St George’s Hanworth
3rd October 2004
Two Faithful Witnesses
The church at which I minister is dedicated to St Stephen. They would like me to begin by sending you at St George’s Hanworth their greetings – as fellow Christians who have for several years now been experiencing the same kind of trials and difficulties as yourselves.
But we have something else in common. Our Patron Saint in each case is what is called a Martyr. As this is your dedication festival we shall do well to think of these young men, separated by two or three hundred years, who dedicated themselves to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to the point of choosing death, rather than saving their lives by failing to bear witness to him in whom each believed.
Stephen we know quite a lot about. He was young; ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ St Luke describes him in Acts, Chapter 6; and he was chosen by the Apostles to do the very job which nobody else wanted to do, including the Apostles themselves, namely supervising the fair distribution between Greek and Jewish widows of the daily food subsidy which the Church provided as part of its ministry. The Greek women, St Luke tells us, felt they were getting less than their fair share; and no doubt any efforts Stephen made to correct this were met with screams of protests from the Jewish women who therefore got that much less as a result.
George, by contrast, was a professional soldier in the Imperial Army who had come to the faith perhaps as a result of observing how Christians behaved under persecution. ‘How much these Christians love one another’ someone was heard to say, ‘why, they are even willing to die for each other!’ His Boss, Diocletian, had ruled the Roman Empire with considerable tolerance towards Christians (though he was not a believer himself) – which was more than could be said for some of his predecessors!
But, as often happens when rulers get close to their sell-by date, Diocletian in later life started looking for new ways of doing things – and one of his younger colleagues, called Galenus, came up with the suggestion that the Christians were a suitable target, because they believed, as we do, that Jesus Christ and not Diocletian, was the real Ruler of all creation. So why not teach them a lesson that they wouldn’t forget? And predictably, once Diocletian began persecuting people, he discovered, like many others before and since, that persecution is a rather enjoyable pastime – providing of course that you’re on the right end of it! And one of his victims was Soldier George.
Now it’s of the utmost importance that those who are called by God to be his witnesses (and that includes you and me) should be clear about what and whom we are bearing witness to – and why. In the case of St Stephen, the Book of Acts gives us a detailed account of his evidence, and so crystal-clear and persuasive was that evidence, that his audience wouldn’t even hear him out. They stopped their ears, ran upon him and stoned him to death, St Luke tells us.
In the case of St George, we don’t know what he said, but it must at least have been to the effect that "I know Him in Whom I have believed, Jesus Christ, and He is my Lord and my God". Witnessing to Christ isn’t necessarily a matter of giving a detailed theological argument to prove that He is God Incarnate (like St Stephen did), but what is more important, like both Stephen and George, of making it unmistakably clear to everyone that Jesus Christ takes precedence in our lives over any other human authority.
This is very important for us at St George’s Hanworth and St Stephen’s Lewisham. Because you and we have been safeguarding the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ for the past forty years, it’s inevitable that we should incur the displeasure of those who are trying (unsuccessfully!) to re-constitute the faith to make it comply with the fashionable opinions and prejudices of today’s secular world.
Up till now we have been grudgingly tolerated by the powers-that-be. But, rest assured, ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’! Now we are beginning to win all the arguments, and now that the things that we predicted have indeed come to pass (women priests and emptying churches; abortion on demand and a shortage of earners; easy divorce and family breakdowns) persecution is being correspondingly stepped-up. People who find their castles-in-the-air lying in ruins at their feet will direct their energies to destroying, in frustration and anger, what others, with sounder beliefs, are successfully achieving. If your children have never behaved in that way, then they ought be put on display, preferably in a glass case!
It’s of the utmost importance when persecution happens to keep one’s cool – but without for one moment wavering from, or compromising the beliefs which have been entrusted to us for safeguarding by God Himself. To safeguard these beliefs successfully it’s important to know what those beliefs are, and how to defend them, which means knowing whom to turn to for help.
The Saints and particularly the Martyrs like George and Stephen never tried to defend their corner single-handed if they could possibly avoid it. You’ve heard it said that anyone who argues his own case in court has a fool for his counsel. Well, the same is true when it comes to disagreements with the Church Authorities, be they Bishops, Archdeacons or Diocesan Officers, however genial or well-disposed they may seem. Always rehearse your case beforehand, preferably with someone who isn’t directly involved, and always insist on taking someone else with you to be a witness (preferably independent, and maybe a silent one) to listen to what is being said by you and the other party.
St Paul reminded the Christians of Ephesus that it’s not just flesh and blood that we have to resist, (though that’s part of the battle to be sure); but our chief struggle is ‘against rulers, against authorities, against the powers of cosmic darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the heavenlies.’
Don’t misunderstand this passage, like many do. When St Paul speaks to us of rulers, authorities, and powers of cosmic darkness he’s not referring to Bishops, Archdeacons or Diocesan Officers or their equivalents: these latter are merely the willing but unwitting dupes of those cosmic powers who have been working since Creation to frustrate the Plans which God has for this world. Our immediate job is to resist and refute the erroneous teaching which they are offering us; but our ultimate mission to these misguided mercenaries must be to bring them back to the ‘Faith once delivered to the Saints’.
The next twenty years aren’t going to be easy – any more than the previous twenty have! But remember this: whilst we fight we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, George and Stephen amongst them, who are praying for and with us, that the battle which they fought and won on earth may be carried on no less faithfully in Hanworth and Lewisham by you and me who are their heirs and successors.
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