This time last year Canon Andrew Stevens SSC, Vicar of St Nicholas Plumstead, invited me to preach at the Feast of Title of his ancient Parish of St Nicholas, Plumstead, London. I thought I would share the sermon with you as an encouragement to keep the Faith, and witness to the Gospel.
It is a great privilege to be here in this ancient Parish Church of St Nicholas. Coming from Australia where buildings that have stood for 150 years are considered “old” it is a bit overwhelming to know that in the oldest part of this building - just there - worship has been offered to the Lord much as we are doing today since 960 AD! For all that time, this church has been a beacon witnessing to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith.
Being under his heaveny patronage, you probably know everything there is to know about St Nicholas. Nevertheless, today I want to look at aspects of his life and witness, and see how they speak to us in our time.
A CHRISTIAN UPBRINGING
Historians tell us that Nicholas was born somewhere between 265 and 280 AD into a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a small village near the coastal city of Myra, in modern day Turkey, which was a centre for the worship of the Roman God, Diana. Nicholas’ family were probably merchants trading with the ships that visited the nearby port. The Church community in Myra dated back 200 years to when St Paul had passed through as a prisoner on his way to Rome. He is said to have preached there. It’s a tribute to our ancient brothers and sisters that despite all their hardships this local Church that had been planted during the apostolic age was still going strong 200 years later when Nicholas was born.
An only child, he grew up knowing and loving the Lord. He grew up knowing the Gospel of God’s love. He grew up familiar with the Scriptures, and joining in singing the Psalms in Church. He grew up with the ancient Christian conviction that whenever his Church family gathered for the Eucharist (as we have gathered here today) they were all swept into the worship of heaven and made part of the movement of love from Jesus to the Father in the eternal Spirit. Of course, even at that stage, they would still have been going to Mass in a large house – perhaps even the house of Nicholas’ parents? - (except for those occasions when they gathered at the local cemetery as a way of celebrating the resurrection).
But even after 200 years it wasn’t easy for them to be Christians. It was dangerous. We know that a few years before Nicholas was born, some Church members in Myra were viciously killed by the authorities for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Nicholas grew up fully aware of how risky it was to be a Christian. But along with his family and their closest friends, he also grew up understanding persecution as a real sharing in the sufferings of Jesus making their own pain and trials redemptive (1 Peter 4:13).
So, nurtured in a real relationship with the Lord from childhood, Nicholas wanted to live for Jesus. He resisted the temptations available to the affluent in Roman society - money, sex, and politicking for power. The Lord’s hand was on his life, and he knew it. His heart was open to God. His thinking was shaped by Gospel truth. He was one of those saints who never strayed. From childhood he was noted for his holiness, and his love for God was seen, even then, in the Christlike compassion with which he treated others.
A SPECIAL VOCATION
Sadly, his parents died in an outbreak of plague when he was still in his teens. So Nicholas was alone. You might say that he was well set up due to his large inheritance. But even in that respect his holiness shone through. Rather than squander his inheritance like the Prodigal Son, or develop a lavish lifestyle of business and financial investment as many would have done, he prayed so as to know how he should give both his life and his resources to the Lord.
In Roman society at the time, it was usual for people to look after their own families, but not to care very much about anyone else. Historians tell us that the early Christian communities deeply shocked those around them by caring indiscriminately for the needy, whoever they were, including those rejected by society, such as prisoners, widows, and orphans.
We tend to look back on previous times through the lens of our own values which, in fact, have been formed largely by the Gospel. Hence our shock when we discover some of the real differences between the ancient world at its best, and our culture, even in its post-Christian guise. In a filmed interview with John Dickson, the eminent historian Edwin Judge recently explained why ancient Greeks and Romans could never have approved of “compassion” and why modern Westerners do; why Stoic “courtesy” (the high point of Greco-Roman morality) is a world apart from Christian “love and charity”, and how the contemporary West is a bit like Christianity’s overconfident “teenage son”, inescapably made in the family likeness but rebellious and certain his parents have given him nothing.)
It is significant in the light of that that our culture still celebrates the way Nicholas took seriously the call of Jesus to care sacrificially for others, whoever they were and whatever they believed. This kind of giving, inspired by the Gospel, nurtured among the early Christians and personified in St Nicholas made a huge impact in a culture of patronage that knew nothing of anonymous gifts, and in which if a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life. Clearly some of the stories about Nicholas and his giving are legendary, but the reason they have come to us is because of the impact of his life and ministry.
