Sermon: Augustine, First Archbishop of Canterbury

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

The hymn, Jerusalem, taken from a poem by William Blake alludes to a legend that tells of how Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant and uncle of Jesus, once brought the boy Jesus to England while on a trading journey, and it suggests that Jesus once walked the shores of England.

The Legend of Glastonbury goes on to describe how, following the death of Jesus, Joseph and some of the other disciples came to England. It is said that when he arrived, Joseph planted his staff, which miraculously flowered and reportedly still does each Christmas. A sprig is taken to Buckingham Palace every year as a reminder of the miracle. The church that was then established under Joseph of Arimathea in Glastonbury is stated to be the first church in England.

That may have been the beginning of the English Church, but it’s early history was quite rocky, and it wasn’t really until the late 6th century that it began to experience more consistent growth.

In the year 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great sent Augustine, the near-sighted prior of an abbey, along with 30 other monks to England, with the goal of converting the English to Christianity. This small band of monks landed on the Isle of Thanet, located on the southeast corner of England, in the year 597.

The territory was ruled by Ethelbert, king of Kent, who was cautious of these Christians, but because his wife was a Christian, he allowed the monks to to stay. Eventually, Ethelbert would convert to Christianity, which then encouraged his citizens to do the same. This past Sunday, Pentecost, we baptized four individuals (the most I’ve ever baptized at once was eight), but on a single day shortly after Ethelbert’s conversion and baptism, some 10,000 English were baptized in the River Swale by Augustine and his fellow monks. Not bad for a days work!

Augustine was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Canterbury and is considered the “Apostle to the English”. Archbishop Justin Welby, who we pray for each week, is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus saw Simon Peter and the others fishing. He said to them, throw your nets out into the deep water for a catch. Simon Peter’s response, Look, we’re fishermen. We know what we’re doing and we’ve been out here all night trying. They aren’t biting, but just to satisfy you…. “They caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.”

That event seems to be very accurate in describing the early history of the English Church. Casting and casting – 600 years of casting – then finally bringing in the catch when Augustine and his monks arrived. One of the many lessons in studying the life of Augustine and this era of English church history is persistence in faith. Recognizing that the goal is worth reaching, no matter the setbacks and hardship. This is true in the greater scheme of things and in our own lives.

How many times did you have to hear the message of Jesus before you came to the Christian faith? How many times did it seem you were there, but you eventually walked away? How many times have you stumbled, fallen flat on your face, only to get back up again? Are you done with all that or do you think you will stumble again? Winston Churchill said it best, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Persevere!

We can learn this lesson from those who sought to evangelize England, like Augustine, and we can learn it in our own lives. We must persevere in our faith even in the the face of perceived failure. If we do, then in the end we will say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

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