Sermon by The Right Reverend Michael Colclough at St George Campden Hill: Patronal Sunday 22 April 2018

Sermon by The Right Reverend Michael Colclough at St George Campden Hill: Patronal Sunday 22 April 2018

Revelation 12.7-12; 2 Timothy 2.3-13; John 15.18-21

Today’s advice from St Paul to Timothy sounds very appropriate for this feast of St George:  “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus”. That reference to “a good soldier”.  But what do we know, what can we say about your Patron, St George?  As with many famous people, fanciful accretions to reality came from the devotion of his admirers and so developed the tradition of him being not simply a devout Christian knight but also the slayer of dragons.  The stuff of legend.   Sadly, this means that, by some people, St George was, as it were, slain along with the dragon, the baby went out with the bath water.

Tradition tells us St George born in Palestine and brought up a Christian. He was a soldier, in the Roman Army, and a very good one, loved and admired by the Emperor Diocletian. But in 303 Diocletian ordered that every Christian in the army should be arrested. George objected. The emperor was upset because he liked George – but George went ahead, publicly declared himself a Christian and renounced the Emperor’s decision. Diocletian tried again to persuade George to renounce his Christian faith, but he stood firm. So the Emperor had to have him tortured and put to death in the year 303. He was quickly honoured by the Christian community as a martyr.

The fact that St George died for his faith gave him a place in the collective memory of the Church.  Like many early Christian martyrs, he became a man of inspiration who helped people make a link between their own life of faith and those exciting early days of the Christianity.

By the seventh century, the Greeks were calling St George the “great martyr” and his fame grew also here in England where, at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, his feast was declared a holy day.  From then he and his name have been intimately woven into both the religious and secular life of our nation.  As Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth puts it, “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”

Before today’s readings from the Bible, the Collect, or opening prayer, gave us the kernel of what we are celebrating today, directed our thoughts and devotions along the right path.  We prayed that God “who so kindled the flame of love in the heart of your servant George that he bore witness to the risen Lord by his life and his death” would “give us the same faith and power of love”.

I always imagine that any saint worth their salt, when faced with the admiration and devotion of the faithful, will immediately tell their devotees, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”  - words of St Paul.  It is St Paul who reminds us that, by our baptism, we have “clothed ourselves with Christ”.  Jesus, not simply an historic saviour or a future reward but Jesus intimately woven into the fabric of who I am and what I do.  Jesus, who in today’s Gospel Reading warned us that, because he has “chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you”.  Persecution: not the most alluring of promotion slogans but a reality not only for St George but for many of our Christian brothers and sisters today.  We must daily pray for the strengthening and relief of persecuted Christians.  Are you aware that more Christians died for their faith in the last century than in all the previous centuries put together?  Jesus’ words, “therefore the world hates you” was a true and costly reality for them.

But before that warning from Jesus about being hated, Jesus gives both encouragement and guidance for Christian living when he talks of himself as the vine and of you and me as the branches. He gives reassurance: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit”.  Allow me to be personal, biographical for a moment.  Twenty-two years ago we as a family moved into Campden Hill Square and were warmly welcomed by the people of this church: we are always grateful for that. Some months earlier, the Bishop of London had called me into his office. “Michael, I have difficulties in the Kensington Area: will you be the next bishop?”  He certainly went straight to the point!  I wasn’t flattered: I was frozen by an enormous sense of inadequacy and looming responsibility.  I prayed hard, I thought, I struggled with all that I assumed I would need to face.  But in the midst of my worrying there were moments of transformation, reassurance.  Whenever I prayed, these words from St John’s Gospel came into my mind and calmed my heart: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (15: 5-6).  Words given in prayer:  and those words got me through to the day of my consecration.  They became so precious to me that I had the vine woven into the top of my crozier to remind me that, for all my worries about responsibility and ability, the strength that I would need would be given to me – so long as I remained close to Jesus. 

Whenever I went out to parishes that vine on my crozier reminded me that I went out to do God’s work, not mine; in God’s strength, not mine; for God’s glory, not mine.  I discovered afresh, for a new situation in life and ministry, the word of God active in my life, feeding me and carrying me in my ministry.  “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit”. 

All of that was a gift in prayer: so we should pray with believing and hopeful hearts those words of today’s opening prayer: “God, who so kindled the flame of love in the heart of your servant George that he bore witness to the risen Lord by his life and his death give us the same faith and power of love”.  We pray for the gift of that “same faith and power of love” that we, in our lives, in our own day, in our own way may live out our Christian faith with integrity and with joy.

Sixteen hundred years ago the great North African St Augustine of Hippo told us how to do this in words that can’t be bettered.  He said to his congregation,

“Sing a new song to the Lord,” the psalm tells us.
“I do sing!” you reply.
You sing, of course you sing.  I can hear you.
But make sure your life sings the same tune as your mouth.
Sing with your voices.  Sing with your hearts.
Sing with your lips.  Sing with your lives.
Be yourself what the words are about!
If you live good lives, you yourselves are
the song of new life!

You and I called by Jesus to be “the song of new life” along with St George.  What a calling, what a privilege.  I can assure you from my own experience that, by God’s grace it can be done because,  “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” – along with St George, your Patron.  Amen.

Holland Park Benefice