Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Sunday after Ascension: St Boniface
June 5, 2011, 6:42 pm
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Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 5th June 2011

As well as being the Sunday after the Ascension, today is the commemoration of St Boniface, the great missionary from England to Germany in the eighth century. Born around the year 675, at or near Crediton, his baptismal name was Wynfrith. He later took the name Boniface, probably in honour of several Popes named Boniface who following St Gregory the Great had taken a great interest in the English mission. He became a monk at Exeter, and then at Nursling near Southampton. Like many monks, his preoccupation was in study of the Scriptures, in teaching and preaching. He compiled the first Latin grammar used in England. You might say, a very conventional monastic life.

When he was over forty, in the year 718, he left England, never to return. He had felt a call (however it had been brought to him) to take the Gospel to the heathen tribes of Germany. For the next thirty-six years he travelled all over the area of central and southern Germany, making many converts through the power of his preaching. He made three visits to Rome to report on his activities; on his second visit he was made a bishop, eventually establishing his seat at Mainz, on the Rhine. He enlisted other missionaries from Wessex, his homeland, women religious as well as men. We have many letters written by or to him, from which we can learn the extent of his activity. In 732 he was made Archbishop, and he devoted himself to the organisation and reform of the West German and Frankish churches. When he was over seventy, his thirst for fresh missionary work was unabated, and he turned his attention northwards, to Friesland (now Holland). Here he met his end. While he was quietly reading in his tent, a heathen gang broke in upon him and stabbed him to death. This was in 754 or 5.

Boniface typifies the effects of the great Mysteries we are celebrating at this season: the enthronement of Jesus Christ as Lord of all creation, and his sending the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower his followers to carry the news of his rulership to all the peoples of the world. The rulership or reign of Christ is the reign of God-made-man, the Kingdom of heaven which is always “at hand”, ever-present although perceptible only to those who have faith.

In our first reading this evening, we were presented with “the last words of David.” It is not important whether or not these were literally David’s last words: George V’s officially reported last words were, “How goes the Empire?” whereas it is more reliably reported that what he actually said was something very rude about Bognor. The author of the Books of Samuel, writing from his later historical perspective, expresses his own belief about David’s place in God’s scheme. He calls him both the son of Jesse- a humble shepherd- and “the man who was raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob.” From our further perspective of faith, we can see David as a foreshadowing of our Lord, humble in his earthly life, the true shepherd of Israel, and now “raised on high, the anointed (that is, the Messiah, the Christ) of God.” This is what the Ascension is all about: not so much a physical going up (although this is how it was manifested to the Apostles), but an elevation of the humanity of Christ, so that, in J.M. Neale’s masterly translation of the Ascension-tide Office hymn, “flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, and God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned.” The Flesh of God- the physical humanity of God, the material flesh which he took first from his humble mother- that has been “divinised”, that now reigns gloriously because it is inseparable now from the word of God, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity. (And, of course, that is why after the course of her earthly life, our Blessed Lady too shares bodily in the glory of heaven: her flesh remains uniquely related to the flesh of her Son.)

David is represented as saying;

“The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth upon a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.

We are reminded of our Lord’s words at the beginning of his public ministry, as reported by Luke, in the Synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” What makes him Christ, Messiah, is not anointing with oil, but anointing with the Spirit of God poured out upon him, and which he now pours out abundantly upon his Church. He is the one who rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, dawning on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth upon a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.

“Yea, does not my house stand so with God?” The House of Christ is the Church, built up of living stones, you and me, on the foundation of the Apostles. “For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. For will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” The sacred writer believed that God’s covenant with David would be everlasting: we know that this is so, because Jesus is the Son of David, the heir to God’s promises to Israel, as well as Son of Man, the second Adam, the representative of all humanity.

St Paul understood this, and opens up this cosmic perspective, especially in the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, churches which he had not founded in person, but which he had under his care- he had “heard of” their faith and love. We should remember that Paul had not known Jesus in his earthly life- if he had heard of him, he had thought little of him- and at first regarded the movement he had initiated as a threat to the faith of Israel. Only an encounter with the Living Christ, the Lord of Glory, had changed him from persecutor to Apostle, with a particular commission to take the Gospel to the nations.

In writing to the Ephesians, he expresses his wishes and prayers for them. The terminology is significant: he prays that the Father of glory, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, will give them the Spirit of wisdom. Father, Son and Spirit are clearly referred to. The Spirit will reveal, will enlighten, will impart knowledge. This knowledge will itself be three-fold:

of the hope to which we are called;
of the riches of our present glorious inheritance;
of the greatness of God’s power in believers.

Indeed, it is belief, faith, that the Spirit gives us: it is brought about by God’s mighty work, accomplished in Christ, raising him from death- the very lowest point- to his right hand in heaven, above every conceivable created power or authority. He is the head over all, for his body, the Church, “according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places,

far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,
and above every name that is named,
not only in this age but also in that which is to come;
and he has put all things under his feet
and has made him the head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.”

This is the Good News: that God reigns; that Jesus is Lord; that we ourselves are his body, animated by his Spirit. This is what drove Boniface out of his quiet monastery to bring the message to the pagans, and this is what made him content, no, privileged to give his life for it.

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