In a few moments, we will follow Jacob on the long road from Beer-sheba to Haran - there are some angels we must meet.
First however, as you have come to Westminster Abbey, I should give you a short tour. What most people know about us is that we have just been the church of Coronation. This is a royal house and a place where serious promises are made. It is an interesting business. For nigh on a thousand years a nation has gathered to hear those oaths and to find some assurance of common purpose. Just think about that, those literally bloody-minded barons barrelling in here for the Coronation of Henry III, or Richard II. All those angular, contentious people, with opinions all their own, here for James II or George IV. Think of those disagreements, think of them weighing the words.
The Abbey is royal and it is holy ground. Beyond that screen is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, and around him lie the kings and queens of England, Henry III who rebuilt this church, Edward I, Queen Eleanor, Henry V. Embattled, armoured monarchs finally setting their sights on heavenly peace.
Then the Abbey is a place of memory, the resting place of the Unknown Warrior, and there is another destiny shaped by our differences and divisions, silently summoning us to think on that. Lastly, the Abbey is a place of burial. There is no missing that. The dead are all around and they are almost restless. Virginia Woolf wrote:
From every corner, from every wall, somebody leans or listens or bends forward as if about to speak.
Twice now I have sat here as our choir have sung Handel’s Messiah (and Handel is here too of course). As we canter to the glorious conclusion a bass voice sings ‘The trumpet shall sound’. God forgive me, my hands grip my chair. ‘The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised’. If that happens, we have a problem, there are over three thousand burials in this church. You would not want to be sitting here when the dead are raised.
Not just a problem in finding space. Think of the noise, the opinion, the urgency of debate. Oliver Cromwell is no longer here, he was dug up at the Restoration, so no awkward meeting between him and Charles II. But, we do have Mary I and Elizabeth I two sisters divided by faith, united in a common vault. We have Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed. We have men and women who profited from the evil of transatlantic slavery and we have abolitionists. We have James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh who argued so forcefully that the world was created on 22nd October 4004 BC (in the evening) and we have Charles Darwin who was very clear that it was not.
You are in awkward, angular space. Which makes it a very good place to have a consecration We have already heard our Archbishop remind us that:
Bishops … gather God’s people… formed into a single communion of faith and love, the Church in each place and time is united with the Church in every place and time.
A single communion of faith and love - that is a mighty hope. If there was ever any doubt that we ask a lot of our bishops, a consecration in the Abbey will put us straight. We have come to Westminster, metropolitan capital of discord and disputation, to be told that the task of a bishop is to invite us into unity.
So, to think more on that, let’s leave the Abbey and follow Jacob on the road from Beer-sheba. It is a breath-taking journey, from south of the Dead Sea, through Israel and Syria, to the borders of modern Turkey. It is a journey away from home and out of family. Jacob travels in fear - Esau wants him dead. He is a fugitive, in strange places where hope fails and his faith can find no landmark. We know about Jacob, know about his schemes and wheezes. Jacob, the carpe diem man, forever seizing the day by the scruff of the neck and shaking out his chances. Not now though, not on the long road. Jacob is not in control and - as if to hammer home that point - God appears when he falls asleep. This is not Jacob’s doing, this is not in his mastery.
So, God appears in a place where Jacob assumes that God has no business and no locus. He appears to one lonely, fearful, and forlorn. The shock is absolute. Jacob who walked alone in every sense, self-reliant and self-made, has to think again. Wherever he is, whatever he does, he now knows that he is in the presence of God. In every place, heaven has to do with earth and the future is forever breaking in. And, At last, we meet those angels. Ascending and descending, they are messengers; the eternal traffic between wilderness and glory. They speak of things we can barely hear in places we never thought to find them. The world is not what Jacob thought it was and the possibilities suddenly are endless.
For all the shattering power of this epiphany we should notice that God does not speak words of easy reassurance. Brueggemann explains God makes a promise ‘I am with you’ and God performs an action ‘I will keep you’. This is not a ‘there, there’ moment; Jacob’s troubles still persist, his difficulty does not abate. But God, he now knows, is with him and God will keep him. Jacob learning that he is not self-made, names the place and the God made present there. ‘This is Beth El, this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
The house of God, the gate of heaven. You would think he would stay, but he cannot. Jacob must resumes his journey.
Michaelmas is a good day and this is a good place for Adam, Ian and Paul to come for their consecration as bishops. A good place to hear that the God of Jacob will be with them and will keep them. There is the inevitable point to be made that, for all the effort and distinction that has brought them to this time and place, the initiative is never theirs, it is always God who seeks them out and finds them.
There is though something more to say about the ceaseless traffic of angels and it is a point that, famously, a bishop once made to bishops. Before even this Abbey was built, in 590 a man called Gregorius (his name means ‘watchful’) was made Bishop of Rome. Gregory the Great was the author of The Book of Pastoral Rule - the basic book on How to be a Bishop. And Gregory was interested in our story of Jacob at Beth-El. Gregory wanted bishops to have in mind - always - that traffic of angels (Pastoral Rule 2.5). He wanted bishops to keep head and heart in constant movement between heaven and earth. Both - and. It has to be both - and. Gregory believed in the unity that is God and in the great complicated community that is the church. Those two, God and Church. For Gregory is was always this and that, both / and. He knew that public ministry is a ceaseless trade in glimpsing heaven and building the kingdom out of turmoil and division. Of all the things we ask of our bishops this, I think, is the greatest and hardest. You really are here to summon a divided people into a single communion of faith and love. You must know us in our difference and diversity and you must know the simple, ceaseless, loving unity of God. You must live the traffic of the angels, always in motion between heaven and earth. You must be watchful, see the angels and that ceaseless traffic. Both – and; from the gate of heaven you must resume your journey and take us with you.
May God be with you. He has promised nothing less. God will surely keep you.