The Dean of Durham's Sermon Yesterday on St. Cuthbert and The Whole Armour of God

You’ll recognise the motifs on the badge from today’s 2nd lesson. ”˜Take up the whole armour of God’ says Ephesians: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. The author’s appeal to his readers is vivid and urgent. ”˜Be strong in the Lord”¦so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ Combative stuff. But it fits exactly into the world-view of the first and second generations of Christians. They believed themselves to be warriors of light and truth in an alien, hostile universe. And just as Christ in his descent into hell had harrowed it, ransoming his own and rescuing them from the demonic clutch of death and Satan, so now the church was called bravely to battle against evil by witnessing to the gospel’s redeeming power and by turning human lives round from the oppressions of terror and wickedness to the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Move the clock forward by six centuries, and we come to St Cuthbert whom we celebrated last week. There is a so-called ”˜Celtic’ perception of our northern saint, and there is the truth. The fantasy is that he was a kind of proto-romantic who took himself off to the Inner Farne for peace, quiet, and plenty of time to contemplate ducks. The more austere truth is that he went to the Farne to fight, Bede says, to ”˜seek out a remote battlefield farther away from his fellows’. For him, to be a hermit was to wrestle with evil, the demons within and those without. This warfare was not, or not principally, a private affair. It was an act of the church whereby the ever-threatening forces of chaos and disorder were kept at bay by those called, so to speak, to front-line service. The consolations of the Farne were, to quote the title of a book about desert spirituality, ”˜the solace of fierce landscapes’. There is nothing perfumed or rose-hued about Cuthbert’s struggle for the good, the life-giving and the just. Like all who are valiant for truth, like the prophets and apostles, like the desert fathers and Irish monks, like Jesus himself, it cost him everything. He lived for it, and in the end he died for it.

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