Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Never-ending story

The Celebration of the Feast of Agnes, Martyr
23 January 2011

Saint Agnes Anglican Church
North Vancouver BC

+ May my mouth speak the praise of our God and may all the faithful bless the holy name of God for ever and ever.  Amen.

         In the year 284 of the common era Diocletian, a Roman general of Croatian origin, became the emperor of an empire that was in the midst of a decline from which it would eventually succumb.  Despite all the evidence of its decline Diocletian was committed to restoring the Roman Empire to its former glory.

         To accomplish this Diocletian became a true autocrat and emphasized the status of the emperor as the earthly embodiment of divine power.  He actively worked to restore the old Roman civil religion and, to achieve its restoration, Diocletian was quite happy to use the full coercive power of the state.  One group that felt the lash of Diocletian’s desire to revive the glories of the past were the Manichees, a religious group that shared some affinities with certain Christian teachings.  They were bullied, abused, arrested, tortured and executed in the name of the restoration of the Roman state.

         By this time in Roman history, however, the followers of the way of Jesus of Nazareth were moving into the main-stream of Roman society and were already including members of wealthy Roman families as well as members of the imperial household, the powerful bureaucracy which ran the imperial government, within the numbers of Christians in the Empire.  For almost twenty years Diocletian held back his hand from active persecution of Christians, but in 303 Diocletian unleashed the power of the state upon the Christian community.  Although there were regions where Diocletian’s anti-Christian policy was not enforced, this time came to be known by some early Christian historians as the ‘Great Persecution’.

         How Agnes, a young girl of twelve or thirteen and a member of a prominent family, came to fall into the hands of the Roman authorities is the subject of various accounts and legends.  These stories, while entertaining in a strange way, are not why we remember her nor why it is important to continue to enshrine her name by dedicating parish churches in her name.

         What we need to remember is that on or about the 21st of January in the year 304 of the common era Agnes died because she was a Christian and would not abandon her faith in the face of certain death.  That would be enough to merit keeping her name alive, indeed the name of any of the numerous martyrs, whether Christian or not, who have refused to yield to political or religious persecution.  For those of us gathered in this church dedicated to Agnes, however, there is a more pressing reason to remember her.  Agnes dared to believe in a new way of looking at the world even as her own culture and society were surely dying, a slow death to be sure, but dying nevertheless.

         Here in North Vancouver it is fitting to have a church dedicated to such a courageous young person.  The parishes of this deanery have dared to look at how Anglican ministry might be shaped in the months and years ahead as it has become clear that older models of ministry no longer serve our present reality and that the time has come to allow them to die with dignity.  Rather than grasping after the glories of past days as Diocletian tried to do, you have chosen the way of Agnes, daring to follow the way of Jesus even if it is not entirely clear where that way may lead you.

  • You have embraced the new yet ancient ministry of deacons as a mark of your future.
  • You have broadened your horizons to reach beyond parish boundaries to encompass all the regions of North Vancouver. 
  • You have dared our diocesan structures to play ‘catch up’ with you as we realize that our canons and regulations may not be agile enough to support the initiatives that we need to undertake to proclaim the good news in what is increasingly an ignorant, indifferent and, at times, hostile post-religious society. 

         Just yesterday, Douglas Todd wrote in the Vancouver Sun about a recent study that indicates how far religious ignorance has permeated our society, touching even those who claim to be, in some fashion or another, religious.

         This is not the first time we have lived in such times.  At some point between the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 and the beginnings of active imperial opposition to the Christian movement in the 90’s, a Christian leader wrote from Rome to Christians living in the eastern regions of the Empire.  These Christians had “once participated in the social and cultural life of their communities, but since their conversion to Christ have become marginalized and abused.”  (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)  The dominant Roman view of foreign religions, which is what Christianity was considered to be, was that they “. . . caused immorality (especially adultery), insubordination within the household, and sedition against the state.”  (The HarperCollins Study Bible).  After all, Paul taught Christian women that they could divorce their unbelieving husbands, that in Christ there was no male nor female, no slave nor free, no Jew or Greek and that only Jesus was ‘Lord’, a title usually reserved for the emperor.

