April 25, 2021

4th Sunday of Easter – Looking to the future, 8am – Revd Sally Bedborough

St Alban is a third century saint. He was a pagan Roman citizen living in Britain and he gave shelter to a Christian priest who was on the run in that time of persecution of those of the Christian faith.

Alban was inspired by the priest’s example and wanted to know more about the faith on which his life was based. Alban decided to become a Christian and he was baptised by the priest. The net of persecution drew closer around the priest; and to give the priest a chance to escape, Alban suggested that they swap clothes. This they did and the priest escaped, but Alban was arrested on the assumption that he was the fugitive priest.

He was examined before the magistrate and was asked ‘What is your name, your race and your family?’ You see, the Roman way of life and culture was based on hierarchy; where heritage and family name was all important; where standing in society was based on what you did, who you knew, who you were related to, and so on. There were defined layers of society in Roman culture and some were honourable and worthy, whereas others could be discounted and overlooked.

Alban’s answer to his inquisitor was this: ‘I am a Christian and I stand ready to do my Christian duty. My name is Alban and I shall always adore and worship the true and living God.’

Of course this let the judge off the hook, he didn’t have to worry about executing Alban because he didn’t rate in the complicated system of honour and obligation to family, friends, patrons and clients that kept the Roman society going. Even though Alban had likely been a prominent Roman citizen, possibly a soldier, because he had embraced Christianity, he had jettisoned his standing in Roman society and therefore he was expendable. So he was sent to be flogged and beheaded. It is said that the executioner was so moved by Alban’s courage that he in turn confessed the faith and was martyred. And so the principle of mercy, enacted by Alban, set in motion an endless chain reaction that is continued in the memory and in the telling of his story.

For we Christians and pilgrims on the Way, we return to Alban’s story in light of Christ’s words and example: Jesus said: …And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 

Christ’s command to us is to be dutiful pilgrims. But what is our duty, our Christian duty? Well, we might say, along with Alban that our duty is to worship and adore God forever. Also, our duty is to the body of Christ – and of course it is. But that body is not just this body of a small congregation within the walls of St Peter’s church at this early morning eucharist. It is not even the body of other congregations at our 10am service or, today, our first, and then our subsequent congregations at St Mary’s on Brownsea Island. Our duty is not just to the believing and worshipping congregations in this parish, deanery, or diocese, or nation or even around the globe. Although it is all of those things. You see, our duty is not just to the present, it is to the future.

Just as Jesus declared that he had other sheep that he had to seek out, that he had to enfold, that he had to call and gather….so too do we. Jesus is aiming for one flock and one shepherd. Jesus is underlining the incompleteness of his flock; he is set to look to the future to seek out and to gather all those as yet not in his fold.

In this so familiar story of the Good Shepherd, we are reminded that Jesus was breaking open the inward looking focus of the chosen people of God. Breaking out of a loyalty and focus on friends and family and people who think like us and live like us. He declares himself to be a seeker of others. That is to say that Christian loyalty is being for and being with those we have not yet met, and being committed to a world we have not yet seen.

The body of Christ is always a body under formation; a body that is on the look out for people who do not yet belong, a body on the look out for a world that is fit for the future, spiritually and environmentally; a body that is not content with loving and caring for its own….although it does do so. It is above all a body that is expectant, anticipating the inclusion of those who are not at present alongside us or who even care whether we love and care for them.

Christian duty has been highlighted recently as we have become more and more aware of the roles that Prince Phillip played in the organising of our society. Here was a man, inspired by this future-oriented Christian faith, who sought to inspire young people with his Duke of Edinburgh awards, and with his emphasis on caring for our environment.

The body of Christ includes all those past saints, such as St Alban, all those recently departed whose lives have touched ours and inspired us. Will we then take up this mantle of Christian duty and look outward and ahead, with a focus on the future, so that we also continue our Lord’s work of seeking out and forming one flock with one Good Shepherd. Amen.