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Following Worthy Role Models

expanded remarks from the Church of Our Saviour, 5-4-14, Rev'd Emeritas Elijah White

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, May 4th, A.D.2014
Please read the Collect & Epistle BCP 171, Gospel Mt 24:1-13; hymns 347, 393, 396

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In the Prayer Book Collect appointed for today, the 2nd Sunday after Easter, we thank God for giving us His only Son “to be unto us… an ensample of godly life” and we ask His “grace that we may always… daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of His most holy life” – that’s a tall order, but it’s our vocation/calling taken straight from Holy Scripture, today’s Epistle First Peter 2:21, that Jesus Christ “suffered for us, leaving us an ensample that we should follow in His steps.”

Good rôle models are always helpful --but, some may say, “Jesus had something that we don’t have” … as if He won’t assist us, but ok, let’s aspire to a merely human rôle model, an ordinary person with something that we can have: orthodox Christian faith, Jude verse 3, “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” As a ‘godly ensample’ you and I can follow I commend to you my hero and May-second birthday Saint, Athanasius, one of the four hailed as the Greek Fathers of the Church, a champion of orthodox Faith who as a deacon in his 20s was instrumental in drafting the Nicene Creed we just affirmed and despite suffering incredible persecutions by church officials and by the state using secular power at church requests – we here have experienced that – he was largely responsible for its eventual triumph 55 years later.

Elected Bishop of Alexandria Egypt at 31, five times he was exiled, physically expelled from his diocese, but five times he fought his way back to his faithful people and finally died peacefully amongst them, aged 77, still under fire, but still… at… his… post...

This is what makes Athanasius special, not just that he believed the true Christian Faith, not just that he defended it in three theological treatises still studied today, but his courageous perseverance in the teeth of apparently insuperable forces in state and church all dead set against him because they opposed the orthodox Christian Faith that emboldened and empowered him – something you and I and our Parish have been doing for some time now, and like Athanasius suffering for it.

Several years back I detailed all five of Athanasius’ exiles – today I simply mention them to recall his travails so that I can set forth some home truths and put it to you straight.

    1. Like Athanasius and every Christian, you and I are “called to be saints” {Romans 1 verse 7, et passim}, “saints” from both Hebrew and Greek meaning not only “god-ly” people but God’s people -- Second Timothy 2:21, you and I are called to “be vessels for noble use, consecrated and useful to the Master of the house, ready for any good work.” In word and deed you and I and we are commanded by Jesus Christ to show forth His light most especially where it is most needed, in the darkest corners of this fallen world where His light is often most un-welcome – we’d like to be safe, but we’re called to be heroes: God help us! ...but, He will.

    2. Standing up for and proclaiming Christian faith where it isn’t welcome is certain to cost us dearly, as Jesus specifically warned us in His Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:10-11, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven; Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you, for my sake” and in today’s Gospel Matthew 24:9-11, “They will deliver you up to be afflicted, and put you to death (ask faithful Anglicans here, or the Nigerians), and you will be hated for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.”

      Like Athanasius, everyone who has stood up for the Gospel in hard times has found it so – but to profess the Faith only when it’s safe and easy, to abandon or compromise or hide it in silent passivity when rough pressures threaten, is destructive to our own souls and unhelpful to others because individual personal examples, rôle models good or bad, are vitally influential. I still remember Cassie Bernall, the 17-year-old Columbine high school student who was kneeling in prayer when the gunman asked her, “Are you a Christian?” She said “Yes,” and he blew her face away. Retellings of the fact of Cassie’s personal witness may bring more souls to saving faith that all the sermons I’ve ever preached or all the good deeds we together may ever do. And what a moving witness to us, for this young girl to die in a faith we’re too often reluctant to live for! Jesus never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it: remember and live by today’s Gospel, Matthew 24:13, “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”

    3. Know this: the Faith is most in danger when the corporate church or any congregation is most at ease, most successful by worldly standards, most comfortable, because then the church has usually accommodated itself to this world by watering down the Faith of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2), as Jesus warned in John 12:43, “for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

      And the opposite is equally sure and true, proven by fact and by history again and again: there are ten times more active Christians in southern Sudan now than there were when the Islamic Front first came to power twenty years ago and started wiping out Christians by every means possible. Today they are killing Christians en masse in Nigeria, but orthodox Anglicans there found and establish more new dioceses every year that the Episcopal Church does parishes – in fact, the latter is closing parishes down and selling them off to anyone except any Anglicans.

      A million martyred Sudanese and Nigerians are Cassie Bernall writ large – as John Bunyan in prison for being a Christian quoted First Peter 2 verse 4, “rejected of men, but chosen of God, and precious.” Dare we embrace that Christian vocation? Dare we not? We are commanded by Jesus Christ whom we claim to accept, follow, serve and obey, to “Make disciples of all nations,” give aid where the dark is deepest, encourage believers who are suffering beyond any pain we might encounter and dying for their love of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

      We can make a difference. For 35 years we here have made a difference – I’m delighted to be part of our mission-minded Parish – we possess, and I hope are possessed by, orthodox Christian faith and practice – but what are we doing to spread it? Or just sit on it? Do we just put an ad in the newspapers and maintain our web-site and just hope that someone will show up? How long since you invited a friend to come to service here and brunch afterward? If not, why not?

I saw a card in a hospital room once, “Success is a journey, not a destination.” There’s truth in that. Keeping the Faith is our journey, spreading the Faith is our vocation-calling, Heaven is our destination, and Athanasius is a worthy rôle-model guide, along with all the saints who have been in practice what you and I are called to be and to become, “the lights of the world in their several generations” {Philippians 2:5, Prayer Book page 336}, or Second Peter 1:19, “a light shining in a dark place.” As the Shorter Westminster Catechism teaches, “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy Him for ever.”

We here have suffered for keeping the Faith, and we will suffer. We can’t right now build the fine church we’d love to have – but our founders kept the Faith for 17 years before they had any building, in good weather they met in the oak grove and in bad in the blacksmith’s shed, yet here we are today 136 years later, under heavy stress for keeping the Faith but hanging tough by keeping the Faith. It will be hard, but it will be worth it!

May we learn from all the saints, be inspired and inspirited by their perseverance, long to be in that number with Athanasius and our founders here, join them some bright day, and in the meantime give thanks to God for and follow their courageous examples,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.