Go and die, but go!
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury
May 26, 2019
“Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”
IT’S LESS THAN THE DISTANCE from Tijuana to Weed, less than the length of California by about 200 miles, but oh! what a difference that 1,100 miles made in so many lives. Today, you could drive it on highways in 18 hours, the roads taking you through Italy, Switzerland, France, the English Channel Tube, from Rome to Canterbury, 18 hours traffic permitting. But on foot, or ox cart, by sailing ship, and donkey, that trek took several months. And it was almost abandoned. It almost didn’t happen.
Gregory the Great had been a Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome. As a deacon one day, in the mid-6th century, he was being shown the marketplace where slaves were bought and sold. Amid the faces of anxious, despairing slaves were a couple of fair-haired, blue-eyed boys. Gregory asked about them and he was told they were Angles. Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that had settled in England at the fall of the Roman empire when the early light of Christianity flowing across Europe, North Africa and the Hellenistic Middle East was extinguished by marauding Goths and Visigoths. Patrick had gone to Ireland as his homeland was plunged into darkness behind him. These Angles impressed Gregory and he said, “Call them not Angles, but Angels.”
Gregory remembered his sight of the blond Angles when he ascended to the throne of Peter and, as the weight of the old Dark Ages were waning, he decided to send his faith to that far distant island of the Angles, or Engl-land. The prior of his old order, Augustine, what the English call Austin, was sent for and ordered to make up a company of 40 monks who would take the Gospel to the Angles across sea and the bulk of Europe, 1,100 miles distant. They departed, but after landing on the coasts of Gaul, they were informed of great dangers at their journey’s end, for the Angles were said, by the French, to be savages. They will eat you! Go back!
Discouraged by the news, Austin and his monks returned to Rome and informed Gregory. It is legendary that the pope replied, “Then go and die, but Go!” He prepared for Austin letters to commend his mission across Europe, and for protection and passage across the channel. Austin turned around again and faced his fears.
We can smile at the man, knowing as we do his success over needless fears, the friendly welcome by the king, Ethelbert, and queen Bertha, herself a Christian already. Why was he afraid?
Why are we afraid? We don’t need to travel the length of California, but the distance from our front door to the next house, or across the street to meet someone who, by happenstance, does now know Jesus. A university professor scares us as much or more than the idea of savage Angles waiting to eat us. Why are we afraid? Would it be easier to be sent to Mexico, or Liberia, or Malaysia where the people are strange and speak no English, where we’d need interpreters, and we’d enjoy the comfort of being well funded, highly educated, technologically advanced above the poor and ignorant folk to whom we were as gods bringing a picture lantern loaded with the Jesus Movie? Easier because that’s so far from home, and so less likely to be rejected, or judged, or laughed out of the room. Austin was afraid, but he faced his fears. Go and die, but go!
Austin departed in the year 596, in July, but only arrived in England in the spring of 597 on the Isle of Thanet where he was welcomed warmly by the king. He and his missionary monks were given the old abandoned church of St. Martin in Canterbury and Austin began to preach. Later that year, Austin was consecrated bishop of the English at Arles, which eventually resolved in his being the first archbishop of Canterbury, first bishop of England in the line of succession we have in our province.
Many of the English responded to the message and thousands were baptized by Austin that Christmas Day, including the king. Austin sent two monks back to Rome with news of his success and they returned with more missionaries, and an answer to a question. Austin had encountered the indigenous Celtic Christians, like Bertha, who had sown the faith into the land while Roman legions still held it. The British Church had different expressions, another view of nature, and its priests had not been under Rome for centuries. How was he to regard this band of such another strain of the faith? He had written, “Since there is but one faith, why are the uses of Churches so different, one use of Mass being observed in the Roman Church, and another in the Churches of Gaul?”
Pope Gregory responded, in words the English have ever held important for the legitimacy of real catholic Christendom in England without the necessity of conformance to Rome: “I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God. . . in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.”
Being sure that the Christians of England were not simply following pagan rituals instead of the true faith, Austin sought to bridge the gaps and heal the frictions he found within his see. While he never lived long enough to enjoy the full unity of the faith in England, he knew he was placed there to rejoin these two branches of the church. Austin died in 604 AD and was buried in what is today St. Augustine’s Church.
