St. George’s Day Sermon

Westcott was glad to welcome the Rev’d Philip Hobday to preach in All Saints for our Community Eucharist on St. George’s Day, Thursday 23 April.  

Security, success, and St George

Readings: Psalm cxxvi, II Timothy ii.3-13, John xv.18-21

‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’ (II Tim. ii.8).

Christmas round robins must be the most infuriating kind of letter there is. Every year these dismal tomes land on the doormat, bearing images of the perfect family and their idyllic existence. They are almost designed to make one feel unsuccessful, underwhelming, and underpaid. This blissful family of high-achievers has, as usual, broken all records – mummy has been promoted yet again, daddy has tossed off another book while doing half the childcare. Little Esmeralda has swum for the county while gaining grade eight flute with distinction and an ‘A’ Level in Mandarin and is looking forward to her ninth birthday party. As ever it’s the Christian ones who are the worst; for in these you discover that not only are they much richer, happier, and cleverer than you, they are also better- looking and holier: so darling Olly has just turned down a modelling contract with Jack Wills to spend a gap year installing toilets for churches in the developing world.

Today we’re celebrating St George and I promise we’ll come to him, but I want to us to think about what makes us feel secure. The round robin (apologies for the caricature) is an extreme example of our tendency to assume that security comes from success. I am valuable, worthwhile, effective, if I achieve things. It might be getting the ideal job, hitting all my targets, and gaining a bonus and promotion every year. It might be finding the perfect partner, effortlessly conceiving and raising a family that never argues, living in a tastefully-decorated executive home which is always clean, tidy, and calm.

The tendency to equate security and success is sometimes a problem for our church and our spiritual life, too. There’s a brilliant story of a new bishop at an icebreaker on a training course for the newly- enthroned – I imagine Fr Martin is doing something similar at this very moment! – where everyone had to describe their new dioceses. Bishop after bishop rhapsodised about their patches, outbidding each other to portray lively, successful, growing communities, full of mature Christians who never utter a cross word. Infuriated by this unreal picture, this bishop got up and said, ‘The diocese of Lincoln is two thousand square miles of bugger all’ and promptly sat down. 

More seriously: we’ve probably all been put off by seemingly confident and successful Christians with never any kind of question or struggle about their faith. We’ve all read parish profiles which have suspiciously glowing accounts of congregations which are solvent, growing, mission-focussed, and never argue. Now it’s a natural human desire – and part of our flourishing – to want fulfilling jobs and relationships. As Christians, we want to be growing in our own faith and our church to be growing in numbers. The problem comes when we believe that our success is the basis of our security. This equation will cause great hurt to those who feel unsuccessful: who didn’t got that promotion, who haven’t found the right partner, who struggle to believe, whose churches aren’t growing. It will also distort our own self-understanding, because for most of us life is a mixed picture of triumph and disaster and all stops in between – a generally contented workplace unbalanced by a divisive new employee; a largely happy relationship which hits a rocky patch because of illness or disagreement; the lively faith which struggles with a sudden shock; the growing church which gets embroiled in an unexpected conflict.

Equating success withsecurity will riskmakingus feel small and insecure, distorting our self perception. But we must also be aware that – particularly, perhaps, for Christians – there can be a kind of reverse tendency to equate failure with security. Go back to the example of Bishop Hardy, and you could equally imagine a gathering of new bishops where they tried to outdo one another with lurid accounts of how dreadful their diocese is – we have no curates, parish share collection is dismal, the archdeacon is an unbalanced control-freak and all the buildings are collapsing. Competitive complaining is something we’re all prone to – no-one appreciates me, no-one understands me, it’s all too much. Deanery Chapters and even theological colleges are vulnerable to it. This tendency to find comfort in failure can be even more dangerous because there’s a risk of trying to cover it up with a spiritual gloss – Jesus in tonight’s gospel telling his disciples that the world will hate them (John xv.19).

