Address for Sunday 21 June 2020
We began our worship this morning with the pilgrims of St Albans, retelling the story of their Patron Saint – carrying those giant puppets in procession to the Cathedral.
St Alban was a Briton, and living under Roman rule: he was a well-respected man – known to be wealthy, generous and kind hearted.
It was due to this reputation that a Christian priest, seeking refuge from persecution by the Roman authorities, came to Alban for help. Alban hid him away in his house, and as he got to know him better, Alban was so impressed by the example of this priest – Amphibalus – that he became a Christian.
And when, eventually, Roman soldiers came knocking at the door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and had himself arrested instead – giving time for Amphibalus to flee.
When the magistrate discovered the truth of what he’d done, he was furious – and insisted that Alban should offer sacrifice to the Pagan gods in order to atone for his wrongdoing. Alban refused, stating that he only believed in the God of Love.
And so he was led away and killed, becoming the English church’s first martyr.
It’s slightly unnerving then, that today’s Collect encourages us to follow his example – not a very enticing prospect!
Perhaps I can rescue us then with the thought that our word martyr – someone who dies for their faith – is a translation of exactly the same Greek word as the word for “witness”, μαρτυσ.
Strictly speaking then, we could say that a martyr is someone who bears witness to the truth whatever the cost.
And while St Alban witnessed to his faith by dying for his friend, most of us are called to witness to our faith in the way that we live.
There we are, it’s feeling better already!
That’s not to suggest that our task is easy – bearing witness to our faith means living by the standards we commend to others, grappling with the challenges of the gospel and not holding back – being both as generous and as faithful as St. Alban.
And at least as challenging for many of us, to be a witness implies a willingness to speak about our faith – something that we may feel is intensely private; something which may feel is TOO precious to even try and explain to someone else.
When we speak of our own religious, or spiritual experience, too often we’re afraid of looking silly – or of making a mess of it and letting the side down, of selling short God’s goodness and greatness.
And yet, very often what other people want to hear is precisely that – our honest reflections on how we come to be mixed up in this curious bunch of people called the Church.
There’s no suggestion that the priest, Amphibilus, tried to cathechize, or teach Alban the doctrine of the Church – it was his nature, we’re told. and the way he spoke about himself that captured Alban’s imagination and led him to follow the way of Christ.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plain speaking, of honestly “thinking aloud” about our faith and our struggles with that faith, in communicating the power of the gospel to others. We do also need scholars, and evangelists, and experienced spiritual guides within the life of our Church – but we don’t ALL need to be skilled in all those things in order to pass on our faith, just a willingness to speak of our own reality.
Into that reality Jesus himself speaks some rather unsettling words:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
At first hearing that seems rather perverse.
If you WANT to live you’ll die – if you hate living, you’ll live for ever! What kind of morality is that?
Presumably though – if it doesn’t seem to make sense – then that’s not what Jesus is saying. He wants his hearers to do a double-take and think about what he’s said.
Could it be that he’s also talking about the way that we live – about where our attention is focused.
If we are TOO concerned with our present circumstances – surrounding ourselves with whatever we can acquire, always content to stay put and look no further – then there is only one possible outcome: ultimately it will all come crashing to a halt. We can’t preserve this life, unchanging, for ever.
On the other hand, if we are the kind of soul who is always striving for something better – all too aware of our own shortcomings, as well as those of the world around us, and always looking for ways to improve things – then we can expect to be rewarded when finally we pass from this life to the next.
In that light, the prospect of keeping our life in eternal bliss – absorbed into the life of heaven – has rather more to commend it.
And that’s where I want to wander back to the theme of pilgrimage – and to interpret pilgrimage as a deliberate refusal to simply exist, and fade away.
Pilgrimage – in the literal sense – is a sacred journey where we leave behind the familiar, and seek God in new surroundings and among new people, and to learn from them.
And in another sense, pilgrimage is a state of mind – an equal determination to keep seeking truth, to keep seeking beauty, to keep seeking holiness, wherever we glimpse them.
If we are too comfortable with what we already know, with what we like, or with what we think we know about a particular issue or concept – then we’re in danger of falling into the “loving life” category: from which we can only grow stale and lose what life we have.
If we can keep alive the pilgrim’s sense of enquiry, of eagerness to hear the stories of others and to learn from them; if we can view our life as a pilgrimage of faith, then – even if we’re physically unable to travel to new places –we are already journeying towards the eternal joy that Christ sets before his hearers.
All of that, I think, is true for individuals; for church congregations; and for THE Church as a whole – the Body of Christ.
None of us are meant to sit still for too long – to be too sure of who we are and what we do and leave it at that: we are called to strive for the kingdom of God, to seek out the signs of God’s presence in the surrounding that are familiar to us – and to step beyond what is familiar, in order to receive fresh insight, fresh inspiration and the wisdom that others have perceived before us.
In that pioneering, pilgrim spirit there is risk – as Alban would testify – but there is also rich reward for ourselves, and those we encounter.
We have no idea what happened to Amphibalus, the priest whose life Alban saved – but his influence echoed throughout England and beyond through his most notable convert.
And we can be sure that he never forgot about Alban.
Two lives were changed – each one by the other – and countless others have been changed ever since, by their combined witness to Christ.
A pilgrim’s prayer
O God, watch over us as we walk in the love of your name, Be for us our companion on the way, Our guide at the crossroads, Our breath in our weariness, Our protection in danger, Our shade in the heat, Our light in the darkness, Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, we return to our home filled with joy. Amen.