THE FEAST OF SAINT MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS
The Ordination of Diane Panting to the Diaconate, St. John's Cathedral, Winnipeg
Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103:19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Tonight - here in this cathedral - Diane Panting is to be ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church. This service of ordination is taking place within the context of a very particular Holy Day: that is, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. This Holy Day occurs within a wider cultural context that seems to be obsessed with the notion of angels. Movies, books, TV shows about angels abound which is a clear indication that the culture in which we live is longing to understand this phenomenon and communicate with a wider audience a particular interpretation of the identity of angels and the role (or roles) they are called to fulfill.
And, as we take a close look at some of the more popular Hollywood performances, we see a variety of ways in which angels are portrayed. Some seem to suggest that human beings become angels when they die. This may provide an audience with a good and maybe even entertaining - or deeply touching - story, but Scripture consistently identifies angels as completely different beings than humans. Others suggest that the role of an angel is to make sure that people can earn God's love through suffering and tribulation. Again, maybe an interesting story, but as Phillip Yancey points out, "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less." So, again, perhaps an interesting story, but theologically questionable. Another interesting Hollywood interpretation of angels and a role they fulfill is that God has lost faith in humans so sends angels to start the apocalypse and destroy the entire human race. Again, not an image that is consistent with any biblical reflections on angels and their purpose or role.
It seems to me that Hollywood often tends to convey angels without any serious biblical foundation or interpretation. And, to make matters particularly challenging, Hollywood may very well have the upper hand in interpreting such sacred things. So, with this in mind, I see this Holy Day: The Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels, as an opportunity to reclaim our story; reclaim a biblical interpretation of angels and the role they are called to fulfill.
As we delve into our readings for tonight, we discover very different beings than what Hollywood seems to convey. Here we see spiritual beings who reside with God, worshipping before the throne of God; obedient messengers of God who speak only what God instructs. It seems to me that angels produced in Hollywood often tend to exist as somewhat autonomous beings, while the angels of the Bible are intimately connected to God. The word 'angel' comes from the Greek for 'messenger'; angels are seen as messengers from God. Because it has long been held that no one can survive direct contact with God's holiness, angels have come to be known as intermediary spirits which make contact between God and human beings possible. Indeed, as we discover angels in Scripture we see messengers of God sent forth to do God's will.
As we reclaim a biblical understanding of the identify, role and purpose of God's angels, probably a great place to start is with our Psalm for this evening: Bless the Lord, O His angels, mighty creatures who do His bidding, ever obedient to His bidding... My Jewish study bible points out that this Psalm acknowledges God is praised by his heavenly council, and that all human praise of God actually mimics angelic praise.
In our first reading we hear a story of Abraham's grandson, Isaac's son, Esau's twin brother, Jacob. This evening's piece of the story takes place when Jacob is running for his life after having deceived his brother and stolen that which was not intended for him to have. I am convinced that if manipulative, conniving, underhanded Jacob can be visited by angels, then there is probably hope for the rest of humanity.
Travelling up through the hills, Jacob stops for the night. Lonely and homeless, he lies down with his head on a stone. As he sleeps, he dreams. He sees a stairway, reaching all the way from earth to heaven - with angels (spiritual beings) coming and going - serving as messengers, doing God's will. And somehow through these angels, God speaks to him, telling him that he, Jacob, will be fruitful and multiply and through this a community of peoples will come into being. And God promises that he will be with Jacob every step of the way.
Clearly this experience is transformative for Jacob and the angels in his dream fulfill an important role in this divine transformation as well as all the fruitfulness that is to follow. Here we see spiritual beings who reside in the heavenly realm; obedient messengers of God who speak what God instructs . . . who help Jacob see past his current loneliness and discomfort and catch a glimpse of God's bigger plan.
Through those angels, heaven was linked to earth.
This image of angels going up and down is repeated in our Gospel reading, because it is this passage that Jesus seems to be referring to when he says to Nathanael that he and the other disciples will see heaven opened, with the angels of God going up and down. The point here, I think, is that through the appearance of those angels, God was there with Jacob, in that place. Jacob called that place 'Bethel'; that is, 'God's house'. And, furthermore, later - when Jacob returned to that place and when, much later, his descendants had been established there, Bethel became one of the great sanctuaries of Israel, one of the primary places where early Israelite worship was carried on. The tradition of Jacob's dream, of the angels going up and down on the ladder, would then be connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in that place - that house - God was really present, with his angels coming and going.
And the purpose of the angelic coming and going was to link heaven and earth.
And as we read and reflect on this passage from John, this is probably exactly the clue we're looking for. Because, here's the thing . . . A great deal of John's gospel has to do with the way in which Jesus fulfils the promises made concerning the Temple- and in particular - goes beyond those promises, pioneering the new way in which the living God will be present with his people. When John says that the Word became flesh 'and lived among us', the word for 'lived' is a word associated with the presence of God 'tabernacling' or 'pitching his tent' in our midst. The thought of a tent in which God lived would send Jewish minds back to the tabernacle in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus, and from there to the Temple in Jerusalem where God's presence was promised.