Whatever our job, relationship or family situation, whether our Christian ministry will be lay or ordained, the equation of security with success, or indeed failure, is dangerous. It will mean we are confused and disappointed when we realise that most of what we are and do is a mixed picture of achievement and struggle, progress and setback. It will mean our vision is so distorted that we will find it hard to make a realistic assessment of the possibilities and problems faced by our church. It will mean we spend so much time and energy fretting about what we think we do and don’t have that we waste our resources without doing or getting it. So what should we be looking at, where does our security really lie?
Well, by a roundabout route I promised we’d get to St George because he – and the saints and martyrs more generally – has something to say about all this. George was, you might know, a farmer turned soldier from Palestine (born to a Greek-speaking Turkish father) and was executed in around 303 under the Diocletian persecution for refusing to sacrifice to idols. His connection with England is tenuous and relatively late – Alban, the first British martyr, Edward the Confessor, and Edmund, martyred king of the East Angles (I expect the new Bishop for Suffolk would have something to say about that!) all had older, better, and more widespread claims to the role. George’s position really owes itself to Richard the Lionheart, who appropriated his red-cross-on-white-banner for the Crusades, and Edward III, who made him patron of the Order of the Garter. George is (understandably) the patron saint of agricultural workers, sufferers of skin diseases, and (somewhat improbably) the Romanian Army.

What George – along with all the saints and martyrs – shows me is that my security is in no way related to my success. Neither is God’s love in any way dependent on my success. If I am to try and be a Christian, I need to learn the basic lesson – Gospel 101 – that my security, my identity, my value flows not from what I can or can’t do, what I do or don’t have, it’s found only in what God has already done for me in Jesus Christ

When Paul exhorts his young apprentice to ‘remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead … that is my gospel’ he is reminding Timothy and all of us that the core of Christian faith, the foundation of Christian life, is only found in the inexhaustible life of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and what God has done for us through him. So also the Psalmist rejoices in: ‘The Lord has done great things for us’ (Psalm cxxvi.3). It’s what Luther’s and Calvin’s (and for that matter Augustine’s and Thomas’s) unflinching insistence on justification by faith alone was driving at.

This is what George and the martyrs knew. They faced apparent success and failure, tremendous spiritual experience but also exclusion and humiliation and pain. Yet they knew – whatever miracles or mistakes or martyrdoms they encountered – their hope was elsewhere. In Jesus Christ, who loved us so fundamentally and so unbendingly that he came to live a life like ours; in Jesus Christ, whose determination to carve out a better life for us meant he endured the horror of the Cross; in Jesus Christ, whose power to bring about a new future for us spreads from the Easter garden to fill the creation with sheer, unconquerable life. I don’t think it meant they enjoyed the setbacks and suffering of sanctity and martyrdom; but it did mean that they were inspired and encouraged by looking in the right place. In the face of their ups and downs, we honour the saints and martyrs as women and men who first and foremost remembered ‘Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’ – the source of our identity, the secret of our security, the ground of our hope.

The call of George and the saints, then, is that we should ‘remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’ as the core of the gospel and the basis of our security. It follows that the first and principal task for all of us is to keep the Risen Christ in our gaze as much as we can. For all of us, this means trying to grow in our faith: by learning more about him in the pages of scripture, by talking about our experiences and questions with other Christians, by encountering him regularly in this sacrament of his presence. For those called to ordained ministry it means being clear about our priorities.

Whatever kind of context we serve, whatever the many (and necessary) tasks of buildings, finance, administration, the reason we have priests and deacons is to be ministers of word and sacrament – to be people whose priority is ‘remembering Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’: getting to know him better through the Bible and the Eucharist, leading worship and enabling mission which tries to reach out to others with the message of his unimaginable love and power.

Of course we should try and find happiness in our personal relationships and families; of course we should try and do well in our exams, grow our churches, work as hard as we can in our jobs. (St George, after all, was a good soldier who rose to command a regiment and was well-regarded at the imperial court.) But actually all these things will become, not inevitable, but certainly more probable, if I am set free from the anxiety of believing that they are the ground of my security. There will still be mistakes and setbacks as well as progress and growth. But I will be more likely to find fulfilment when I realise my successes and failures (real or imagined) are not the basis of my security and identity, when I learn to ‘meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same’, as Kipling put it. When, in more overtly scriptural words, I learn that whatever the ups and downs of my existence, whatever the successes and failures of my career or my relationships, whatever the breakthroughs or struggles in my faith and the life of the church, my identity, my security, the reliability of God’s love, lie elsewhere. To find them I need, inspired to follow the pattern of St George and all the martyrs and saints, to focus on the only sure foundation and security I need to work at keeping my view, in all my thinking and speaking and doing, on the core of the gospel, on the living embodiment of God’s life and love, on the presence and the peace of ‘Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.’

The Reverend Philip Hobday

Dean of Chapel, Magdalene College, Cambridge

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