The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      29th September 2019
The services of Angels and men
Jeremy Fletcher

Michaelmas


The feast of St Michael and all Angels places the things of the spirit firmly at the centre of the Christian life. In a church which holds on to the physical, and in a world which trusts the rational, the ministry of angels and the activity of such spiritual beings is uncomfortable. Angels, from what we read, are not to be controlled. In the biblical stories they appear unbidden, offer guidance, protection or challenge, and just as quickly go on their way. Sometimes they are recognised, sometimes not. At the most basic level the ministry of the angels on earth reminds us that there is more to life than we know – that there is a life of the spirit which we neglect at our peril.


Think of Tobias helped on his journey by Raphael in the Book of Tobit – or read Miss Garnet’s Angel for a modern reflection – and think of old Tobit healed of his blindness. Think of Jacob, challenged to the extent that he wrestles all night, and limps as a reminder. Think of Mary, whose life is transformed by an angel’s greeting. Think of Abraham, not sure whether he has entertained angels or not. 


What’s ironic here is that it can be the church which needs convincing of this activity more than elements of secular culture do. A recent book has found that a good percentage of people who identify as atheists also believe in angels. The resurgence of interest in ‘spirituality’ is happening despite the Christian church, not because of it. Try putting ‘angel’ into Google. You’ll quickly be offered the way to make contact with an angelic guide, and will know how to recognise your guardian. Much of the thinking behind this material is the hidden activity of angels, referred to in Matthew 18 – that each of us has an angel put on guard over us. The great feature of a non Christian view of angels is that by doing the right kind of spiritual acts we can make contact with our guarding angels and get them to do what we want – thus unlocking our spiritual potential. 


I do not doubt that guarding, guiding and protecting us is an angelic ministry. It’s just that these angels are very safe – it’s a “theme park” view of heaven. My litmus test is to see if such writing mentions the archangel Michael. Gabriel gets a good press, because he announces good news. Raphael tunes into the vogue for spiritual healing and alternative therapies. Michael rarely appears. His name means ‘who is like God’, and as the one also called ‘protector of Israel’ in the Old Testament he came to be seen as a key intermediary between God’s people and God himself for the Jews. But if his role is to fight, to attack evil, to destroy Satan, then in these tolerant days this violence and judgement is more than uncomfortable.


The reality of life on earth is that there is evil, there is violence, and that those who stand up for justice and righteousness must literally fight for this. The presence of Michael in the scriptures gives us the clue that such a fight has spiritual dimensions, that there are forces at work beyond what we can see, touch and hear which affect the life of the world, and that not all that is ‘spiritual’ is cosy and helpful. The good news is that which is announced in heaven: the salvation and power and kingdom of our God have come, and the Messiah has been given his authority. Though there continues to be a spiritual battle, the victory has been won, and we have conquered through the death and resurrection of Christ. The blood of the lamb overcomes all.

In our churches the angels are associated most with worship. It seems to me that much as many would like to make worship such a heavenly experience that it bears no relation to earthly life, that is exactly what the company of heaven do not do. The worship of the angels touches the earth: their work guiding, healing and protecting means they are involved in human life, and their worship of God who is ultimate goodness and overarching love means that they automatically and without question fight against evil.


If our church has an angel (and the Book of Revelation would suggest that churches have their guardian angels too) then I hope that ours will challenge us to connect the life of earth with the glory of heaven, will enable us to shape acts of worship which touch the throne of God, and will always remind us that to worship effectively means to live righteously – that there can be no separation between the offering of adoration and the fight against evil and injustice. 


And above all, such a guardian angel would, I am sure, remind us daily that all our worship, our whole lives, are only possible because earth and heaven are indeed connected in Jesus Christ our Lord, who has taken away the need for spiritual mediums and ethereal intermediaries, who has opened the gate of glory, and allows angels (and humans) to ascend and descend upon him, the glorious Son of Man. 


May the angels who continually stand before him in heaven assist us who worship on earth, and may we, through the living way who is Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, give such glory to God the Father that our lives are transformed and our world made new.


A prayer of Angela Ashwin


Blessed Lord of angels and archangels,

we praise you for the brightness of your love

and the freedom of your goodness.

Give your angels charge over us,

to guard us against the powers of evil.

May these beings of light

encircle and protect us,

so that we may serve you better

and never lose our vision of your heavenly glory.

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