Historian Tom Holland’s travelogue at Luther Tyndale’s Reformation Celebration on Friday night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUtRiddwb8s) began with a journey from Soho to Brixton and asked the question, ‘Where are the angels?’. He said he didn’t have the answers. Meandering through history, literature, art, and personal experiences, Holland didn’t give us a ‘Reformation lecture’ per se but a personal reflection on the apparent trajectory, the unforeseen consequences so to speak, that the Reformation – which for him included a wide ranging Protestant cast – with its emphasis on the personal and immediate contact between God and people began a process that has ‘faded’ the heavenly world surrounding God – angels (both the unnamed and the named), demons, The Satan, and other heavenly or infernal beings – so that reality is just us and God. Some of the consequences of the ‘fading’ of this spiritual ‘cast of thousands’ might be atheism, Hitler and Nazism ‘taking over’ the role of the Devil and his empire for us, and people who talk about seeing angels today becoming part of society’s ‘nutters’! (I thought it ironic that I am part way through watching Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens’ at the moment.)
Holland did get me thinking and that was certainly one of his goals. I think it is true that Luther himself kept a vivid experience of the angels and demons (particularly the devil and co). My reading of Luther’s ‘earthy’ or scatological language as often targeting the devil as the one challenging God’s Word – causing Luther to struggle, doubt, fear that God’s Word was not for him – required attacking as virulently as possible. But Luther kept in view that God’s angels worked – hidden from our sight – largely to protect us. Their messages when we think about them or should we encounter them or when we’re in worship (singing the ‘Gloria’ and the ‘Sanctus’) always focus on God’s actions for us. Their messages must always be consistent with Scripture and we are to have no part of them if they bring to us another Gospel.
Yet it is true that today’s Lutheran pastors would not speak of angels or demons as Luther did while still speaking the Scriptural truths about them (which was one of Holland’s points).
Holland didn’t venture into the territory of the saints – those who have died in the Faith – but as I sat there in Luther Tyndale imagining the heavenly realm ‘emptying’ of the heavenly creatures – leaving God and the tumbleweeds, so to speak, I wondered about the saints. The Christian Church has presented two messages about them – that there is a resurrection of the body when Jesus reappears and that those who have died with Jesus are ‘today in Paradise’ – both of which are under the rubric that whether Christians live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:9). But it occurred to me that a fading of angels in the public consciousness might have contributed to the sentiment often heard today of those who have died – particularly the ‘good’ or the ‘young’ – that ‘God needed another angel’ – a sentiment that angers me greatly!
That people today still make the automatic assumption that there is heaven and that the ‘good’ and the ‘young’ go there, says to me that they have been influenced by Christianity. Other religions have post death existence as rewards or punishments – you have a transactional relationship with the deity. But Christianity – and certainly a big point of The Reformation – is not transactional but about a gift – a free gift – that is life with Jesus. It is not even about choice – choosing the gift – just as none of us chose to be born. Yes, we can choose how to live and we can damage and harm ourselves but our physical life is a gift to us. It is the same with faith or being ‘in Christ’ – God’s gracious act in Jesus and through words, water, bread and wine – gives us Christ’s life – we are joined with him in his death and resurrection – and we are nurtured in this eternal life here and now. Death is just a change of postcode! And that this is all a gift is what the Reformation was all about.
So however we think of ‘above’, it is full of life with God, heavenly creatures, and the saints and yes, such a perspective changes how we live now. GS