St Michael's Woolwich Sunday 25 August 1996 Acts 20: 17-35 Matthew 10: 16-22
Did you notice the two words which this morning's readings have in common?
Sheep and Wolves.
There are no less than five references in the New Testament to wolves and each of them refers to a threat which exists to the Church of God in any place at any time.
Let us look at them in turn. Two of them seem to be the same saying of Jesus reported slightly differently by Matthew and Luke. So in today's gospel Jesus sends his apostles out as "sheep among wolves" - whilst St Luke refers to "lambs among wolves".
No matter. What Jesus meant his hearers to understand is that they need to be constantly on their guard against the world the flesh and the devil. Evil in other words.
It's common for preachers to dwell upon the dangers that beset us as individuals in the form of temptations to do wrong. There's no harm in reminding people about that from time to time, but it's not the whole story by any means.
Every bit as much of a threat to us are those whose agenda is the destruction of the Church of God. You don't need me to remind you that this is an ever-present danger, particularly nowadays when the destroyers are often the very people who should be safeguarding the faith which has been committed to them in trust.
It's not primarily buildings which are at risk, though that is certainly something to be reckoned with. But vandalism is not the most serious threat. Damage can be repaired, church buildings can be, and often are, rebuilt after arson attacks, and security can be tightened.
Nor, despite the tragic death last week of Fr Christopher Gray in Liverpool, is it our bodies which we need to worry about. There's always been and always will be a small chance that somebody with a chip on his soulder or a grudge in her heart will try and "take it out" on someone who appears to be happier than themselves, and churchpeople have no special immunity from being the victims of such attacks, physical or verbal.
No. The real wolves are the people who devise and promote false doctrine.
"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves" said Jesus to his apostles.
"I know that once I have gone, fierce wolves will invade you and will have no mercy on the flock" said St Paul to the Elders of the Church at Ephesus whom he had called specially to meet him on the beach at Miletus because he was in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost that he couldn't spare the time to pay them an extended visit.
Well, who are the false prophets today?
There are plenty of them around. That's certain. The ones we should be particularly wary about are those who "dress up as sheep", talk ever so kindly and smoothly and persuasively about how concerned they are
for the wellbeing of a church like St Michael's, whilst all the time their hidden agenda is to try and stop you thinking that there is anything so very wrong about the falst doctrine which they and their colleagues in the General Synod and the House of Bishops (to name but two) are so busy propagating.
Here are three topical examples of false teaching from dozens that one could instance: Women Priests; Sex outside Marriage and what is called Universalism (which I will explain in a minute).
None of these ideas is new (though their advocates would sometimes have one believe that they are). Look back over the last 1900 years and you will discover that all these things had their punters at one time or another. Their novelty today lies in the fact that we are being urged to accept (or at least tolerate) them because the world at large accepts them, or because we shall put people off if we thak a firm stand against them.
Well, it's just a plain lie to begin with that the "world at large" (by which we are meant to understand "every reasonable person") "accepts" them. The fact is that it is a small, well organised minority which does and tries to persuade themselves that "everyone else does really. But that is not the most significant point.
What is really shocking is this idea that "what the world thinks" about something is a reliable guide, or ever has been, as to what God thinks about it.
From the very beginning, since the Fall of Man, God and the World have tended to have different ideas about what is right and wrong, and the Scriptures are nothing so much as a history of many thousands of years about how God, who loves the words he made, nevertheless hates sin, and how he became incarnate in order to reconcile the world to himself.
Yet today we actually have church leaders trying to persuade us that the world, rather than God, has got it right, and that by following the ideas of today's world and its example (which may be different tomorrow) we shall do better than if we follow God's commandments which "stand fast for ever".
Ther's not time today to explain why women priests and sexual immorality are wrong. If you want to know more about those subjects you've only got to ask an organization like Forward in Faith or Cost of Conscience and they will gladly send someone down here to discuss the mattter with you.
And if you're worried (as you should be) about the Lesbian and Gay Thanksgiving Service to be held in Southwark Cathedral on November 16th then I would suggest that you watch out for details of the National Day of Prayer and Fasting which is being held the same day, and hop on a train up to London Bridge between 9am and 9pm and spend some time praying in St Mary Magdalene's Church (just south of Tower Bridge) where a Chain of Prayer is being organized to ask God for guidance in this matter.
Let me, however, say a little more about Universalism, because in a sense that is the most misguided and insidious of all the beliefs that are doing the rounds of the Church of England at the moment.
Universalism is the belief that, in the end, perhaps only in the very end, everyone will somehow necessarily choose to be reconciled with God; so no matter how far they stray from the truth or whatever evil they may perpetrate in this world, they will, in the end, accept God's free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The mistake which Universalism makes, and it is a serious one, lies in those two words "everyone will".
To be sure, everyone may turn to God in the end, and certainly everyone can choose to be reconciled with him. The most unlikely people, like you and me and the penitent thief who was crucified with Jesus, may make that choice.
But it has to be a choice, freely made and accepted.
So long as people have freewill there must be at least the possibility that some of them, perhaps few, perhaps many, perhaps most, will use that freewill precisely to refuse the salvation which God is offering them. If they can't choose then they don't have freewill because there is no choice.
If Universalism were right in its belief that "in the end all will be (necessarily) saved" then none of us would need to worry about our salvation. It would come to us whether we wanted it or not.
If that were the case then Scripture, the Church and Jesus Christ all got it plumb wrong. Why bother to believe what is true or practise righteousness when the result (if the Univeraslists are to be believed) is going to be the same in the end anyway?
Looked at in this light Universalism is just too absurd a belief for any thinking person to accept. Yet some variant of Universalism is precisely what most of our fellow citizens do believe. If you doubt this take a look at some of the cards on the wreaths or tombstones next time you go to the cemetery or crematorium.
But far worse than the misguidedness of popular belief is the fact that subtly and insidiously, Universalism is being woven into the fabric of what we are being told to believe by, guess whom, those very prophets who come to us in sheep's clothing.
We really need to be on our guard against such false prophets, especially when their appeal to us is combined, as it often is, with an appeal for our money to propagate these faulty ideas. These false prophets aren't just wolves; they are ravening wolves who need all the cash they can lay their hands on to keep themselves in business.
How do you tell a false prophet from a true one? For there are, assuredly, true prophets around today though they seem to be rather few and far between. We certainly don't want to miss what God is saying to us through the true prophets just because there are so many false ones around.
Well, here are three simple rules of thumb for detecting whether a prophet is speaking for God or not.
Firstly, is their personal life in harmony with their message? In other words, do they practise what they preach?
Secondly, is their message uncomfortably close to what we know in our heart of hearts to be true? Does it have "the ring of truth" about it?
Thirdly is their message entirely in harmony with the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church throughout the ages?
Any prophet whose word passes all three tests may, repeat, may, be a true prophet. Certainly they deserve to be listened to seriously.
But anyone who fails just one of these tests is certainly not a true prophet. In that case we can be sure that we're dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing