A Sermon Preached On
The Feast of All Saints and All Souls (transferred from November 1 & 2),
Sunday, November 3, 2019, 11:00 am
also being The Second Sunday in a Season of Visioning
at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece
Last week we began our Season of Visioning here at St Thomas. We will spend four Sundays with special readings and me preaching, and then on December 1, the First Sunday of Advent, beginning of the new church year, we will have an extended service in which we begin to work on what our vision is, and then what our mission is.
In our first service in this Season of VisioningI suggested that we begin with our own stories – our individual journeys in life, our pilgrimages in faith. This week I want to talk about the story of the church, or the story of our community. Next week we’ll talk about the story of God, and begin to reflect on how these three types of stories intersect.
Here again is the diagram of these stories. As we see, there are point where two of the stories intersect, and where the set of all three overlap. We will find our vision and mission in the overlap of all three.
What is our story – the story of the Church?
To answer this question I can only give a caricature. Diarmuid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, took 1216 pages to cover it. And, of course, arguably it is much longer than the two thousand years since the time of Jesus of Nazareth, as the subtitle of McCulloch’s book suggests: The First Three Thousand Years. We cannot understand Christianity and the Church unless we see it as a development from 1st century Judaism, which itself was a development of the Israelite religion that was already over a thousannd years old.
While Jesus was actually born somewhere around 1 CE (most likely 6 BCE), and died some thirty years later (best guess – 30CE), the history of Christianity requires a knowledge of the story of Israel and Judaism, which pushes us back another another millennium (more like 1400 years). When I was at the Toronto School of Theology in the mid ’80s just an introduction to the history was covered in four thirteen-week courses. And while history is involved with people, events, and the forces that swept them along in time, there is also the consideration of the history of the scriptures, the development of its interpretation over time, the history of various institutions in Christendom that may or may not be explicitly religious, and so forth. It’s a big, long story. But let’s try and summarise it in a few paragraphs, shall we?
The simple character of this story may be found in Acts 1.8:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The story is that of the good news of Jesus spreading from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
In the Acts of the Apostles the story begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, which, as the centre of the Empire, paradoxically stands in for the farthest reaches of human habitation. The good news is challenged and persecuted, but continues outwards. It is a simple but powerful story. That said, even in the New Testament – the letters, Revelation, and reading between the lines to see the situation of the people who wrote the gospels – the narrative is more complex:
- At first it made its way into Judea, the area around Jerusalem.
- Then to Samaria, to the north, and into Galilee.
- We hear of an Ethiopian receiving the good news from Philip while driving a chariot, and presumably he takes it south via the Nile River.
- When Paul comes to Damascus there are already Christians there, the faith having been brought there by people whose names we know not.
- Likewise both Paul and Peter are early members of the church in Antioch, in the southwest of what is now the part of Turkey bordering Syria, whose foundation also seems anonymous.
- At a certain point quite early on, the gospel is preached to non-Jews and readily accepted by many of them. Paul sees himself as specially sent to tell them that, in Christ, they may be grafted as wild branches onto the sacred vine of Israel. This exception, that Gentiles may be saved as well without becoming Jews, is opposed by more conservative Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch.
- As we heard in the readings today, Paul starts a church in Galatia, in what is now the middle of Turkey, pretty much by accident. He states that he, Paul, fell ill while travelling through, and is obliged to rest – but not so ill as to fail to communicate the gospel. By such accidents the good news proceeds.
- The Letter of Titus witnesses to early Christians being here on Crete.
- When Paul arrives in Corinth to start a church he finds Prisca and Aquilia, two Christians who were obligated to leave Rome by the emperor, presumably Nero. Thus, already, long before Paul goes there, we hear of congregations in Rome, a fact confirmed by his Letter to the Romans.
What I find most striking is that the faith was transmitted by hundreds of unknown individuals. While we celebrate Peter and Paul, the good news was propagated many whom we know at best as names, and often only by inference and guesses. From the small group in Jerusalem the church grew, so that after a couple of generations it numbered a few thousand, and had the resources and inspiration to write the gospels, preserve the letters of Paul and other authors in the New Testament. As well, there are a host of other writings from the post-apostolic age.
