A Sermon from Sherborne

I believe in angels

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 25 August 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


I believe in angels. I know: I once met one. She was young, blonde and beautiful. I know what you are thinking – poor old chap: typical male fantasy. But it wasn’t a bit like that. Let me explain.

Over two decades ago, I had to go into Yeovil Hospital in a hurry. My appendix had blown up suddenly and was about to burst. It should have been a simple and straightforward operation, but proved a touch more difficult. The operation dragged on for a long afternoon, and I was incarcerated at Yeovil for several days before I was let out.

On about the second evening, a nurse arrived to put in a new drip. It hurt like hell, but I come from a stiff-upper-lip-no-complaints type of family, and resigned myself to a night of discomfort. But the pain grew steadily worse. My whole right arm began to throb. It looked like being a long and painful vigil before the dawn.

And then my angel appeared. As I said, she was young and blonde and beautiful. In the subdued lighting on a ward at night she couldn’t have seen my problem, but somehow she sensed it. Suddenly she was at my bedside. ‘You are hurting.’ It wasn’t an English accent, or German, or Scandinavian. I thought it might be Dutch. ‘Oh yes, I see. The drip has been put in badly. Your right arm will be all bruised tomorrow. I will take the drip out and put it in your left arm. It will feel more comfortable’.

More comfortable? It felt like bliss. My beautiful blonde nurse moved the drip so gently, so painlessly. I slept through the night until I was awoken next morning by my favourite Staff Nurse. She’s still my favourite, by the way. Towards the end of my time in Yeovil Hospital she crept up to my bed and asked me to marry her. She and her fiancé, of course! And I did, and I’ve baptised three children since. But she was worried about my right arm – it was bruised from wrist to elbow. ‘Yes, it did hurt’, I admitted, ‘but that blonde night nurse sorted it.’ ‘We don’t have any blonde night nurses.’ ‘Oh yes you do, the one with the Dutch accent. She was an angel.’

Much puzzlement. My right arm was undeniably comprehensively bruised. The drip sat comfortably in my left arm. But there was no record of it having been done, and no one knew anything about my beautiful blonde nurse with the Dutch, or any other, accent. I believe in angels.

A great Festival of the Church was celebrated here yesterday by nine worshippers at the 9.00 am Eucharist in the Sepulchre Chapel. It was the Feast of St Bartholomew. He is named in all three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – as one of the Twelve Apostles. His name is always linked with that of St Philip. But John doesn’t mention him at all. Instead he links Philip with Nathaniel – who is not mentioned by the other three Gospel writers. That has led scholars to conclude that ‘Bartholomew’ was a family name, from the Hebrew Bar, meaning ‘Son of”, and Tolmai. ‘Son of Tolmai’. But his first name was Nathaniel. Hence the choice of this evening’s second lesson [John 1.43-51].

Nathaniel Bartolmai was clearly a friend of Philip’s, because when Jesus called Philip to follow him, the latter went straight off to recruit Nathanial too. But Nathaniel was a cynic. He doubted that anything good could come out of Nazareth. Within living memory, it had twice been the centre of resistance to the Romans, and twice had seen destruction and multiple executions. It was not a safe place. (Interesting, that. It doesn’t get reflected much in subsequent churchy images of the boy Jesus quietly watching Joseph going about his work as a carpenter in a peaceful little village).

Jesus answers Nathaniel’s cynicism, not only by his ironic response to the Israelite in whom there is no deceit, but also by promising him that he will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

Did Nathaniel believe in angels? I don’t know. But I do, and so, apparently, do many people – not least young people – who find difficulty with organised religion and institutional Christianity. The Greek word angelos simply means ‘messenger’, and even the most sceptical or cynical of you will acknowledge that all sorts of unexpected people can become messengers of grace for us. My beautiful blonde nurse whom no one remembered and none could recall might just have been passing through my ward from another, and somehow sensed my pain. In other words she was probably wholly human. On the whole I would prefer that to be. But the point is, she was a messenger of comfort and help to me at the point of my need, and that’s all I need to know. And each one of us is capable of, has the potential to be, used in a similar way. When were you last an angel to someone near and dear to you? When were you last an angel to a stranger?

I believe in angels….

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 25/08/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne