Easter 6 Sunday Sermon 2013
Sermon by The Reverend Charles Royden
‘A new commandment I give unto you
that you love one another as I have loved you’
Those of you who have been to St Albans Cathedral will have seen the shrine to St Alban. It has been done quite beautifully. For over 1700 years people have been visiting this place to remember the first Christian martyr in Britain.
It was around 250 that a man named Alban, believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the Roman town of Verulamium around the end of the 3rd century, gave shelter to an itinerant Christian priest, later called Amphibalus. Alban was a worshipper of Roman gods, including the Emperor. He became so impressed with Amphibalus that Alban was converted to Christianity.
When a period of persecution, ordered by the Emperor, brought soldiers in search of the priest, Alban exchanged clothes with him allowing him to escape and it was Alban who was arrested in his place. Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the Roman gods, Alban bravely declared his faith in words which are still used in the Abbey today
‘I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.’
Despite flogging he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and he was sentenced to death. He was led out of the town across the river and up a hillside where he was beheaded.
As with all good stories the legend grew with time.
- A spring of water appeared to provide a drink for the martyr.
The executioner refused to behead the saint
A second executioner's eyes dropped out as he beheaded the saint,
At the time of Bede there was a church and shrine near the spot, pilgrims travelled to visit, and it became an established place of healing. He describes the hill as
"adorned with wild flowers of every kind" and as a spot
"whose natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr".
He was beheaded, according to legend, on the spot where the cathedral named for him now stands. The site is on a steep hill and legend has it that his head rolled down the hill after being cut off and that a well sprang up at the point where it stopped. A well exists today and the road up to the cathedral is named Holywell Hill.
The rule of the Benedictine monks who built the Abbey was that each stranger must be treated as Christ himself, this follows an emphasis on labour, as a religious duty,
‘To labour is to pray’
became a favourite motto of the Benedictine Monks.
So there we have in Alban, the first British martyr a wonderful example of that behaviour which is called for in our reading today. Alban lives out the command that you
‘love one another as I have loved you.’
The love of Jesus is a giving love, a self giving love which stops at nothing and which is poured out for others. Alban dies in the place of the Christian priest and refuses to bend the knee to human power.
The stories around the episode, executioners eyes popping out and wells springing up, these are all good stuff, but the real miracle was the willingness of Alban to die in place of another. The willingness to put into practice that commandment. from John 13
It is strange really we are five Sundays into Easter and we go right back to the Upper Room Jesus with his disciples washing their feet. Jesus is preparing his followers for that time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. He is establishing for them what their behaviour is to be once he is gone.
Our lesson today reminds us that the characteristic of the Christian above all things is love.
Jesus says that this is his command to us that we ‘love one another’. This love which Jesus wishes is nothing new in one sense.
The Mosaic covenant had mandated
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ Dt 6:5
In Leviticus we read
Love your neighbour as yourself. Lv 19:18
In Matthew 5:43 we read this
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
In Mark’s Gospel (20:28) Jesus teaches the greatest commandment. You will remember the teacher of the law came to Jesus asking which of the commandments was the most important
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
This is not love just for those we like, those like us, It is not to tolerate, not just respect, but love.
So why does Jesus say in John
‘A new commandment I give to you to love one another ‘
The new part is the ending ‘as I have loved you’
This is the depth of the love that should characterise the Christian Church
Jesus is telling his disciples that they must obey a new commandment:
"Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
This world is not heaven but by loving God and our neighbour as Christ loved us and gave his life for us, we can start living the life of Kingdom people now even while we wait for God's coming rule. We can break down barriers between people
- between races and genders
- ages and abilities
- religious opinions and ideologies
We can show in our lives that we believe what we say we do
Today when we ask what Christians are known for we would probably have an answer which included ‘falling out with one another.’ We are known for our differences, what opinions are sacred to one groups and an anathema to others, what divides us.. The differences are well rehearsed for the TV and on the radio.
There has never been a time in the Church when everybody got on and agreed about everything. but we do need to be more like those early Christians who showed their faith in the risen Christ by loving one another.
One of the reasons that Christianity spread so rapidly through the Roman Empire is that Christians broke through cultural barriers to embody the love of Christ. In the early second century, (about 120ad) Aristides an Athenian philosopher sent the emperor Hadrian a description of who these Christians were. He said,
“Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If one of them has something, he gives freely to the one who has nothing without boasting. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs and, if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any poor or naked and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply the needy…They live with much care, justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded...and they do not declare in the ears of the multitude the kind deeds they do but are careful that no one should take notice of them…Truly this is a new people and there is something divine in them.”
It is this kind of behaviour which we want to see characterise the Christian church. Love which is not confined but for the world. Jesus loves us more than we love ourselves and it is that depth of love which he calls us to live out as a Christian community - loving as he loves.
It is as we show love that we show our faith is real and this loving one another is very important. It is easier to show love for those who are far away. I can love all Africa and the people in need and demonstrate my love for contributing to the various charities which provide help and support. But the harder love is the love for the person alongside me in the church who I know I don’t get along with, who annoys me and gets on my nerves. The people close to us are the hard ones because we know them and they know us and it takes a lot more effort to love them than some anonymous group of people on the other side of the world.
And so the challenge today is
- Whether our community will say the same kind of things about us as Aristides said of those early Christian?
- Will we show the same kind of sacrifice for one another that Albans showed when he became the first British martyr?
- We might not have to give our lives to protect each other. But will we be willing only to say kind words about each other?
That is a good thing which we could do today is it not? We could leave church today with a vow and promise before God that we will only ever say good things about our Christian brothers and sisters.
It is by our kindness to one another that other will see Christ in us. Amen