A Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels:
One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the naughty behaviour that was going on. So he sent one of his angels to go to earth for a time. When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.”
God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down another angel to get a second opinion.”
So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time, too.
When the angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes, it’s true. The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.”
God was not pleased. So he decided to get his angels to email the 5% who were good, because He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.
Do you know what the email said?
Okay, just wondering. I didn’t get one either.
Today we are thinking about Angels because today the Church is celebrating St Michael and all Angels. The saints and Martyrs have many days throughout the year, today is the turn of the angels.
But what is an angel? Is it the same as a fairy? Do they have wings? Are the mythical beings? Do they have any relevance to us?
In the early Church angels of the winged variety were more or less ignored, with the surreal exception of the book of Revelation and also the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell us a bit more. They even name three of them: Michael (Daniel 10.13), Gabriel (Daniel 8.16) and Raphael (Tobit 7.8).
As the tradition of the Church developed Angels were very popular in the middle ages. Scholars debated their form (whether they had or could have a physical body as well as a spirit) their mission (the clue being in their Greek name ‘aggelos’ meaning ‘messenger’) and their abilities (one of the most famous questions being how many angels could dance on the head of a needle – this was a question that taxed the philosopher Duns Scotus – answers on a postcard please!) If you think that kind of theological question is a bit daft you are not alone. The scholar who led the debate on angels and pin heads was called Duns Scotus, his name became an insult when it was shortened to become ‘Dunce.’ It’s a little unfair as Duns Scotus was a very intelligent theologian, my lecturer in theology always told us that the angels and pinhead debate actually was trying to work out the nature of infinity.
But it was not only medieval Dunces interested in these matters: Anders Sandberg wrote a paper in 2001 called “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem’” in the “Annals of Improbable Research.” He presented a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing a maximum number of angels as 8.6766×1049.
Although this modern calculation is a physics-based mathematical game, not a serious inquiry and despite my professor’s protestations I was not convinced that arguing about angels and pinheads is irrelevant, at best.
So what exactly is an angel?
I have already given you the clue when I told you what the word angel means. The Latin angelus or the Greek Greek aggelos come from the Hebrew for “one going” or “one sent”; a messenger. The word is used in Hebrew makes no difference between divine or human messenger.
In all but a very few passages of Scripture we are given a choice of how to interpret events: the aggelos at Jesus’ empty tomb could be a heavenly being or a human messenger that Jesus arranged to pass on the message.
It’s up to us how we want to read the story.
However, how we view angels in the ancient texts of the Bible is not nearly as important as how we view angels today.
If aggelos are God’s messengers then the really important question is who are God’s messengers today.
Conservative Christians often criticise liberal Christians for making faith too easy: we don’t ask people to believe in impossible things (like a six day creation or virgins giving birth); we don’t force people to deny their sexuality or shoehorn people into outdated gender roles. But here is the cost of liberal faith, here is where it is so much tougher of liberals than conservatives…
If we take the theologically conservative view that God’s work is done by heavenly beings, all we really have to do is ask for God to send some angels.
If we take the liberal view that God’s angels are human messengers, that means it’s up to us.
God’s not going to send a bloke in a frock with wings to solve the problems of the world – God is going to send you and me.
If that seems daunting then the good news is that we are not simply called as individuals, but as a Christian community, where we all work together to make a difference.
To be a Christian is to be one of God’s messengers. Jesus told all his followers in his last words to them
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo,
I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
We are commanded to spread the good news of God’s love for us and teach the world what Christ has taught us. We are to be the messengers of God. Angels.
God has not given his work to heavenly creatures with wings and harps. (At least not usually – in exceptional cases you never know…) But the majority of God’s work on this planet is carried out through his earthy messengers, his human angels.
I close with one of my favourite quotations from one of my favourite saints, St Theresa of Avila that illustrates out role as angels, messengers of God and God’s kingdom:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours;
no feet but yours;
yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.