A Sermon preached on Easter VI, May 25 at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Acts 17:22-31, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21, Psalm 66:7-18
Today we are commemorating the feast day of our patron saint, Augustine of Canterbury. Actually it’s tomorrow, May 26, but somehow I don’t expect to see too many of you in church on a Monday! A group of monks led by St. Augustine, their prior, were sent in 596 by Pope Gregory the Great on a mission to England, to the Kingdom of Kent. The Kentish King, Ethelbert, tolerated their presence and allowed them the use of an old church built on the east side of Canterbury, dating from the Roman occupation of Britain. This church of St. Martin is the earliest place of Christian worship in England still in use.
After four years St. Augustine managed to convert Ethelbert to Christianity, though Ethelbert’s wife Bertha, who was already a Christian, might have helped too! With the king, the kingdom soon became Christian. So the see of Canterbury and its Cathedral Church, and the preeminent position of Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion, all owe their establishment to Augustine’s mission. Interestingly Pope Gregory gave Augustine considerable freedom in his mission to adapt to local custom and to use ‘best practices.’ In one letter Gregory writes, “If you have found customs, whether in the Roman, Gallican, or any other Churches that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the faith, whatever you can profitably learn from the various Churches.” This is advice today’s Roman church sometimes seems to have forgotten
There are both similarities and differences between St. Augustine’s mission to the English, and St. Paul’s to the Athenians that we heard about this morning. Both were sent to places they had not been to before, though Paul would have felt more at home in the Hellenistic culture of Athens, than Augustine among the Anglo-Saxons. On the other hand unlike Athens and despite the claim sometimes made that St. Augustine converted the English, the British Isles already contained a lot of Christians. In those areas not completely overrun by the illegal immigrants of the day, the Anglo-Saxons, British-Roman Christianity, often also called Celtic, still flourished with different practices that would not be unified for another sixty years. And remember St. Augustine was given the use of a Christian church. So he will have encountered some knowledge of Christianity.
Paul had no such luck. Instead he cleverly uses a shrine dedicated to an unknown god to introduce his, our God as what the Athenians had been worshipping all along as unknown. In fact both he and St. Augustine were very willing to use local customs, poems, traditions, or philosophy to argue their case – Paul quotes a line from Greek poetry to prove a point. They both engaged critically with the culture and religion of their day and they are willing to use elements of it if it helps to get the core message of Good News across.
We have no record of St. Augustine’s preaching. But we can assume it will not have been vastly different from what St. Paul proclaims. And that echoes what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel. It’s an incredibly encouraging message. “The God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24) is not the distant and at best uninterested god of Greek philosophy, nor the often vindictive and violent god of Anglo Saxon mythology, but a God who is not far from each of us. Jesus tells his disciples that this same God will send them the “Spirit of truth,” which will abide with them, and be in them. That’s pretty close!
And this is not just about proximity. Paul tells the Athenians that we are God’s offspring. He does not mean this in a physical sense. The Athenians knew all about the exploits of Zeus, the chief god in their pantheon, who seems to have fathered a child somewhere almost on a weekly basis. Being God's offspring is another way of saying that the God Paul proclaims, offers us the intimate and loving relationship of a parent to a child. In Jesus’ words we are offered the chance of becoming part of the existing, loving, mutual relationship between him and the Father: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John14:20) We will be joined to Jesus and the Father by an unbreakable bond of love. A love demonstrated by God’s gift of his Son, by his Son’s gift of his life and new life for us all, and by the gift of the Spirit as helper, comforter, and advocate.
As I explained earlier, our patron saint was a missionary, which according to one definition is someone “sent by God and by God’s church to bear witness in word and deed to God’s action in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.” I am sure that this church’s founders meant this missionary role of being a witness in word and deed to God and God’s action to be part of our calling, our DNA you might say, and that this church was never just supposed to be a little corner of England in a foreign land. That is something we no longer are, if we ever were. Just look at the variety of languages we will hear in 2 weeks at Pentecost: Greek, Aramaic, French, Italian, German, Danish, Finnish, Afrikaans, Farsi, Swahili … oh and English too. This is also reflected in this church's official mission statement:
Our mission is to fulfil our promises to Jesus Christ through word and deed by proclaiming his love to all. Our ministry is to all people, regardless of their cultural, national, ethnic, or religious background, who seek fellowship in the baptism of Jesus Christ.
As parishioners of St. Augustine’s church we are called to be missionaries to the people surrounding us. 2,000 years after Paul and 1,500 years after Augustine, we have the same core message to proclaim and the same dispensation to adapt to ‘local customs’ to make it understandable and relevant. Like Paul and Augustine, God expects us to engage critically with the surrounding culture and ideology and to offer a radical alternative: that has not changed.
Today’s culture does not have distant gods, but an absent god: We offer the creator God who is never far from us, and whose Spirit is with us forever.
Today’s culture has its own violent, selfish, and jealous gods or idols. We offer a God of love and a God of relationships and an ideal, if not always the reality, of a selfless community joined to one another and to God by bonds of love.
Today’s culture holds up the ideals of self-realization and self-reliance: it’s up to us! We offer mutual help and support and God’s support through the Spirit that gives us strength, energy, guidance, and life.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” Jesus says in today’s passage. In the next chapter of John’s Gospel he defines what he means by this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) You all are the ‘one another’ we are supposed to love as Jesus loved, but it doesn’t stop there. The one another of Jesus’ command includes those outside our doors. Letting them see and hear and experience how we put this commandment into effect is what will make us worthy successors of our patron saint, St. Augustine of Canterbury.