A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 138

Revelation 12:7-12a

John 1:45-51

The Commonwealth and St Michael

At first glance there seems to be little connection between our twin themes for the evening – a service that draws together people passionate about the Commonwealth and the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. This year’s theme for the Commonwealth is “A Connected Commonwealth”, with special focus on the way the oceans connect all peoples. For seventy years the Commonwealth has been an institution that works to bring people together, to connect them, to draw out what people hold in common, rather than what divides.

Over the past year or two, and particularly over the past few weeks, the pressure has been mounting, led by a remarkable sixteen year old school girl, for the powers that be to actually take seriously the threat of climate change. Inevitably the state of the world’s oceans has been one of the foci in this campaign. We are all too familiar now with pictures of once pristine beaches on islands in the middle of vast oceans, many thousands of kilometres away from the giant industrial nations and their/our passion for plastic water bottles, plastic bags and the general use-once-then-throwaway culture. Many of those beaches are now covered in plastic debris.

Years ago American theologian Walter Wink wrote a series of books under the general title of “The Powers”.[i] He explored the biblical phrase from Ephesians 6:12 “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.” Rather than applying the concept of cosmic powers and spiritual forces to some sort of heavenly battle – the sort of thing easily envisaged from tonight’s 1st reading – Wink‘s thesis is that these principalities and powers, these cosmic forces that are so much against God’s will and way, are alive and active within our societies, our institutions – be they government, trade or commerce.

Once we stop trying to imagine what a literal war in heaven might look like – even though it makes for fascinating paintings and marvelous, if far-fetched, theories about the anti-Christ and Satan – and begin to understand something of the evil of corporate greed, the way in which powerful people can manipulate the masses to their own ends, and the blind eyes that all too easily get turned away from the cry of Pacific Island people about rising sea-levels, the link between the Commonwealth with its focus this year on the oceans, and St Michael and All Angels begins to become clearer.

One understanding of angels is that they are God’s messengers. St John tried to describe something of this role for angels when he had Jesus talking to Nathanael about seeing heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.[ii] It does not take all that much poetic licence and prophetic reimagining to make the link between the war in heaven between Michael and his angels and a Greta Thunberg sitting facing the leaders of the world at the United Nations last week. The question is: Will we listen to today’s angels, today’s messengers from God?

Christian theology understands the world to be God’s beautiful creation and human beings stewards of that beauty. What an incredible responsibility! What trust by God! Christian theology also understands sin to be the deliberate act of turning away from God’s will, often using as our own the resources meant for others, and ignoring and certainly not caring for our neighbour.

While not specifically Christian much of the thinking and action of the Commonwealth is closely allied with Christian theology. We can see this in the snippet of Mark Bourchier’s speech made at Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day, 11 March 2019. We heard part of that speech earlier this evening and I quote:

The Commonwealth is so much more than the sum of its people. We are also home to some of the most incredible life on earth. The Commonwealth is the home of the polar bear.  The Commonwealth is the home of the African penguin. The Commonwealth is the home of the humpback whale, the bluefin tuna, and the Great Barrier Reef. Our common wealth is our ocean. With our vast marine estate, we now have an opportunity to work together and to lead the world in ocean conservation.

This family of diverse nations known as the Commonwealth has within it the resources to make a difference – and there is a role for each of us here tonight, each committing him or herself to doing their bit. Small it may be – but just as one plastic bag or bottle ends up on a faraway beach in a carpet of other plastic bags and bottles, so one person doing one thing here gets added to what the other is doing and so it goes.

May God both challenge and encourage us to be good stewards of this precious earth, an earth where we are all connected, a Commonwealth where there is indeed common wealth.

[i] Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999)

[ii] John 1: 51