When Nicholas was a young man a particularly cruel and well-organised persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat to blame for the empire’s economic recession. Nicholas seems to have been studying for the priesthood at the time when the Bishop of Myra was killed. One night in 295 AD, the senior bishops from around that region gathered in prayer to seek the will of God, and as a result Nicholas was chosen, consecrated and became one of the youngest bishops ever in the Church, a man of the people and a man of God, who ministered according to the example of loving humility seen in Jesus.
Not long after his consecration, he was arrested, put in prison, beaten and tortured. It was common in those days to blind the right eye of a Christian prisoner and cut the sinews of his left ankle. Nicholas bore these scars of his torture for Jesus, even though he was not called to martyrdom. And for much of the time he was Bishop of Myra, Christians were still a hated minority, suffering abuse at the hands of violent mobs and being persecuted at the Emperor’s whim.
Then under the Emperor Constantine, a great change took place. Christianity went almost overnight from being a despised minority to the most influential religion of the Empire. But the Church had its problems. In 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, three hundred or so bishops, who gathered for discussion and debate. Picture that meeting. You have to use your imagination when reading Church history. It wasn’t like a meeting of modern bureaucratic bishops with the photocopier in the corner! Many of those present were bent-over elderly men, with eyes and even limbs missing because of the persecution they had been through. And they debated with vigour. (It is even said that Nicholas slapped the heretic Arius in the face!) Of course, the real issue at Nicaea was whether Jesus really is God in the flesh, or just a slightly more inspired version of you and me with a “deep spirituality.” The Council affirmed the Gospel truth about who Jesus is, and that’s why it is so important.
Nicholas died in the 330s.
THE FULL ARMOUR OF GOD
We are literally part of the same body of Christ as St Nicholas - as well as of those countless others who make up the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and joining us at the altar today. We have been baptized in the same Baptism, plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus so as to live his risen life. We have been anointed with the same Holy Spirit in Confirmation, and nourished with the very same Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Love. We have been formed by the same Word of God in Scripture.
And if St Nicholas lived in dangerous times when the Faith was under attack from several directions, so do we. You don’t need me to tell you that.
But St Nicholas did what St Paul said to do in Ephesians 6. He put on the breastplate of righteousness, he shod his feet with the Gospel of peace, he buckled on the shield of faith, he put on the helmet of salvation, and he took up firmly the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times “in the Spirit”, and persevering against all the odds. The whole armour of God enabled St Nicholas and all the holy ones down through the ages to live in the victory of Jesus over the principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this present age.
The challenges we face today include:
radical secularism and its desire to expunge the Gospel even from our cultural memory,
an epidemic crumbling of relationships – in families, neighbourhoods, and even Church communities – and the resulting loneliness and isolation that is fast becoming normal all around us.
the constant temptation to abandon the Faith of Jesus, the Faith that comes to us from the apostles . . . and, sadly, today this temptation comes not just from our secular society, but also from certain quarters within the Church itself.
And there IS religious persecution . . . the real persecution and even martyrdom that so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in different parts of the world suffer at the hands of violent extremists. Will the same thing happen to us or to our children . . . in the next generation or the one after? Who knows! What we DO know is that the whole amour of God will avail for us as it did for St Nicholas, and as it has for our brothers and sisters over the last 2000 years.
May Our Lady, St. Nicholas and all the saints in that great multitude that no man can number pray for us, so that we, too, will have the grace to thrive in the struggle, to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand, to bear witness to God’s truth – the only truth that sets us free, and to keep loving with the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
A FESTIVAL PRAYER
Lord Jesus Christ,
reigning in the glory of heaven,
living in the hearts of your people,
and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament,
we thank you for making us your people
and drawing us into your love.
We thank you for all the blessings you give us
to strengthen us
as we journey through this life.
Lord Jesus, our Eternal and merciful King,
Word made Flesh,
you came among us in great humility,
you gave us healing and new life,
you died on the cross and rose victorious from the dead.
Lord, you are our Eucharistic King,
foretold by the prophets,
in whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit we are one.
Your Kingdom is not from this world.
You are the Beginning and the End,
the Alpha and the Omega,
who will come upon the clouds of Heaven
with Power and Great Glory.
Reign in our hearts.
Lord Jesus, whose Throne of Grace,
we are to approach with confidence,
who, hanging on the cross,
gave your Mother Mary to be our Mother also,
you desire to heal us of division and disunity,
you pour out the Holy Spirit upon your people,
you send the Holy Angels to protect us.
before whom every knee shall bow,
whose reign will never end.
Reign in our hearts.
Reign in your Church.
Reign in this parish of St Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas and all the Saints
Pray for us.