief in angels, I suspect, is one of the more problematic Christian beliefs in an increasingly secular society.
A few years ago, I read what I thought was a helpful book about approaching a belief in angels (Earth Angels : Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things by Shaun McNiff) . Its first chapter starts by saying that “Angels are a way of looking at the world, infusing life with creative vitality and renewing our sense of the sacred”. It may be a bit too ‘spiritual’ rather than orthodox religion, but I do feel that this way of looking at the world and God’s presence within it, is valuable, as it can help us to reflect on the importance of material objects and places.
Indeed, our own Bishop Andrew uses the reading from the Old Testament that we just heard as a starting point for his theology of place (Parish: An Anglican theology of place by Andrew Rumsey). A theology of place and objects is ultimately an exploration of the relationship between God, people and the world around us. Places, such as churches or pilgrimage destinations; objects, such as the water in Baptism, and the bread and wine at the Eucharist, only gain their significance in as far as they are essential in the expression of God’s being and our relationship with him.
We don’t need to be religious to know this: even in the world of science and materialism in which we live, most of us still instinctively know that objects, or places, are not merely defined by what they are made of and how they look. You only have to ask someone whether it matters if a painting is a genuine Rembrandt or a convincing forgery to realise this: it matters who has made it, and probably also for which reason it was made.
However, there is still a leap to be made between a belief in something beyond the scientific and material, to the faith that we confess in our creed. So the question to us is not only whether we can discern a sense of the sacred in our world, but also why the Christian story is the most convincing way to express this.
For me, the answer lies in Jesus’ answer to Nathanael in our Gospel reading: “You will see greater things than these.” Maybe the first things that come to mind when we hear these words are great miracles and acts of heroism. However, although healing and self-sacrifice were essential parts of what we believe Jesus showed us of God, often their greatness lay in his giving of himself in love and service.
Yes, Jesus preached to the crowds, but he also knew the woman who touched him to be healed. He preached in synagogues with authority, but also sought the company and friendship of the outcast, the poor and the lost. So we realise that “seeing greater things” is not about witnessing spectacular miracles, but seeing God at work in the ordinary, often forgotten places of this world.
The Christian faith is a religion of service, of giving ourselves – although we as a Church have not been always very good in remembering this. I’d like to finish with a quote on angels from Augustine of Hippo, which sums this up rather well: “It was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men angels”.
So we see that the Feast of St Michael and All Angels is not a day to celebrate heroism, but rather humility. It is a reminder to us to seek God where he may be found: in service, humility and trust. Then, just like Nathanael, we can be confident that we will see greater things than these.