A sermon preached by Canon Kelvin Inglis, Rector of St Thomas' Church, Salisbury
Wednesday 29 September 2021, 17:30, The Feast of St Michael and All Angels
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At St Thomas’s Church, just down the road, you’re never far from an angel. There are carved ones, painted ones, glass ones: they’re on the walls and on the ceilings, there are big ones and little ones. I think there are 250 at least, but they seem to move when you’re not looking, which makes them very hard to count.
Our hymns tonight, thoroughly rooted in scripture, tell us the essential facts about the:
… holy angels bright, who wait at God’s right hand…
they are remembered thus:
Round the Lord in glory seated cherubim and seraphim
filled his temple, and repeated each to each the alternate hymn.
They wait on God like courtiers in the throne room of a monarch and they sing God’s praises. In the sanctuary at St Thomas’s, we have angels playing the instruments described in Psalm 150 – not just gentle harps, but cymbals and trumpets too.
So angels offer praise, but they:
through the realms of light fly at [their] Lord’s command.
A courtier but also something like an aide-de-camp. When the messenger angels arrive, they are ready to guide or to guard.
We know more. Amongst the host of angels there are a few names: Gabriel, Raphael, and of course Michael, who is very much a man’s angel, wielding power and beating up the devil. Milton describes this with some relish:
of Michael from the armoury of God
was giv’n him temper’d so, that neither keen
nor solid might resist that edge: it met
the sword of Satan with steep force to smite
descending, and in half cut sheer, nor stay’d,
but with swift wheel reverse, deep ent’ring shear’d
all his right side; then Satan first knew pain…
And so on. The good news for angel fans everywhere – is that St Michael is back. For apparently, after twenty years, Marks & Spencer is resurrecting the St Michael logo.
Scripture tells us that angels are heavenly courtiers; and they are messengers to guide and guard; and they are warriors. Jesus speaks of them, and they announce both the Incarnation of Our Lord and his Resurrection. Finally, and this is good news for Anglicans, they operate in clearly-defined hierarchies: angels, archangels, powers, dominions, thrones, and all the rest.
I sing tonight’s hymns as loud and clear as anyone, but with a large pinch of salt. And that is because my religion has to be rooted in reality and also in honesty. And although I’ll sing pretty much anything in a hymn, I won’t always sign up to every word afterwards.
I believe without reservation in God the creator, and I believe in the risen Jesus, and I believe in the Holy Spirit – and I hope and pray that that belief in the Holy Trinity is central to my life. That faith is my reality.
But I cannot say with any great conviction that I believe in Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and the rest of the host of angels, including our guardian angels.
Or at least I do believe in them, but for me the part of reality they exist in, is the rock solid and entirely enriching world of metaphor. Angels, it seems to me, are ways of describing the truth that God is worshipped and adored, and that God speaks to his people and guides them, and that God is a God of power.
If my little brain tries to imagine God the creator who is ‘marvellous worthy to be praised’ it finds the concept a little abstract – I can’t imagine what those words try to convey.
But if I people that imaginary scene with angels around God’s throne, I’ve a picture I can work with.
Likewise when God communicates with an individual or with a community of Christians, as I sincerely believe God does, then we are entitled to ask how we know that that has happened. Do we hear a voice, or do we just know that God has guided our thoughts or feelings. That is a rather different question, but an important one – particularly if I think I’ve heard God telling me to do something unpleasant to someone else.
Certainly in scripture the appearance of an angel becomes a convincing metaphor for God’s guidance to his people. The angel becomes literary shorthand for a stamp of authenticity on a message that purports to come from God.
In Scripture, as a rule, people know that God has spoken to them when they are addressed in dreams or visions or by angels. Think of the Annunciation. What if it had just been Mary sort of ‘knowing in her heart’ that she was to conceive by the Holy Spirit? The angel seems to me to be a wonderful metaphor for God’s word and message and call reaching the ears of people of faith. Like an ambassador or a high commissioner, the angel acts with the full authority of God.
Now you might say that if angels are metaphors – simply ways of picturing the thought that God is worshipped and that God speaks to his people – then you might say they are in danger of disappearing. The angel (even the Archangel Michael) becomes a shadowy figure of the imagination; diaphanous, insubstantial and ultimately nothing.
Not for a moment would I say that I know angels don’t exist, and that people aren’t allowed to believe in them. I just speak as I find and this is my belief: they do not match the reality of my faith. But I find that even as the imaginary metaphorical angels disappear they leave behind that which most certainly does exist. And that is the reality of the presence of God.
So when I sing of the angels in heaven, I really mean that God is worthy of our praises. When I sing of the fleet-footed messengers of God, I really mean that God speaks to his people. When I pray about guardian angels, I really mean that God cherishes each and every one of us.
Like Mary, John the Baptist, Francis, and all the saints, the angels (real or metaphorical) only have meaning for us, in so far as they reveal the true nature of God, the God we know in Jesus. And for that reason I love the angels, and I love to be surrounded by them in churches. I love that they express so exuberantly the pure joy of God’s presence.
Finally, I have to admit in a sort of contradiction of everything I’ve said, that I’ve met angels frequently. They look human and they don’t have wings. They live out their faith in joy and they witness in all they do to God’s true nature. Sometimes they bring messages that are unmistakably of God, sometimes they counsel or rebuke or announce, sometimes they just worship.
They look a lot like you. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew it. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels…”