Given by The Revd Dr Jane Leach on 13th October 2015 in Wesley Church, Cambridge for the Cambridge Theological Federation

St Michael by Jacob Epstein 1956

St Michael by Jacob Epstein. 1956

It is perhaps something of a puzzle that so little is said about the archangel Michael in Scripture, and yet so much has been made of him in Jewish thought and in the Christian calendar.

So many churches named for him;

An academic term shaped around him;

So many images and associations with him –

  • his protection of Israel
  • his sword of truth
  • his pair of scales weighing souls
  • his victory over the dragon and all the rages of hell…

Saints and angels are not a great part of the Methodist tradition. Despite our catholic as well as our evangelical origins we have no official saints calendar and it perhaps odd for Wesley House to choose to begin the year with St Michael… and yet St Michael is part of the givenness of Wesley House’s life – in this bronze gifted to us by a benefactor, and in the name of the term with which we begin every year.

And like all other parts of the Church, in every time and place, Wesley House and this Federation faces questions of how to handle what we’ve been given.  Not just those awkward benefactions that every church wonders what they’re going to do with… ah, thank you another flower stand; a plaque for the carpet; a set of 1932 hymn books… but more fundamentally, how does the church in every generation handle its inheritance that this deposit of faith might be a living blessing for the present age and for generations to come and not a stone around our necks or a stumbling block for those we struggle to reach…?

This is an important and perennial question, because an historical faith like Christianity, rooted in the belief that God has intervened in human history in the scandalous particularity of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, needs to stand faithfully in the tradition of the apostles, but at the same time to allow its forms of speech and thinking and worship and action to be renewed by the work of the Spirit, for now and for generations yet unborn.

And a theological education must be about both these things –about the receiving of an inheritance, the inheritance of the scriptures, of the ways in which the church has thought and acted in the past in all its manifestations, and about testing and refining and re-imagining that inheritance here and now in the community of faith, and out with the street pastors and on mission in the summer vacation, and by the hospital bed and from the pulpit and in the classroom and late night at night with a bottle of wine with those fast becoming our colleagues and friends – thinking and praying, questioning and receiving, remembering the faith and reimagining it…

So, we inherit the Archangel Michael in bronze and in the name of term we have begun together, and how will we think and pray and question and receive and remember and reimagine what Michael has to offer?

Malcolm Guite, contemporary Cambridge priest, scholar and poet offers this:

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance. Draw near, help me discern,

And trace the hidden grace in change and chance.

Angel of fire, Love’s fierce radiance,

Drive through the deep until the steep waves part,

Undo the dragon’s sinuous influence

And pierce the clotted darkness in my heart.

Unchain the child you find there, break the spell

And overthrow the tyrannies of Hell.

If you go and visit any of the towns in western Europe with which the Normans had anything to do, then you will not go far before you stumble across St Michael Archangel.  Often associated with high places – Mont St Michel; St Michael’s Mount; St Michel d’Alguilhe, St Michael as in the book of Revelation and in Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, casts from heaven the serpent, the dragon, the devil… and what do we make of war in heaven and fallen angels and dragons except that in our ‘anything goes world’, do we not need a language in which to speak of evil in terms that will do justice to the sinuous power of abuse and corruption and self obsession and greed and fear that subjects the bodies of children and women and men to violence and exploitation and journeys to their destruction, and the natural world to devastation, making precarious the whole inhabited earth…?

So St Michael represents good dealing with evil right at the centre of where that action is amongst the people traffickers and the drug barons and the sweat shops and the makers of internet porn…

But sometimes St Michael is the one who weighs souls in the balance at the day of judgement with a cool detachment.

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance.

But what is a human soul and where is it located and how much does it weigh? And are these biological questions or philosophical questions or neurological questions?  Perhaps, all of these – and they might be debated in the classroom or by the hospital bed or late at night, but perhaps there is also here a moral question.

My family in recent weeks has experienced the death of my mother.  And we had some 2 weeks after diagnosis to come to terms with her dying.

And during those two weeks her world became smaller – reduced to a hospital room and her visitors and a square of sky above the oxygen tanks in the carpark… and what does any life weigh in the face of eternity?

and visitors came whilst she slept and talked about all she’d achieved – her Sunday school work and her outreach to children in the primary school and her work amongst deprived children, and her leadership of prayer days and fun days and open days… and I began to wonder if they were trying to add things into the scales… to tip the scales for heaven, when at the last as she became quieter and smaller I thought that she was trusting more of her own heaviness – the heaviness that comes of faith and hope and love – and of knowing that all doing is as nothing if it is not God’s doing and that the scales cannot be tipped except by sinking into God’s grace.

And this is the theological problem of course, in presenting St Michael as a saviour who slays the dragon and as the one who weighs us in the balance – a problem that the sixteenth century reformers had with all saints and angels and devotion to them – a problem that Michael might be seen as supplanting God in Christ rather than pointing to him.

Yet these sixteenth century reformers even as they dismantled shrines and, as Calvin put it, avoided ‘frivolous questions’ in favour of ‘solid piety’ – retained a feast to Michael, allowing that God has ‘ordained and constituted the service of all angels and men in a wonderful order’ and that St Michael and all angels might defend us in earth through Jesus Christ.’

Through Jesus Christ, the narrow point of the hour glass through which all else must pass.  Or to take the gospel of John seriously, the ladder between earth and heaven upon which all angels, those messengers of God, ascend and descend.  Malcolm Guite again:

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

According to Malcolm Guite, what Jacob dreamed of –  a bridge, a ladder between earth and heaven – is in Christ effected, realized, made solid, a now permanent meeting place between earth and heaven, which one day Nathanael will behold – at crucifixion, at resurrection when the Son of Man is lifted up: heaven opened and the angels of God, Michael included, ascending and descending upon the One, the Son of Man.

In a Federation like this, in which we have the opportunity to hold together more of the diversity of the Christian Church  than most of us will encounter again in one place in a lifetime, we are going to come at St Michael and many other parts of our common heritage from myriad points of view.  For some of us will love the medieval imagery and the contemporary poetry and it will fire our imaginations to speak to a culture that can barely bare to hear the name of Jesus taken seriously, yet which might engage with angels… whilst for others of us these things will seem ‘frivolous questions’ when there is ‘solid piety’ to attend to of a saving kind.

But as we gather around the givens of our common life – the scriptures, the tradition of the church and the way in which matters of belief and practice have been reasoned about and acted on in the past I pray that we might have the grace to think that there are more things in heaven and earth than each of us has yet come to know – and through our common life in this time and place, , and by the help of angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven and in the name of Jesus Christ, we might as Philip did for Nathanael, bid each other, ‘Come and See’; and, through wrestling with the questions that will not let us go, as Jacob found of Bethel, that we might find even this place and this time together in Cambridge to be none other than the Gate of Heaven.