         What is striking is the author’s view of how the Christian communities should respond to this ostracism and abuse.  We might expect him to say something like, “Hunker down.  Lie low for a well.  Move out of the cities.”  But this is not his message.  The author emphasizes what the Christians share with their non-Christian neighbours and encourages Christians “. . . to critical, responsible service of God in the family and in other institutions of society” rather than an abandonment of the world.  (The HarperCollins Study Bible)  “Above all,” he writes, “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”  (1 Peter 4.8-10)

         My sisters and brothers of the Parish of Saint Agnes, you have chosen to walk the way of the martyrs, a word which simply means ‘witness’ in Greek.  It is to you and to all of us facing the challenges of sharing our faith in a post-religious culture that Jesus says, “[Do] not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  (Matthew 10.19-20)  Like the communities to whom the author of 1 Peter wrote, we are not to abandon our world and hide away.  We to whom God has entrusted manifold gifts of grace are being challenged to find new ways to pour out that grace on a society and culture that is in need of it.  Our task is to find the language and structures that will help us to this.

         Whether they knew it or not, the people who decided to call this parish, the Parish of Saint Agnes, were daring to say to the whole world:  We are Agnes, here in North America, here in North Vancouver, here in this time and, we hope, for time to come.  Just as Agnes faced a dying society and culture in the confidence of a faith in a living God who dares to make all things new, so will we embody the same faith in the same living God

  • who raises up what is cast down;
  • who makes new things that had grown old and
  • who is bringing to perfection all things through Jesus, our way, our truth, our life.

         We are all familiar with the invitation to share the bread and wine of the eucharist:  “The gifts of God for the people of God.”  Less familiar perhaps is the whole phrase that we believe Augustine of Hippo, the great fifth-century North African theologian, spoke to his people as he held up the consecrated bread and wine before them:  “The gifts of God for the people of God.  See who you are.  Become what you see.”  When we dedicate a parish to one saint or another, we do so for a reason.  It is as if we are saying to the whole community, “See who we are.  Help us become what we see.”

         As a young priest in the Diocese of Colorado I was taught a song that originated somewhere in Africa where people walk for hours to attend worship.  As they walk, they sing:  “We have another world in view, in view.  We have another world in view.  We have another world in view, in view.  We have another world in view.  Our Saviour has come to prepare us a place.  We have another world in view.  Our Saviour has come to prepare us a place.  We have another world in view.”  My friends, we are emerging from a long period where the church did not have another world in view.  We were so deeply rooted in the institutions of our society, so closely identified with the structures of power, that we might be excused for losing sight of who we were and who we were to become.  But we have another world in view.

         Even as painful as some of the losses of the past decades are, these losses may have begun clear our eyes to see and our arteries to fuel a renewed vision of what it means to follow Jesus of Nazareth.  Our places for worship are not sanctuaries from the needs and concerns of the world in which we live and work but mission stations where we are fed and nurtured by Word and Spirit, by fellowship and prayer, by study and sacrament, to participate in God’s mission.    Agnes understood this and took her place in the procession of saints, some martyrs, some imprisoned and maltreated, who lead us into our neighbourhoods not away from them.  Therefore, joining with the heavenly chorus, with prophets, apostles and martyrs, and with those in every generation who have looked to God in hope, who have caught a glimpse of the new world in which God calls us to share, let us proclaim an ancient hymn of praise,

Splendour and honour and sovereign power *
         are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
         and by your will they were created and have their being.
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
         for with your sacrifice you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people and nation, *
         a priestly community to serve our God on earth.
And so, to the One who sits upon the throne, *
         and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendour,
         for ever and for evermore.  Amen.

Revelation 4.11; 5.9-10, 13 alt. by RGL+

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