We know that there were Christians in the Roman province of Brittannia – what became England, Wales, and Scotland – by the fourth century. This is evident both from archaeology and written records of bishops attending synods. The Emperor Constantine was born in the Balkans, but his mother Helen was a Christian, and both were in Eboracum – better known to us as York – when he was proclaimed Emperor in 306 CE, and he began his campaign to be the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. As well, Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Latin theologian, found himself arguing in the early fifth century against the heretical opinions of Pelagius, a British Christian. Constantine’s converted to Christianity and was baptised shortly before his death,and he is venerated as a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy. Many scholars believed that his conversion resulted in the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, as if it would not have happened had he done so, but such an understanding belongs to an older historiography. The American sociologist Rodney Stark and others have argued that by the turn of the fourth century (i.e. 300 CE) the Christian faith may already have been the religion of a majority of the Empire’s subjects; Constantine was following where the people went, not the other way around.
In the fifth or sixth century the Christian faith reached what was thought to be the furthest ends of the earth. A young Roman Briton was kidnapped from the shores of what had recently been the Roman province of Britannia and taken to be a slave in Ireland. There he minded cattle and sheep. Being a Christian and the son of a deacon, he turned to his God, and in a vision saw a means of escape. He made his way to a port and took a ship, perhaps to Gallia (France), and then made his way home. Eventually he discerned a call to return to Ireland, to proclaim the faith to the people who had enslaved him. He was ordained a bishop by the church in Britain, and went across the sea. We have two writings from this man, whose name was Patricius, but whom we know as Patrick. In these writings he celebrates the fact that he had baptized thousands. He felt that his work of evangelism would hasten the coming of the Lord.
While pious tradition suggests that Patrick was responsible for the total conversion of Ireland, he was more likely just the best known of those who preached Jesus; because of his writings, he was remembered when others disappeared into the anonymity of time. In time Irish Christianity developed a strong culture centered on monasticism, which produced treasures such as The Book of Kells. Christianity moved north to evangelise the Picts and Gaelic speaking peoples of what later became known as Scotland. From there it moved south into the lands conquered by the Germanic-speaking invaders from the Angle, Jutland, and Saxony, and who were known as the English or Saxons. They were a polytheistic pagan people, speaking a strange language related to both Latin and Irish but unlike either. They came south through Northumbria.
There they met Christian missionaries from southern England, the second generation of Christians in what was now being called England. In 597 an Italian monk named Augustine came to Canterbury on a mission from the Pope. This Augustine (not the same as Augustine of Hippo) was ordained a bishop by Gregory the Great in Rome, and he and twenty other monks made their way to the capital of the Kingdom of Kent, in southeast England. King Æthelberht of Kent was not a Christian, but his Franksih wife from the Continent was, and Augustine and his companions were allowed to use an old British Christian church dedicated in honour of St Martin of Tours (it’s still there!). In time Æthelberht converted to Christianity. The monks started a monastery, and they built a wooden parish church with a seat or cathedra for Augustine. That parish church was eventually succeeded by grander buildings, and we know it as Canterbury Cathedral. Over the next two centuries Christianity made further inroads. When the pagan Norse attacked two centuries later the Christian faith was so well established that they could not dislodge it.
Fast forward to the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and Europe began to expand into the world. Christianity followed it, and the New World became effectively part of Christendom, while missions were planted in Asia and Africa. In the past century Europe seemed to take a turn to the secular, and the influence of the church on the state declined, and church attendance dropped like a rock. However, the faith grew by leaps and bounds in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. There are now more Presbyterians in South Korea than there are people in Scotland, and typical Anglican is African. There are now more than two billion Christians, and we are the largest faith group on the planet.
We must not get triumphalistic, for we have had our ups and downs. Christianity a thousand years ago was as wide-spread and prevalent through Asia as it was in Europe. The Church of the East, while always a minority among the many faiths and practices in Asis, spread through what is now Iraq to Iran, Afghanistan, and into China. In both North Africa and in Asia the Christian faith was pushed back or extinguished by various forms of Islam and Chinese religions. This was due not only because of the power of these other religious movements, but also because of the division and corruption among succeeding generations of Christian leaders.The Church has always needed reform.
As well, the history of the church is filled with stories of violence, slavery, murder, abuse, corruption, schism, genocide, and hatred. We do not have to look far to see the reason for this. When people enter the church, they come as sinners and failures; we all fall short of the calling of the gospel. Perhaps more damning, we too often identify our native governments and cultures with the kingdom of God, justifying the very same forces that put our Lord to death.
