Patronal  Festival: St Michael’s, Mitcham

30 September 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Daniel 7: 9 – 10, 13 – 14

Psalm 138

Revelation 12: 7 – 12a

John 1: 45 – 51


It’s a joy to be here this morning and to bring you greetings from the congregations and people of St Peter’s Cathedral. Thank you to Fr David for the most welcome invitation to preach today on the occasion of your Patronal Festival. Back at the Cathedral we are preparing to celebrate the sesquicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone by Bishop Short in 1869. By then St Michael’s was, of course, already about fifteen years old. So the younger sister is bringing greetings to the older brother today!

As part of the Cathedral’s celebrations we have begun using two ideas – the first a logo that incorporates the words ‘my’, ‘your’ and ‘our’ cathedral. For that is what it is. As Dean of St Peter’s it feels very much like ‘my’ cathedral. But, as you know, being the mother church of the Diocese of Adelaide, it is very much ‘your’ cathedral; which in turn, makes it ‘our’ cathedral. When I meet or welcome people from Adelaide, or indeed South Australia, I often use the words, “Welcome to your Cathedral.” For a cathedral does not only belong to the group or congregation that happens to worship there and call it home, but to the whole Diocese, to the city and the state. Quite apart from those who worship at one of the fifteen public services held each week, close to forty thousand visitors find their way through the doors of St Peter’s Cathedral each year – local Adelaideans who frequently open their conversation with something like, “I have been driving past for twenty year but never been in …”; tourists from across Australia and the world; and those who come seeking a holy sacred and safe space to say their prayers, pour out their grief and concerns to a loving God, or simply sit soaking up the stillness. I am deeply grateful to the team of about 70 people whose ministry is that of welcomer, and keep the Cathedral open seven days a week. We are always needing more welcomers and would love to have people from St Michael’s on the roster.

The second idea gaining traction in the build-up to next year’s Festival 150 celebrations is that of “Celebrating the past. Imagining the future.” As has St Michael’s Mitcham, St Peter’s Cathedral has stood as an icon of Christian faith and worship through many changes in history. Beginning on Advent Sunday this year we will celebrate much that has happened in the past – both in church and city; and intentionally explore what comes next. I hope you may be able to join us on at least some of these occasions. There will be some specifically tailored to the Diocese as a whole.

But today it is the present that concerns me and us. And I want to take you to a stained glass window high up above the choir stalls in the Cathedral, and a panel that appears on the stained glass window in the Lady Chapel just below the figure of Christ. The panel shows a cluster of brightly coloured angels around the words “I am Alpha and Omega.” As you know this is a quotation from the Book of Revelation 1: 8. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. This Jesus, this one who is Alpha and Omega, who referred to himself using that enigmatic title from the book of Daniel as ‘Son of Man’, is the one on whom and by whom our faith is grounded, centred and inspired. At first sight there appear to be only a handful of angels on this particular panel. But as you look more closely you notice that there are angels peeping over the shoulders, or through the wings, of other angels. The whole panel is a-flutter with angels.

Because we currently have scaffolding filling the choir stalls and chancel – the restoration of the Cathedral organ is nearly completed – we have been able to get up close to some of the windows installed by Cedar Prest in the 1990s. The one I have in mind is also full of angels. At the top of the window the angels are blowing very strange looking, clearly very old, trumpet-like instruments. As your eye drops down the panels the pictures become much more contemporary until we clearly have a modern scene with saxophone, electric guitar and drum kit. Unlike the higher panels where the angels are dressed in flowing robes with gold wings, those at the bottom seem to be in school uniforms, recognisable as coming from one or other of Adelaide’s Anglican schools. It’s an intriguing interpretation of angels by the artist.

So here are two stained glass windows, one stating that Jesus Christ is Alpha and Omega, the ancient and the future; the other that there is a contemporary aspect to the idea of angels. I suggest that most people find that rather hard to accept. Angels don’t get much currency in the local news media; it’s not the sort of idea that you’ll hear referred to in a parliamentary debate. Apart from the odd Christmas card and the kind act of a stranger being referred to as being that of an angel, angels, and the sort of readings we have heard this morning, get short thrift in the world we live in. Yet here we are this morning, not only thinking about angels, but celebrating the patronal festival of a church dedicated to the chief of them, St Michael.

Although I don’t claim to be an expert in his thinking and teaching, I have for long had a fascination with the American Methodist biblical scholar Walter Wink.[i] I first came across his teaching in about 1985 while living in South Africa. The country was spiralling downwards into civil war. Many young Christians were struggling with compulsory national service, which would mean being prepared to kill black people; while others contemplated joining one of the liberation armies, which would mean being prepared to kill white people. Walter Wink introduced me to the concept of active non-violent resistance, especially through his interpretation of Matthew 5: 38 – 42. (That’s the passage about turning the other cheek, giving your cloak as well as your coat; and walking the second mile.) But Wink’s principal work was around the idea of the ‘principalities and powers’, a biblical phrase from Ephesians 6: 12. In the King James Version it reads ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’ A modern translation offers this:For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (NRSV)

It was Wink’s contention that there is both a personal and a corporate dimension to life. While individuals may turn to Christ, may live good and worthy lives, the very corporations they live and work within, are not necessarily at all like that. In recent days we have seen something of this idea at work as the Royal Commission has exposed the corporate greed of banks and those in the insurance industry. It’s a phenomenon at work in crowds when otherwise respectable and peace-loving people get stirred up and do terrible things. It happens when a stadium of sports-lovers disagrees with a referees decision; when one nation, or the leader of a nation, makes claims about greatness which exclude others; when a church turns a blind-eye to abuse because ‘we are all good people and it can’t possibly happen among us.’ It’s not enough to have only personal conversion, there needs also to be corporate, national, conversion

Looked at in this light the very strange reading from Revelation 12 about war in heaven and Michael casting out the dragon, the serpent, Satan, the Devil, begins to look like a powerful metaphor for the world in which we live. At the very least it helps us explore some of those disturbing questions: why, when the prime minister, president, archbishop, chief executive, school principal, captain of the team …. is such a good person do these terrible things still happen? How can there still be war? How come it is so difficult to deal with climate change? Why is there such disparity between rich and poor? Why do we still need to build walls that divide? Why is there such argument and disagreement in a church or community or family? They’re all nice people, good people.

In early Christian, pre-Christian, and indeed mediaeval mythology the place of Michael and All Angels was well established. We happily read, as this morning, passages from Daniel, the Book of Revelation and the Gospel according to John, all of which include angels, but we seldom really dig down into the power of the metaphor, the world understanding of the writer, the messages that may be hidden in these concepts.

It is my belief that each one of us can, quite literally, be on the side of the angels, perhaps even an angel itself. It is said that Mother Teresa of Calcutta urged her nuns each day to go out into the slums and ‘do something beautiful for God.’ Perhaps that is the true mark of an angel, not only the messenger of God but the one who makes a difference. Let Mother Teresa have the last word for today: ‘Do something beautiful for God. Do it with your life. Do it every day. Do it your own way. But do it!’

[i] Walter Wink (May 21, 1935 – May 10, 2012) Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999).