Every now and then the Church of England’s calendar of saints and holy days brings up a commemoration that seems to resonate or be a good counter to a prevailing tone. Yesterday was such a day, as we remembered the not so well known Anskar, a 9th century missionary bishop in Scandanavia, Denmark and Germany. He sounds an unlikely candidate but he lived at a turbulent time when the fortunes of his missions were precarious to say the least, vulnerable and at the mercy of successive Viking raids. He relied heavily on the patronage of the King of the Franks and when this was withdrawn his mission failed. He found that he achieved very little that lasted in Scandanavia. It was 150 years later that another mission had to start again. He had more success in Hamburg, in North Germany and in Denmark, where he is their patron saint.
A comment in the biography notes for his day resonated. It said that he is an example of
“persistence in often discouraging circumstances… His successes were infrequent, and often short lived. In 845 all the gains that he had made for the gospel in Scandanavia were lost as that region was attacked by northern invaders and pagan beliefs and practices were re-established.” (Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship, p24)
There is such an emphasis in the church at the moment on mission, growth and success, on reversing the decline in church attendance, that Anskar is an unconfortable saint to sit alongside that. He was clearly missionary, dedicated and faithful. He achieved growth but the lasting success was somewhat fragile and even not sustained. And despite lots of initiatives and programmes, events and much activity, many are finding today that their churches are not growing in the way a growth and success culture would like to see. Anskar confronts us with the need for a faithful resilience and a theology that can cope with results not being unreservedly successful.
Anskar’s experience is an uncomfortable one. It is shared by lots of people and it reminds us that the sea faith imagery, which Matthew Arnold used in his 19th century poem “On Dover Beach”, with fortunes waxing and waning, as with the rising and falling tide, and this seems to be how it is and has been. It is also an experience that was shared here in Peterborough. The Saxon abbey here was destroyed by the Vikings and desolate for 90 years until a mission came to reestablish it. So Anskar’s experience echoes our own. And he requires us to have a bigger perspective on what constitutes success and failure, fruitfulness and indeed faithfulness. It is much harder to be faithful and hopeful when the results are not encouraging, indeed often discouraging. And most of us who have been around churches over the last few decades will have felt some of this; great efforts made but with far from spectacular returns. There are areas of the country where the church is in danger of disappearing.
That Anskar is remembered is quite remarkable. He would have been easy to air-brush out and concentrate rather on those who had the success when the times were more favourable. That gives so much more of an addrenalin buzz and rallying cry. It is not much of a rallying cry to say ‘come follow me and I will bring you questionable success and your achievements will not last’.
It is into circumstances like this that our Gospel reading was written (John 1:1-14). We can easily forget that first century Christian communities, which produced the gospels, were persecuted. So when John’s gospel talks about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness is not able to over come it, he was writing to a community that saw plenty of evidence of the complete opposite. The darkness did indeed seem to be overcoming the light and some of that light was provided by Christians being used as human torches to light the emperor’s garden. The persecution was grosteque and would make films on the Horror Channel look tame.
The writer of John’s gospel is convinced that the gospel he proclaims is not based on some fad or easy story, but on the architecture of the creation. The eternal Word, who was in the beginning, the very thoughts and purpose of God, became flesh and was present among us in the child and man Jesus. It is a startling and mind blowing claim. It baffles many people who just find they can’t accept it. And so it doesn’t matter how many gimmicks or programmes or plans or apps or events we plan, there is a fundamental incomprehension of this claim. That the architecture of creation might have been visible in a human being is extraordinary to say the least.
And many of us are used to holding this at different levels. There is the metaphorical, where this becomes a profound mystery of what life and creation is. God has infused it with a purpose and a value that touches the eternal. There is the sense that human life can be so in tune with this profound mystery that it is capable of immense creativity, resilience and insight. There is a looking into the stars and seeing there God’s vast and fathomless expanse, the greatness which gives sentient creatures the ability to reflect and delight, to love and sense. John’s gospel’s light shining is the light of the mystery that there is something rather than nothing, that there is life which has meaning beyond the transitory, beyond the fleeting fortunes of a moment’s success or failure.
And it is this that lies at the core of Anskar’s resilience and faithful persistence. It is why whether our church is full or empty is not actually the most important question, though we prefer it to be full than empty. It also doesn’t say ‘don’t bother with mission because there is no point, the tide is against us’. Quite the opposite is the case. It says dance and sing, be thankful and proclaim the love of God, the architecture of the universe present and redeeming, giving life and inspiring hope. Because ‘in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. It came that we might have life and that life was and is the light of all people. It shines in the darkness and despite what might seem the case the darkness will never overcome it’ because it is the architecture of the creation.
What is at stake here is not about just being popular. The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15-20) is not designed to be on trend, but reflect what is, what lies at the core of what is, and therefore what brings hope and meaning. The light shines and cannot be overcome, not because it remains popular but because it is truth. It is the foundation and goal of everything.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th February 2018