Sermon for Festal Evensong, Te Deum & Benediction Sunday 1 November 2015
Sermon preached by the Venerable Jonathan Smith, Archdeacon of St Albans
‘Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ Hebrews 12:1
+Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is a very tiresome and exasperating aspect of human behaviour to visit someone in their beautiful home and rather than express appreciation of the lovely surroundings, instead bang on about the latest piece of work carried out on one’s own dwelling. If people start to avail me with stories of their latest kitchen make-over “tiles specially imported from Italian quarries” that sort of thing, then I’m afraid my eyes very quickly become as glazed as the wretched tiles. On this, your Patronal Festival week-end, you have given me the honour and joy to worship with you in this holy and numinous house of prayer, a place where I first worshipped forty years ago this year, and in case anyone is wondering, no, they didn’t have Toddlers Services in those days. I was a student in my first year at University. So I hope you won’t find it ungracious of me to say that back home, in St Alban’s Cathedral, we are still caught up in the joy and marvel of our newly dedicated, by your own Bishop Richard, nave statues filling hitherto empty niches in the Nave Screen. The first polychrome stone statues introduced in an English Cathedral since the Reformation. Seven, reflecting our own history, with Alban, this land’s Christian protomartyr, Amphibalus the priest he sheltered; two from the Reformation period, Alban Roe and George Tankerfield representing the Catholic and Reformed traditions and three 20th century inspirational figures, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elizabeth Romanova and Oscar Romero. What unites all seven is that their sanctity led them to a particular and specific form of Christian service. They were all martyred because they allowed themselves to be put in danger by openly adhering to the Christian faith. The word martyr, as you will know, means witness and today when we think of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, I simply want us to consider this question, How far will my witness to the faith of Christ take me?
We live, thank God, in a society which by and large cherishes religious freedom but for a moment, let us imagine a time when that is not so. When practising the Christian faith will bring discrimination or oppression or persecution. There are plenty of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world where this is an everyday occurrence, here and now. When it all begins to cost, where shall I be found? When it all gets too uncomfortable and then rather dangerous, would my Christian faith find itself being displaced from being an open commitment into a form of secret virtue? The cloud of witnesses referenced to in Hebrews 12:1 are commended for their devotion to God in the Old Covenant, but for us for whom Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, God has provided something better, something precious, something beyond measure, the grace of salvation. What we have to gain and to lose is Christ. I ask myself again, an open commitment or a secret virtue and our Blessed Lord is recorded in the Gospels saying some pretty uncompromising things about those who were ashamed of publicly owning his name when things start to cost. Let us look to the saints, both those whom posterity has marked and whom the church celebrates in its yearly calendar, and also those quiet, faithful souls whose Christian faith has illuminated and blessed all those who have come within its orbit.
I detect three strands of sanctity, three dispositions of holiness which make saints of God and lookers unto Jesus. The first is humility. Not the false meekness which we so often try to pass off as humility but true humility which does recognize that we are peoples of abilities and talents but always acknowledging that these are gifts from God and are to be used in the service of his Kingdom. Such a humility manifests itself in a complete dependence on the grace of God who makes us acceptable in his beloved Son. When we accept that all we are and have is given to us by God, then his gifts in us may be shared to achieve remarkable and often self- surprising outcomes.
A second strand of sanctity is forgiveness. This shouldn’t surprise us because it occurs right at the heart of the prayer which our Lord taught to his disciples and has bestowed upon the church. Thus the saints undertake that journey moving from the retributive justice of the Old Covenant to the law of love which goes the second mile, gives the coat as well as the cloak, blesses those who curse ‘Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. In the company of the saints, there is really only room for the forgiven who themselves forgive, following our Lord’s pioneering words from the cross. My word it’s hard for some of us. An eye for an eye fits in rather well with my natural ideal of justice until I realise that means I would by now, be completely blind. Nothing gets in the way of forgiveness like bitterness and rancour and the antidote of God’s love is the only thing which can neutralize the bile of bitterness and the poison of rancour.
And so to the third strand of sanctity, stubbornness, all right call it steadfastness if you want but I prefer stubbornness. Here I stand, my choice is made and I will not be deflected from it. The little evangelical song I expect a lot of us learned at Sunday School:
‘I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back
Though I may wander
I still will follow’.
Is it permissible to have heroes of the faith anymore? Whatever, I have, St Polycarp, who when faced with the choice of renouncing Christ to save his life simply said “For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong, how can I blaspheme my King who saved me. I am a Christian, if you wish to study the Christian doctrine choose a day and you will hear it”.
Humility, forgiveness, stubbornness; may the prayers of Polycarp and all the sainted witnesses cheer, urge and inspire us on our journey to the place of perfect love, light and glory which is our true home.