A Sermon from Sherborne

Onward, Christian soldiers!

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church, and for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 1 October 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

Most years, if I am preaching around the 29th September, I have a little moan that (unless it occurs on a Sunday) the Feast of St Michael and All Angels – Michaelmas Day – slips by almost completely unnoticed by most people, including most Churchmen and women. I happen to think that our modern neglect of what was once a major festival is a pity. So I’m giving it a little retrospective attention today.

Whenever I visit parents who have asked to have their child baptised – or when they come to see me – I always go through the service with them. I had that pleasure twice last weekend. And I always point out that there’s more than a whiff of gunpowder about the service. Before the baptism itself, the baby’s forehead is signed with the sign of the Cross, with the words ‘Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.’

That’s a bit less martial than the old words, which had the newly baptised fighting manfully under Christ’s banner and continuing as his faithful soldier and servant until life’s end, but basically the sentiments are the same. And Michael and Gabriel and Raphael, and all the angels who fought against the powers of darkness in heaven until Satan fell, chorus “Amen”.

These apparently military metaphors are desperately out of fashion at the moment, and terribly politically incorrect. For example, many Christian ministers now forbid the old words of ‘Onward Christian soldiers’. They prefer:

Onward, all disciples, in the path of peace, Just as Jesus taught us, love your enemies. Walk on in the Spirit, seek God’s kingdom first, Let God’s peace and justice be your hunger and your thirst! Onward, all disciples, in humility Walk with God, do justice, love wholeheartedly.

But we simply must not lose the martial metaphors. Christianity is warfare. The New Testament, like a famous section in the first Methodist Hymn Book, is intended for “believers fighting”. It turns naturally to the metaphors of danger and mortal combat. “We wield the weapons of righteousness in right hand and left” affirms St. Paul, and Jesus’ conflicts with evil during his earthly ministry are as real as David’s victory over Goliath.

And I think we all need from time to time to smell the whiff of gunpowder in our faith and our worship. It’s so easy, especially in a church which, like ours, is the national church, the Established Church, to regard it as part of the furniture, something which will always be there, always be available. We take it for granted that Christianity belongs to our civilisation, and that we are free to absorb it at our own pace and put it into operation at our leisure.

But make no mistake: we do not live in a Christian society. Ours is a post-Christian society; Christianity is the faith of no more than a small minority of today’s citizens. The vestiges of a Christian age remain: the church buildings, the vicars and rectors and their vicarages and rectories, the baptisms and the white weddings. But the number of ‘believers fighting’ is very small, and it is a real question how much longer the Church of England will be able to offer the ecclesiastical equivalent of a National Health Service to the rest of the nation. Time and time again Church history passes judgement on Christian complacency, when we allow the weapons of righteousness to fall from our hands and the whole armour of God to rust away unused.

Not far off five centuries ago, Martin Luther uttered a famous warning to his own nation:

Let us consider the former darkness and misery in which we sat. If we permit God’s Word to go by, it is to be feared we shall suffer still more darkness and plague. Buy, dear people, while the fair is at your door. Gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and good weather. Use the Grace and the Word of God while they are here.

For know this: that God’s Word and Grace are as a passing shower of rain, which does not return where once it has been. It came to the Jews, but it passed over. Paul brought it to the Greeks, but it passed over. The Romans and Latins had it (but now they have nothing, nothing). And you must not think you have it forever: for ingratitude and contempt will not suffer it to remain. Take hold and hold it fast, whoever can.  

We have to stand up and be counted, stand up for Jesus, and we have to do it now. We have to ask “Who is on the Lord’s side?” and be prepared to answer for ourselves, “I am”. And that means believers praying, believers worshipping, believers serving; believers fighting.

A story with which to end:

Three apprentice devils, fully trained and ready for their first job, were being interviewed by their master. “You’ll find,” he told them, “that it’s easier to lead men into evil than to push them into it. You’ll have to be very crafty.”

He looked the three devils over. “Have you any ideas?” he asked.

Number one devil was arrogant: “Oh yes, I shall tell men that there is no God,” he answered, full of confidence.

Satan looked doubtful. “Well,” he said, “you can try it, but most men know, even if they won’t admit it, that God is real.”

Number two devil looked craftily at his master. “I shall tell everyone that there is no Hell.”

Satan did not think much of this idea, either. “You won’t find that much good. You’ll soon discover that most people have been there already. Humankind knows all about Hell.”

The third devil was quite unlike his companions. There was an easy, indulgent look about him, and Satan turned to him for his plan of campaign. Number three devil bowed low.

“I shall tell men that God is real, that He is good and all-powerful, and I shall assure them of the reality of Hell. But I shall also tell them that there’s plenty of time, that there’s no need to hurry.”

Satan was delighted. “Off you go,” he shouted, “you’ll do more damage in a day than these two will do in a month.”

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 01/10/2017
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton