Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 11th Sep 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
‘War broke out in heaven’. An arresting, even shocking phrase from our second reading, from the book of Revelation. Startling because of course heaven is supposed to be the place of serenity, peace, reconciliation, resolution - not war.

But, as I mentioned in last week’s sermon on another passage from Revelation, that misunderstands the meaning of heaven in ancient Hebrew and early christian writings. Heaven for these writers didn’t mean just some transcendent time and place beyond all earthly experience. Heaven meant any place where God is present and active, and that includes our earthly temporal experience and struggles too. So even in apocalyptic and apparently otherworldly writings like the book of Revelation, when we read about what happens ‘in heaven’ it’s usually referring to earthly experience as well, and this war in heaven is about a spiritual battle in history, here and now, not just beyond it. There is also a heaven beyond all earthly experience. Revelation describes that too, elsewhere: a new heaven and earth where there is no more struggle, no more mourning, and crying and pain. But here the writer is unmasking the struggles we are still in, here and now.

So what are our current spiritual battles? They’re described here in Revelation as battles against an accuser - one who ‘accuses day and night’ – but what then is it that’s attacking us by accusing us?

Preachers and psychotherapist could have a field day here. The conscience is a tender thing, so there’s no end to things which can accuse, which can make us feel personally guilty, inadequate, ashamed: no end, then, to the sort of self-accusation, which, justified or not, can be so damaging. And these personal spiritual battles do need to be dealt with. But that’s not, I think, what we’re being asked to consider here. This spiritual warfare in Revelation is cast on a cosmic, not just personal scale: here we’re being asked to discern what’s accusing, and potentially harming, us on the bigger stage of history and geo-politics, not just in our personal battles.

So let me suggest one example of a recurring issue at the heart of spiritual warfare on this wider stage: ideology. That is, a set of ideas about the world which have become locked into a system of absolute, overriding, principles. Ideologies accuse because they often bear the kernel of something very good: some ideal we know we fail to live up to; they become evil when they become absolute, inflexible, with no regard to their effect on the particularities of actual human life and experience

Take our rational (western) ideology of freedom and equality and its abstract ideas of justice. Many of its core ideas are vitally right and good; often essential to shift a log jam of inherited social oppression in unjust, hierarchical, prejudiced, societies; often rightly accusing us where we’ve failed to see the inherited injustices and failed to act against them. The evil comes when these ideas of freedom and equality do not just sweep away prejudice, privilege, vested interest but, in the course of this, override other kinds of freedom too: the freedom to be different and respect difference, the freedom to treat people with generosity and mercy, rather than just according to an abstract rational equality. These other freedoms and moral instincts are often those which belong to culture and religion. And when they are overridden by ideology, that of course creates backlash, grievance, backlash, conflict, a vicious circle which only lead to more rigorous imposition of the ideology. So what started as a good liberating idea, hardened into ideology, becomes an accuser and oppressor (as we saw played out recently in microcosm on the beaches of France).

It can happen to almost any ideology: western rationalisms, Marxism, religions which become systems, can all have this effect. ;Michael Walzer charts the process in a book called The Paradox of Liberation. He traces it in 20th century histories of Israel, India, and Algeria; more recently we’ve seen it in the events following the invasion of Iraq and the Arab spring. And of course we see it most terrifyingly when religious fundamentalism itself becomes an oppressive ideology. And it is indeed a spiritual battle. The enemy, after all, is not ultimately a physical foe but ideas: ideas which have become like gods; ideas which assumed absolute power to accuse, crush, override, in pursuit of themselves.

>How then to deal with it? As a spiritual battle physical means will never be sufficient (even if occasionally necessary): it must be by spiritual means. That doesn’t mean resorting to counter ideologies ourselves, just hurling back a different set of ideas to accuse and impose on others. Nor does it mean abandoning all ideas, all definite belief (you can’t fight a spiritual battle simply by flabbily abandoning all sense of truth). But it does mean, surely, that we must renew our faith and allegiance in those mainstream faith traditions which embed their beliefs and ideas in narratives and stories not just in principles and propositions: above all, in narratives whose heart is a story specifically celebrating personal qualities - of reconciliation, love, mercy, generosity.

That is certainly how this vision of Revelation sees the spiritual battle is won. Whatever ideology currently accuses us - whether political (wanting to impose some abstract social ideal) or religious (wanting impossible perfection according to imposed religious laws) - Revelation’s call is to free us through ‘the blood of the lamb’ – which is shorthand, precisely, for a narrative; for that extraordinary story of a personal God embodied in Christ who actually sacrificed himself in the personal quest for reconciliation, acceptance, forgiveness, rather than capitulate to the prevailing unforgiving ideology of that time. Inhabit that story, give allegiance to that sort of God! - that is what will free us (socially, politically, personally) from any ideology.

This war in heaven, this spiritual battle, is still very much going on earth, in history, as well as in our own souls. Revelation unmasks it. Then offers this way to overcome it - the way of renewed faith in the unique, unparalleled, story of Jesus Christ; a story in history as well as eternity, always standing ready to redeem any part of history, any spiritual battle, that we are in…

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