So verse 51 where Jesus says, "...You will see heaven open, and God's angels going up and down upon the son of man..." What he is saying here is that through him (his life / death / resurrection) - through Jesus - you will see from now on the reality towards Jacob's ladder, and even the Temple itself, was pointing like a signpost. Think of the cross as the ultimate ladder on which / through which heaven and earth become eternally joined as one. Jesus is, in effect, saying, "If you follow me, you'll be watching what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to each other. You won't necessarily see the angels themselves, but you will see things happening which show that they are there."
I believe Jesus is making the point that when you are with him, it is as though you are in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God's angels coming and going, and God's own presence there beside you. Jesus came to overcome the evil of this world, and in that one perfect - albeit brief - moment in time when he died on the cross and rose from the tomb, that victory was fulfilled. And to this day and throughout eternity, he is with us, and St. Michael and all Angels are serving as faithful messengers on God's behalf - protecting us, leading us, guiding us into the way of truth and light.
But also, to this day, we know that evil exists, that our world is broken, war and bloodshed persist, people go to bed hungry, homeless, alone and afraid. And this is what our reading from the Book of Revelation is addressing, where John - despite Jesus' victory over evil, continues to see war in heaven. Michael, the archangel who fights for Israel, is leading his legions against Satan. Satan is thrown out of heaven, but escapes to wreak havoc on earth. He pursues God's people to whom has been born the Messiah. He makes war against her offspring - the Christian church. Of course, we are reminded that this was the source of much of C.S. Lewis' most creative work.
Like other visions in the Book of Revelation, this is another way of describing the same situation: in Jesus, Satan has been defeated, but he continues to nip at the heels of humanity, and God's angels in heaven have been assigned the task of worshipping before the throne of God; serving as obedient messengers of God who breathe into humanity the will to carry out Christ's work. 20th century theologian Arthur Piepkorn acknowledges, head on, that each of us and the world in which we live is a potential victim of the malice that comes with the forces of evil, and we need the help of these angelic beings. He writes:
"... whatever and whoever the angels may be, I look to them as ministering spirits that God sends forth to serve for the sake of those who obtain salvation (Hebrews 1:14). This ultimately is comfort and encouragement for me. Even Satan is not God or a god; he is only a kind of angel and not the most powerful, for the angel called Michael vanquished him."
Piepkorn goes on to say, "Why don't we take the devil as seriously as Jesus did - and then rest in His victory over him and all the other powers of evil?
Tonight as we look at our Psalm which speaks of God's angels leading humanity into praise in all that we are and all that we do.... as we hear the story of Jacob's dream in which heaven and earth become intimately linked through the presence of angels moving up and down a ladder.. as we recognize that this image of heaven and earth becoming eternally linked has been fulfilled in Jesus' cross and resurrection...
and as we celebrate the gift of St. Michael and all angels in their continued role, serving as God's messengers - leading Jesus' followers into building a world that is peaceful, and equal, and whole... As we read and reflect on all this, we reclaim our own Christian understanding of angels; their very identity, purpose and their role. We may watch and even enjoy some of Hollywood's creative endeavours in telling stories about angels, but our own faith tradition is where we turn to embrace the presence of angels in our midst.
As we gather here tonight to celebrate with Diane her ordination to the diaconate, we do so within the context of this Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels.... I have heard it said that deacons in our midst are called to mimic the identity, purpose and role of the angels. That is, they are called to be messengers of God, sent forth to do God's will. They are called to do this, not so that the rest of us can put our feet up and feel confident that they are doing this work for us... no, they are called to do this so that the rest of us will be motivated and inspired by their selfless role as servants for Christ. Indeed, as theologian Arthur Piepkorn has pointed out, there is evil in the world, nipping at the heels of humanity.... There is all sorts of evil that leads to human pain and suffering, hunger, homelessness, loneliness, brokenness of so many kinds... And we look to our deacons to be inspired and empowered by the heavenly angels whom we celebrate this night; to serve as messengers of God, sent forth to do God's will, to confront the brokenness, to befriend those who live on the margins....
In a recent tribute to deacons, Primate Fred Hiltz spoke passionately about what deacons are called to do, including the struggle against poverty and inequality. He said, "What I want to dwell on is your ministry in the name of the compassionate Christ. In all you do, to those you tend, you are the feet, the hands, the heart, the voice of Jesus ... you are that salt, that flavours for good. Thank you for all you do." Indeed, inspired and protected by St. Michael and all Angels, deacons are called to be messengers of God, sent forth to do God's will, leading the rest of the church to do the same.
Diane, I wish you every blessing as you carry on with this sacred and noble task.