The wonder of it all is that the high standards of the gospel and the demands for righteousness continue to ring out. As popular historian Tom Holland argues in his recent book, Dominion, what we consider to be the tenants of secular Western culture – human rights, democracy, the arts, the creation and sharing of wealth – are all derived from Christianity. If it is true, as Stephen Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world has become less violent and more humane, then the rise of Christianity and the influence of its values has much to do with it. And, amazingly, it has inspired African-American slaves in their fight for freedom, both in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in the 1960s Civil Rights era. It continues to inspire forces of liberation around the world.
This then is the story of the Church. It is not a simple story, and it is not a story of right overcoming evil, or progress – but it is the story of the growth.
What is our story – the story of this Church?
I asked people in the congregation what the story of St Thomas, Kefalas was. Here’s what they said (and if I have some facts wrong, pease let me know and I will correct them!):
- It started with Tony Lane, who with his wife Suzanne, back in 2003, invited English-speaking people to their home next door for prayer and bible readings. The small Table Church grew, and in good weather, started meeting outside by the swimming pool, or in the carport.
- After a year the group decided to formally affiliate with The Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. We came under the oversight of the Bishops of the Diocese in Europe – Geoffrey Rowell and David Hamid – and, more directly, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw of St Paul’s, Athens.
- Tony Lane had studied some theology as a layman in Bristol. He trained as a Lay Reader, and was licensed as one in 2007. He was subsequently ordained a transitional deacon in 2009 and then a priest in 2010.
- Canon Mike Peters from England came out in 2008 and supervised Tony’s training, while assisting the congregation in organizing itself as a proper church in the C of E.
- Parallel to this was the development of some house groups, and Alison Collett played a leading role in the formation of these. Among other programmes, the Alpha Course was done.
- When the congregation needed better space it tried meeting in the Kefalas community hall, but Tony decided to build a chapel on a property adjacent to his the house. This chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle by Bishop Geoffrey in 2007. The area next to it was laid out as a patio, and after some experiments with large umbrellas, a permanent canvas tent structure was erected, with tough, plastic side-panels that could be rolled up in the summer. This was promptly christened, “The Tabernacle”.
- Music varied over the years. Initially CDs were used, and then some people led with guitars, before we settled into using an organ. When Gina Zagni became our musician a few years ago she purchased an electric organ for use at the church services.
- In the early years especially people would go out for meals afterwards. This helped to build up the sense of community.
- There were some tensions between various people, as is normal in any organization. Some people left because they wanted a different style of worship.
- Terry Wilcock served as the assistant chaplain from 2011 to 2014, and after a few months interregnum Philip Lambert succeeded him. As Philip’s wife became ill quite suddenly, he returned to England in June 2017, and there was a long interim period from then until October 2018 when Bruce Bryant-Scott was appointed. During that long period without a priest in charge, the Rev’ds Ian Brothwood and Tony Lane filled in, supported by a range of occasional clergy visiting Crete.
- In Terry and Philip’s time “Helping Hands” began, which eventually evolved into the Social Supermarket.
- Tony and Suzanne subdivided their property and sold their house, moving to a smaller place near Vrysses. Recently, they donated the church property and its buildings to The Anglican Church in Greece, which is the legal name for the Diocese in Europe as recognized by the Hellenic Republic. Thanks to this generous gift, we own and operate the property in which we worship.
St Thomas is typical of many church plants, going through phases of “Forming, Storming, and Norming“. We are reasonably solid, with a strong core of members and the ability to attract seasonal residents of Crete and English-speaking tourists. While we are mostly from England, we do have people attending who are Scots, Irish, American, Canadian, Greek, German, Norwegian, Armenian, and other nationalities.
What is the next chapter going to be about?
The story of St Thomas’s in Kefalas is one small part of the larger story of the Church, which is part of the larger story of humanity. It is a story of saints and sinners, of people who are legends to us, and people whom we knew. We are a young congregation in a two-thousand year old institution. We know where we come from – do we know where we want to go next? Are we open to the surprising movements of the Holy Spirit? What will be the next chapter in this story?
Next Sunday, November 10, we will take a break from the Visioning process as such to mark Remembrance Sunday down at the Suda Bay War Cemetery. We will resume in the next two Sundays after that to consider God’s story, and the story of Jesus. On December 1 we will begin to dream dreams and see visions, by trying to answer some questions about ourselves. From that I hope we will develop our vision statement.