Sermon: Feast of St Alban the Martyr, 25 June 2017, Bishop Paul Nicholson, St Alban’s

St Alban- Matthew 10:24-39

-I’ve been introduced this week to two historical characters whose names I’ve often heard but knew little of.

-The first was the Venerable Bede,

-An 8th century monk who wrote the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. (http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.asp)

-The second was St Alban whose name graces our church and whom we remember at this patronal service.

-What we know of St Alban comes primarily from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History’.

-Now most of you know this story,

-But I’ll rehearse it for those newer members of our congregation who may not have heard it,

-And because I was struck with the remarkable parallels that St Alban’s martyrdom share with our Gospel reading for today.

 

-Alban was alive at the beginning of the 4th century when there were still strong persecutions of Christians being carried under orders of the Roman Emperors.

-It was during one of these persecutions that Alban gave sanctuary to a ‘certain clergyman’.

-While he was under Alban’s roof,

-This priest’s prayers and worship made a life changing impact upon Alban.

-The Venerable Bede writes that through this piety and,

“being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, (Alban) he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.”

-Whether it was rumour of Alban’s new found faith,

-Or some Roman spy,

-News of the whereabouts of the fleeing priest gets back to the local prince who sends a posse of soldiers to Alban’s house.

-In what was a very bold act,

-Alban disguises himself in the priest’s cloak and presents himself to the arresting soldiers.

-Back at the palace the local judiciary is not impressed by Alban’s trickery,

-And demands he renounce his new faith,

-Make a sacrifice to the local gods,

-Or suffer the fate that was being prepared for Alban’s refugee.

-When Alban refuses,

-The incensed judge orders him to be scourged.

-But Alban’s acceptance and brave demeanour throughout the whipping further enrages him,

-And he orders that Alban be executed.

 

-Today’s gospel reading began with Jesus saying to his disciples;

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters.” Matthew 10:24

-To understand why Jesus said that you have to go back to the end of ch9,

-And a little observation that Matthew makes about Jesus,

-Who’d been travelling from town to town teaching, preaching and healing every disease and sickness.

-Matthew observes that;

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36

 

-Jesus is driven by compassion for people.

-Like sheep without a shepherd to guide and direct them,

-They were harassed and helpless,

-Battered and bruised by life in a broken and fallen world.

-But it’s the next statement to his disciples that should grab our attention;

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:37-38

-Jesus’ response to the needs of this world,

-Is to ask his disciples to pray that God would send out workers.

-And do you know what the very next thing Matthew tells us?

-Jesus calls the twelve disciples together,

-And sends them out to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is near,

-That the king has arrived and he’s turning this world upside down.

 

-And over the next 270 odd years that message of the kingdom spreads from a rebellious province in the Roman Empire,

-All the way west to a tiny town in barbarian Britain,

-To a pagan who shelters a Christian whose life and piety makes such an impact on him,

-That he trades places in order to save the man’s life.

-A trade which will drive home the lesson that,

-‘The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.’

-Because Jesus sent out his disciples with a warning;

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” Matthew 10:16-18

-Alban experienced that truth first hand.

-And just as Jesus was flogged before a disbelieving ruler,

-So was Alban.

-Just as Jesus was sentenced to death,

-So was Alban.

-The student was not above the teacher.

-Jesus’ warning was,

-That what would happen to him as the master,

-Would certainly happen to his followers.

 

-What amazes me in the story of St Alban is how deep his trust and faith in Jesus was.

-Bede doesn’t give us a great depth of insight into Alban’s motivation,

-Not surprising given that he’s writing some 500 years after the event.

-But I wonder whether Alban naively thought he could just distract the soldiers,

-Have the priest slip out the back door,

-Be half way to the next kingdom before anyone caught on,

-And Alban sweet talk his way out of any trouble?

-But then Alban is faced with the reality of his new faith.

