All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 July 2014

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 July 2014

Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses

1 Kings 6. 11-14; 23-38

Acts 12.1-17

Scratching my head as to what a preacher on a hot and sticky Sunday evening in July could make of two readings which seem to have no relation to each other beyond both being found in the Bible, I came across a news report about a church just built in Sao Paulo in Brazil, modelled on Solomon’s Temple. 

It belongs to a Pentecostal mega-church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Its founder is a media magnate with a personal fortune of over $1 billion, who travels by private jet and on a diplomatic passport provided by the Brazilian government.  His new church, clearly intended to speak of the success of his church, has been constructed of stone imported from the Holy Land. It includes some improvements on Solomon’s original: a heli-pad to allow the pastor to drop in to deliver his sermons without having to negotiate the horrors of Sao Paulo traffic.

Pastor Macedo has had a number of brushes with the law in the past: accusations of corruption, money-laundering, tax evasion and the like.  He and his collaborators have been accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the membership.

Such accusations are often aimed at the leaders of such churches, and all too often they turn out to be true. You would have thought by now that they would have learned to avoid the risk by taking seriously what Jesus really says about wealth in the gospel, rather than the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity” which assures us that Jesus really wants us to be rich.

It was L.Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, that most bogus of all the phoney religions to emerge from the new world, who said that: “If you seriously want to get rich, start a religion.”  `Who can deny that he managed to persuade a lot of people to part with their cash?

Erasmus, the great Renaissance scholar and stern critic of ecclesiastical corruption, wrote of the warrior Pope Julius II arriving at the gates of heaven dressed in the silver plated armour he wore to lead the papal armies into battle.  St. Peter failed to recognise this magnificent figure as one who could be his successor.

When the clergy of the diocese of London arrive at the pearly gates, clutching perhaps their freedom passes, or even their bishop – should he suddenly be taken from us – turns up there in the Skoda, the car the Church Commissioners now provide to transport bishops around, – we may well  be interrogated about our failings, our lack of evangelistic success perhaps, but I suspect that St. Peter will at least think our  lifestyle closer to his own than that of an evangelist with a helicopter and a private jet.

Our passage from 1Kings goes into considerable detail about the construction and furnishing of the Temple, and no doubt that architects of this new structure in Brazil have pored over that description.  But before any of that we hear the word of God intruding with a message which puts architectural and decorative tour into context:

‘The word of the Lord came to Solomon, “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.”’

This word breaks in to point beyond the glories of the edifice to another inter-relation of parts, the excellence of which is measured neither in cubits nor in aesthetics.  The significance of the Temple is tied to faithfulness: if the people are faithful to the commandments, then God will be faithful to God’s promises. The validity of the structure is dependent on the validity of the relationship between God and people. 

Now it’s fairly easy for us to see the speck in the eye of a mega-church pastor in Brazil, but this does not let us off the hook.  We too have a wonderful building dedicated to the glory of God: designed to be the sign on earth of the new Jerusalem, the place of God’s presence. A century and a half ago, our founders lavished time, effort and money on its construction. This last twenty years, we have spent time effort and money on restoring it. The danger is that, for all its spiritual power and meaning, we lose sight of its true purpose, to bring us into the presence of the God who can transform us. This is the word of the Lord about the sanctuary in which we are to worship God.

If we turn to our passage from Acts, we find one which, either by accident or design, is given to us to read at a time when it would have been read in the old calendar. If you look in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, you will discover that August 1 is called Lammas Day. This is an old term in England and Scotland – short for “Loaf Mass,” a harvest festival.  (Mhairi Ellis, who studied at St. Andrew’s University will remember its Lammas Day Fair.).

The proper liturgical title for this day is “St. Peter ad Vincula: St. Peter in Chains.”  This the dedication of the chapel in the Tower of London – appropriate enough given the number of people imprisoned there as enemies of the state over the years.

There is a Basilica in Rome with the same title. It was built to hold relics of the chains said to be worn by Peter that had been sent from Byzantium. Whatever you might think of the likely truth of that story, the church is worth a visit just to see Michelangelo’s great statue of Moses, designed to be part of the tomb of the Julius II whom I mentioned earlier.

Our reading from Acts has two buildings very different from the Temple in Jerusalem or its imitation in Brazil. 

  • One a prison cell
  • The other, a home.

In one, the apostle Peter is confined, chained to two guards, awaiting his fate. That this will be death seems certain after the execution of the apostle James by Herod Agrippa.  This Herod is the third of his name to reign over Palestine as a client of the Romans, and to have a fatal encounter with Jesus and his disciples:

  • Herod the Great had massacred the infants of Bethlehem in a ruthless quest to eliminate any potential threat to his power.
  • Later, Herod Antipas would have John the Baptist executed.
  • Now Herod Agrippa seeks to decapitate the young Church.

In the house of Mary, the church meets, not to plot the escape of their imprisoned leader, but to pray for him.

There is something almost comic and humorous in Luke’s account of Peter’s almost mission impossible liberation.  He is so dozy with sleep that he does not realise at first what is going on. And then, when he has come to himself and is safely outside the prison, he makes for Mary’s house. But when he turns up and rattles on the door, we have the almost farcical episode in which Rhoda, the maidservant recognises him but is so excited that she leaves him standing in the street while she goes off to tell the others.  They – just like the disciples at Easter refusing to believe the women’s’ testimony to the resurrection – refuse to believe Rhoda and come up with an alternative explanation for what she has seen: “It is his angel.”

Peter, whose patience must have been wearing thin by now, keeps on hammering on the gate until they finally let him in and he is able to explain what has happened to him.  He instructs them that they are to tell James, not the one who has just been killed, but James, the Lord’s Brother, who will take over the leadership of the church in Jerusalem as the apostles disperse on their missions and eventually meet their deaths.

There is nothing comic or humorous about the persecution of the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East whose very existence is under threat from Islamist extremists: a threat highlighted by the recent expulsion of the Christian community from Mosul by the so-called Caliphate established there recently: a body whose enlightened views include not only offering Christians the choice of conversion to Islam, flight or nothing but the sword, but the “gift” to the people of Iraq of compulsory female genital mutilation; to promote family life and strengthen morality.

Western governments seem unconcerned about this, so while we should pray, we must do more, but we should at least pray.