Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Angels - fact or fiction?

“It must be his angel...!” Acts 12:15

Do you believe you have a guardian angel? Quite likely it’s not something you’ve ever really thought about. Almost certainly you won’t have heard much preaching or teaching about it.

I ask because a few blogs ago we were thinking about Peter’s miraculous release from prison in Acts 12. 

Remember that comical story: about the church praying for Peter... about him coming to the house where they were praying... about Rhoda the servant girl announcing that he was at the door - and about how they refused to believe her, saying “It must be his angel!”

Those first Christians obviously believed in angels, even if in this case they were completely wrong. And so the questions arise: Where did their belief come from, and why do we not seem to share it?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: angels appear quite frequently in the Old Testament, so their existence is simply a given of Jewish teaching. Their role is primarily as messengers of God; their dwelling place is heaven, but very often when they appear on earth they don’t look particularly “heavenly”.

And they are also more frequent in the New Testament than perhaps we imagine. They keep popping up in the Christmas story, where one of them, Gabriel, is even given a name. Likewise in the resurrection story, where they appear to the women on Easter morning. Indeed, the very story of Peter’s escape involves an angel appearing and removing his chains.

Jesus clearly believed in them. In Matthew 18:10, for example, he speaks about “their angels in heaven”, when referring to “these little ones” who follow him. So angels, “guardian” or otherwise, are a clear part of scripture.

So to the second question: Why do we modern Christians seem not to share their belief?

There are various possible answers. Most obviously, angels simply have never been part of the experience of most of us. Further, the world we live in is so materialistic and sceptical about anything remotely “supernatural” that, under its influence, we find it hard to take the idea of angels seriously.

Mind you, you do hear reports sometimes of Christians in hard or dangerous situations - persecuted Christians, missionaries in remote places - telling of mysterious individuals appearing virtually out of nowhere to help them.

The writer to the Hebrews (13:1) tells us that by showing hospitality it is possible to “entertain angels without realising it”. Which makes you think: is it possible that angels are around more often than we know? What about that interesting-seeming man opposite me on the tube today - the one who got off at Bond Street - is it possible he was an angel?

I have to confess that I don’t really know where I’m going with these speculations - just thinking aloud really. I certainly don’t intend to start looking all over the place in the hope of encountering angels!

But this train of thought, given its biblical foundation, prompts in my mind a couple of reminders that I know I need, and which I hope you may find useful too.

First, there is far more to the world we live in than we realise. As Hamlet put it to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

No, I am sure we shouldn’t - indeed mustn’t - go around looking for angels; but perhaps it is not wrong to pray that God by his Spirit would give us a greater awareness of, and a greater sensitivity to, the eternal, the unseen, the “spiritual” world. Not in order to satisfy some kind of unhealthy curiosity, oh no, but to enable us to see more of God’s working in our world. 

I think of the story of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6. The servant was frightened, feeling that he and his master were hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy, whereupon Elisha prayed “O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.” And - guess what? - he did...!

Second, God has a deep personal, individual care for those who belong to him. That doesn’t mean that we can all expect to be bailed out of every difficult situation as Peter was on this occasion. After all, if Peter had an angel, so presumably did James the son of Zebedee, and remember what happened to him (Acts 12:2). But it does mean that God is always watching over us (a precious truth spelled out with beautiful simplicity in Psalm 121).

Have you ever felt the presence of an angel? I would love to hear from you if you have.

Lord God , I am so aware of the things I can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Please grant me a greater awareness of the unseen and eternal things. Amen.

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