-And I don’t mean he suddenly realises that he could be tortured for it,

-But that he’s faced with a choice between two conflicting worlds,

-Buckle and go back to his old pagan life,

-With all its brokenness and pain,

-Or stand firm with Jesus,

-And embrace to the very end the new life that has come.

-I wonder whether it was the stark reality of Jesus’ words that propelled to him make the stand he did;

 Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:32-33

 

-Whatever his motivation his boldness was clear.

-When the judge,

-Who was at the moment of Alban’s arrival offering sacrifices to his gods,

-Turns to Alban and commands him to do the same,

-Bede writes his answer was;

“These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the subjects, nor answer the wishes or desires of those that offer up their supplications to them. On the contrary, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.” ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ Ch VII

-When Jesus instructed the disciples for their mission he exhorted them;

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:27-28

-In that moment of decision Alban boldly proclaimed the truth of Jesus,

-He stood firmly for his master,

-Even in the face of threats from a powerful authority.

-Alban had his priorities sorted.

-He knew who it was to fear in this world,

-And it wasn’t those who could merely take away a person’s life.

-Alban knew that proper awe and respect needs to be given to God alone.

-When the judge demanded Alban disclose his name and what race he belonged to,

-Remember this is barbarian Britain under Roman rule,

-Alban answered;

“What does it concern you of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties . . .I am called Alban by my parents, and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

 

-That’s a pretty solid declaration of commitment isn’t it?

-Even in the face of death Alban knew where his salvation lay.

-Jesus laid out before his disciples that very same level of commitment;

“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:38-39

-We accept Jesus words there as a symbol whenever we speak about ‘taking up our cross’,

-Or exclaiming through some hardship that,

-‘This is the cross we bear’.

-But to a first century listener those words would have been taken very literally.

-If you were carrying a cross in those days it meant you were a dead man walking.

-To carry a cross meant you were certain to die.

-Crucifixion wasn’t just a nasty way to die,

-It was a total package of humiliation and warning to anyone who would contemplate rebelling against the might of Rome.

-And in those days of Emperor worship,

-To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ was an act of sedition not a religious gesture.

 

-The English word ‘martyr’ originates in the Greek word ‘to bear witness’.

-In its original context it meant nothing more than telling what was true.

-But by the time of the Imperial persecutions it took on the modern meaning,

-Because to tell what was true about Jesus,

-Brought you into direct confrontation with the authority of the Roman Empire.

-Alban’s declaration had that effect,

-And in a rage the judge sends Alban out with a squad of soldiers to be executed.

 

-Well the story now takes on mythic proportions.

-The execution squad needs to cross the river to get to the execution site,

-But so many people turn up to gawk at the goings on that the bridge is clogged and they can’t cross.

-Alban ‘urged by an ardent and devout wish to arrive quickly at martyrdom’,

-Prays that the river would dry up and it does.

-The party crosses the river and arrives at the site.

-The assigned executioner however,

-Throws down his sword,

-Falls at Alban’s feet,

-Praying that he might suffer with Alban or instead of him.

-After Alban was beheaded as the first British martyr,

-The penitent executioner became the second.

-But Bede chronicles that the judge was so astonished by this rash of miracles,

-That he ordered the persecutions to stop.

 

-Now we may be sceptical of this part of the story,

-But we need to remember the words of another centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus;

“Surely this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:38

-St Albans story is one of faithful witness,

-In both the literal and historical sense.

-First there was the faithful witness of a priest on the run,

-Whose piety and teaching brought Alban to faith.

-Then Alban’s own witness first to a hostile judge,

-And then his confidence in the resurrection that impressed a Roman soldier.

-Alban literally lost his life,

-But the resurrection hope he had brought him true life.

-Not even the threat of death could shake Alban’s newfound faith in Jesus.

-As we celebrate this patronal festival we too are called to the same commitment as St Alban,

-To lose our lives in the grace and mercy of a saviour,

-Who calls us all to be faithful witnesses to him in our different worlds.