The Revd Laurence Price


Sung Eucharist

John 1: 47-end

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

A vision of angels. Armies of angels grappling in war with each other. The great archangel Michael is struggling with a terrible red dragon. There is war in heaven.

Someone had this vision nearly two thousand years ago. He may have been called John; he may have been on the island of Patmos, 

But what did it mean? It's pretty easy to come up with an interpretation: two huge opposing forces- evil red dragons, good angels-and like in all the superhero movies, the goodies win after a stunning fight, probably involving large amounts of CGI. 

The archangel Michael stamps down the dragon- and the dragon is cast out and the doors of heaven slam behind him. Victory!

But there's a question we've got to ask.

It's a question written in Michael's name- the name we give to our festival today- Michaelmas. 

מִיכָאֵל, Mi-ca-el in Hebrew means "who is like God?"

So iff Michael's name means who is like God, then we have to ask "what is God like?".

And in particular, does that picture we've just painted - a dominant angel, the forces of evil expelled- does that make sense with what we know of God? Is God a God of violent victory?

Remember the start of John's vision: There was war in heaven- 

Now heaven gives us a picture of what God is like- 

In particular, Heaven's time participates in God's timelessness- heaven is beyond the bounds of time- heaven is free to be present to the eternity of God.

But there is another side of heaven's participation in God's eternity: what goes on in heaven is also eternal: the song of praise of the angels is eternal- Holy, Holy, Holy.

But that doesn't mean that it's just sung for a ridiculously long time- the song takes on a touch of God's own freedom from time.

But if it's true for the song of the angels, it's true for the angels at war. So if as our reading said, "war broke out in heaven"- even for a moment- then it was also there for all eternity.

So can it be true that a picture of victory, of domination and violence is eternally part of the story of heaven?

An orwellian view of an angelic boot stamping on a dragon's face forever.

So maybe that interpretation of domination and victory is actually part of the myth we create for ourselves- the dangerously seductive myth of redemptive violence. 

Because that myth keeps coming back: the idea that the best way to end a story is for the goodies to violently defeat the baddies.

The myth that the archangel Michael had to stab that twisty old dragon with his long straight lance of righteousness. 

The myth that a jealous God the father in search of punishment is only to be satisfied with the torture of his only son.

 The myth that for any complex political problem- send a gunboat- metaphorical or real.

Is this really the story that is written into the fabric of heaven? Victory for the powerful and shame for the vanquished, the Kingdom of heaven established by right of conquest, and divine righteousness nothing more than the advantage of the stronger?

John saw that vision of angels. But it's for us to interpret the vision. And we don't have to be tied to the obvious interpretation- certainly not the one that fits the prevalent myth in our society.

What if the war in heaven isn't about domination and expulsion- the archangel driving out the dark unclean dragon… but a fight for inclusion?

What if the vision that John saw was God's fight to keep a relationship with a fallen part of his creation?

What if Michael the archangel wasn't picking up the dragon and kicking him out of the back door of heaven, like some disgruntled heavenly security guard but fighting to keep him and all the other angels close- to maintain that spark of relationship that God has with all creation, no matter how much they reject it?

Isn't that the fight that we believe in- that our jealous and loving God will struggle with divine might not to lose hold of the beloved?

The war in heaven goes on eternally to the end of time, not because the archangel Michael is always victoriously delivering a right hook to that dragon. It goes on because Christ remains on the cross as long as the last sinner remains in hell.

And the suffering and the pity of that war in heaven is felt not by the defeated dragon- but by a God who empties himself to bring together all creation, that Christ may be all in all.

Some decades before John had his vision by the sea on the island of Patmos, Jesus was describing another vision of heaven by the lake of Galilee. We heard it in our gospel today. Jesus said "You will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the son of man."

A world renewed; a new creation and a glorious exchange, angels not cast down or victorious, but in an eternal dance between heaven and earth.

In the heaven that Jesus describes, there is a place for all, angels, dragons, humans and God.

John saw angels cast down from the presence of God in his vision: but in Jesus's vision, the angels no longer seek to flee the intensity of a relationship with God. The angels come home.

And all this comes together when God breaks the boundaries of earth and heaven: 

In the incarnation, in the resurrection and today, now, when we gather together in the presence of God.

When people celebrate the Eucharist you may occasionally hear little quiet prayers. And one of them comes when a priest or deacon adds a little bit of water to the wine, and it talks about this glorious breaking down of barriers.

Lord, by the mixture of this water and this wine, may we come to share your divinity who shared our humanity.

In this Eucharist- and in every Eucharist- the doors of heaven are blown open and all angels proclaim an invitation throughout the universe: "Come."

Come all of you- even you dragons who have covered themselves with scales and armour to avoid the burning love of God. 

Come because the war in heaven is won- not through the false myth of redemptive violence, not through division, not through casting down. 

But the war in heaven is won in the presence of God who yearns to bear us up to heaven- and comes to us on this table today.