St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury, May 22, 2022
“Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house.”
400 AD. The Roman Empire, over 450 years old, had reached the islands of the Britons and Celts, making them part of a great world empire. Suddenly, ships landed from the German mainland. Cities fell to their powerful onslaught. What had been Rome’s remotest outpost in a world-wide civilization fell to an inferior culture, and along with the Empire fell most of what had been a young Christian Church. The few faithful that remained headed north and west. Now Angles and Saxons ruled the lands in the south and east. An uneasy peace settled.
Ironically, at the same time, St. Patrick, an Englishman, sailed to Ireland on a missionary journey and brought the Christian faith to a safe harbor for the next two centuries. During that time, Ireland rang with the Christian truth while paganism darkened most of Britain. A brave mission began under St. Columba on the Scottish island of Iona. There, a few centuries later, the Book of Kells was made: a book of the Gospels illustrated with the finest Celtic art. And from Iona, Irish monks came to Scotland and England with the Gospel.
Right about then, deacon Gregory visited the markets in Rome. He saw many captives sold as slaves, out of every ethnicity, including some blonde, fair skinned boys. Who were they, he inquired. Angles, he was told. Say not Angles, but call them Angels, he remarked and was thereafter curious about the island that had produced such people. In time, Gregory rose to the seat of Peter and held out hope to reach that land of the Angles by a faithful mission. He consulted the abbot of his former monastery, Augustine or Austin, and sent him with about 30 monks to find Angle-land and make them Christians.
On their way, the Roman mission met people of Gaul, today’s France, who told Austin he was heading to his death, because the Angles were savages and would kill his unarmed religious band. He returned to Rome with this dire news, but Gregory seems to have repeated his commission, saying, “Go and die, then, but Go!” The Pope wrote letters to enlist support for Austin along the way, and doors opened for the monks, along the journey of over 1,000 miles, and they finally landed at Kent. They were taken to King Ethelbert, who was kind and joyous to meet this embassage, and heard of their cause to bring the Christian faith. “Christian?” the king responded. “My queen, Bertha, is a Christian. You are welcome to the old abbey and chapel here at Canterbury, and your monks may live in peace among us. Let us hear about your Jesus…”
The mission was successful. 3,000 baptisms were done by Austin’s monks the following Christmas Day, among them the king. An attempt to form union with the primitive Ionic Christians was tried, but would take some years to link these versions of the faith again. Austin was made the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the beginning of our line of Apostolic Succession, and a champion of the faith. Gregory’s letters permitting Austin not to demand full compliance with Roman practice by the native church on all matters, which sets up our validity as an English Christian, Catholic Church, fully valid, and without the unnecessary authority of the See of Rome.
While those primitive Christians of the English Isles were disconnected from the rest of the European Church, they had not participated in, or known about St. Jerome’s Bible in Latin, making Scripture understood to many. The 27 books of the New Testament had been ratified. Councils at Ephesus and Chalcedon confirmed that Christ was both God and man, two natures in one person, that His mother bore God’s Son within her body. The writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Hilary, and St. Gregory the Great were unknown until brought by the mission of Austin. With the urgency of a prophet, Gregory sent the monk to Britain to enrich the intermixed races of Briton, Celt, Angle and Saxon, who themselves were founding a new language and a resilient new culture that would pass succeeding tests of invasion and suppression by Vikings, Normans, French, Germans and others. The Church that rose through those struggles was faith-filled, Catholic, and strong.
We think of missionaries going to distant lands to live and work among people who look and talk and live very differently from ourselves. A mission to China, or the pigmies of sub-Saharan Africa, or the cannibals of New Guinea. But today’s missionary goes by air, lands in air-conditioned cities, and travels by car. No such consideration for poor Austin, who had to wonder if the French were right and if he was to be the dinner on a Saxon’s table. But he put his trust in the words of Jesus Christ to His first disciples on a mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This has been called Christ’s great commission, and Austin took every word of it seriously.
Go! They were called “Apostles” because the name means sent out ones, and implies travel, as did the description of all nations to hear the Gospel from them. They literally had to go, leave Israel, seek foreign people, find translators, figure out how a culture works, and be used by the power of God their Savior. He would give them His authority as they proclaimed the truth that Jesus Christ rose from death and lives forever. But they couldn’t remain back home and get the word out. There was no YouTube, Zoom, Instagram or other modes by which to send word. You have to go.
Make! Once there, wherever it is, you have to make disciples, which means to convince someone of your message, have it transform their lives, give shape and discipline to their paths, and have them start telling the truth to others themselves. Make is an active verb like Go. It’s Christ’s command to us all. Make disciples, and set no limits for ones you might not want to see as part of your church. All nations meant all races, ethnicities, national origins, languages and lands.
Baptize! The Church’s point of entry is at the font, which is why we place it nearest the outer door. One’s sins are washed away, and the Holy Spirit is now welcome in, making one’s own spirit come alive, born again, spiritually awakened and wondering and learning. Remember, 3,000 English souls were Baptized that first Christmas when Austin’s monks came among them.
Teach! Christian instruction has always been a feature of Church life. In fact, all the features of Christian faith are first taught by the Church, then confirmed by the words of Scripture. They arose in that order. The Church had the good news, sent it forward by its Apostles and other disciples, established communities of believers, and then, years into it, their teaching was written down for posterity, for us. It confirms the Church’s teaching, and keeps it from changing. We teach the young and old. It’s fun, and more than fun. It’s the building of souls for Christ.
Observe! This may only mean to see something, a passive verb. But not so passive. The word means to watch, or keep watch over, or to safeguard, even defend and make certain never to lose all that Christ has commanded us. What are His commands? Not many. Believe Him. Confess Him. Follow Him. Be Baptized. Take Communion. Forgive all others. Go, Make, Baptize, Teach and Observe. Most of all, Love. These commands are to take this news to others. Why do we fear doing that in this postmodern world?
I was walking down 2nd Street Friday in my black clergy shirt, with the little white square in front. I was a priest. I passed a young man going the other way, who bravely said under his breath, after passing me, “Weirdo!” Poor guy. He had to say something. I kept walking. Maybe I should have turned around and asked what he meant. Maybe give him a chance to vent, or apologize. Maybe not. He was mildly hostile. Others are more so. Are we afraid of them? I’ve been sued for what I believe. It really doesn’t hurt; I can authoritatively tell you. In fact, you experience a great closeness to our Lord who was arrested for being the Savior of the world. A slight bit of suffering really makes you appreciate Jesus. Augustine of Canterbury suffered a little bit, mostly fears in his mind, and the discomforts of traveling a very long way. I am sure many Angles and Saxons made faces at the strangely dressed monks with the odd message from far off. But they still did it, they followed Jesus’ commands to Go, Make, Baptize, Teach and Observe. And it resulted in us meeting here today, Anglicans. The Angle’s Church.
Who are you afraid to tell? You don’t need to tell everybody—that’s not the command, for that vast a scope requires the whole Church. But we live and love and see people in the world daily. Be available. Let it leak out. God bless you! when someone sneezes. Bless you, when someone helps you.
See if they will invite you to their church. ‘Oh! You don’t have a church? Maybe you’ll want to come to mine. We have a beautiful church and the people are so friendly. This Sunday? Great. I’ll pick you up.’