Unity in the church has always challenged its leaders. Pride, ever our enemy, sneaks its way into a true faith, making mine a truer faith than the inferior one you have, poor guy. Territory, numbers of members, longevity, levels of passion, and loudness of voices can be grist for the mill when we compare Christian to Christian, church to church. The British Church met this Roman newcomer as an interloper, looking to correct them while they had held their ground against the German occupation, kept the faith while the Romans fled, and were faithful to Jesus while most of Europe fell into paganism and ruination. Why should they be happy that Rome had finally sent an emissary and why should he be the new head guy?
But the See of Peter had risen to a place where the papacy of that day felt an obligation to unite the church under itself, and set standards for all to live by. In contrast to this, the letter to Augustine by Gregory gave license to permit local custom and celebration that may not completely conform to Roman practice, but which did not conflict with the core of the religion. This was wise, because the nexus between Celtic and Roman Christianity has always been the genius of the English Church, our root and our source of orthodoxy.
Something in Roman thought, for instance, needs man to dominate the landscape, conquer nature, subject it to our minds, and design new waterways, roads, bridges, defying nature to resist us. Just so, with the faith lies a suspicion that every tree or bird or rock holds a demon, or pagan symbolism, and must be refused. This iconoclasm fears the illustrated pages of the Books of Kells or Lindesfarne, masterpieces of Celtic art in Latin Bibles from the monasteries that survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Curlicues and knots wrap around pictures of beasts and saints, depicting the manifold paths of life and a deep reverence for nature. The Celtic heart holds a respect for the order of Rome, but retains an appreciation for the world that God created and that He called “good.”
Unity is found when we realize our world is larger than we are. Real Christians may come in shapes and sizes, languages and customs that I don’t share, but can appreciate. I might wince at the demonstrations of a Pentecostal minister of his spiritual gifts, but Jesus said it: “whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” Mark 9:40-41
In 1992, I led a pro-life candlelight prayer vigil out of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church a few blocks to the south of here. The tension was palpable as many evangelicals and Pentecostals found places to sit in the pews and the nervous Catholic pastor hung back in shadow, unsure whether he’d done the right thing inviting us there. I welcomed the crowd, and congratulated them for coming into this Catholic sanctuary. I showed them the stained-glass windows, describing the instances of Jesus’ life and ministry depicted there. I motioned toward the tabernacle where the sacrament of Christ’s Body was kept. Then I said, “This is a Christian Church. They worship no other God than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I don’t want any of you to leave here and ever say a negative word about Catholics again.”
The priest thanked me. And I thanked him.
Fear of the other so blunts our power and potential in this life. What if we were to die doing God’s most holy work? What of it? Go and die, but go. A soldier facing deadly battle must consider himself dead already and not try to survive. Only in such a mindset can he achieve victory and be more likely to prevail and live. It may seem like throwing away our security to reach out, but look at this:
The world is getting dark again. As in the Dark Ages between Rome’s first empire and its recommencing to send missionaries out 200 years later, our world is being plunged into a new darkness. People living around us have never heard the Gospel, never. They know about Santa Claus, Easter eggs and some guy called Jesus, but the truths of the faith are unknown to them, except that it’s superstition. There is no hope in their world view. They are not even individual persons in the new philosophy, but part of a human infestation outside the natural order, needing to conform and comply, perfect units in a brave new world. They are the slaves in the Roman marketplace, Angles we ought to be calling Angels.
25 years ago, we reclaimed this fine old building and renamed it St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church. One of our purposes in doing this was to pray that Chico State become a notorious Christian campus. Have you kept up that prayer? Have you said anything to anyone about that hope? Do you know this is Rogation Sunday?
Rogare, Latin for the verb To Ask, means we ask. Jesus said, “Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” Jn 16 The next three days are days of asking. Before Christ Ascends, we have this time to ask our hearts’ desires. Let’s ask for souls. Let’s ask for the college. Let’s ask for a generation that loves our Lord more than we do, and is more courageous than we are to share it. Then say Amen. Go and die, but go!