A special occasion
—Rev Kate Harrison, 22 Jan 2017 (Feast of St Agnes)
Acts 7.55–end. St. Matthew 23.34–end.
This is a special occasion. Not only are we celebrating the feast days of St Stephen and St Agnes, but we are celebrating them for the first time ever in the church of Saints Stephen and Agnes. Now this may not seems such a big deal. After all, we’ve come together in this church for many years now to celebrate these two saints together around this day in January. But this year is different. In October last year this church was rededicated by Bishop Andrew from being simply St Stephen’s to bearing the name of both of the saints. It marked, not a change in identity as such, but a recognition of identity. And that feels good. St Agnes, and the congregation who used to worship there, has been a proper and full part of this church for a long time. But now the dedication of the church reflects that fact.
What this church has been - its identity - is now known and celebrated.
But what is this identity? What do the identities of St Stephen and St Agnes say about our worshipping community? We dedicate churches to saints for very good reason. We see in the saints an example of true devotion to God. What they do often seems so far from what we can ever hope to achieve … but it’s an aspiration. And the miraculous lives they lead come down to something very basic. Everything they achieve is based on the love that they have for God, which leads them to want the very best for the kingdom … Their actions are determined by their desire to join in with God’s mission of bringing 'Shalom’, peace, wholeness to God’s world … to restore the world to its God given shape and to enable all people to be who they were created to be. They know that God works through them and that, in doing His work, they are acting as His hands and feet in the world. Their saintliness comes from their identity in God.
St Stephen and St Agnes showed their faith in very different ways. Agnes was martyred for what she didn’t do - She refused to become part of the world - to marry and to be consumed by worldly desires and concerns. However much she was offered, she kept herself focussed on God and her own purity. Her resistance to the demands of the world gave other christians courage and her faith that God would never leave her … a faith she spoke freely and clearly about … a faith she was prepared to die for … is inspirational and aspirational.
St Stephen was martyred for what he did do. He stood up and challenged those around him. He is blunt. He is what people would probably call a bit gobby today. He calls a spade a spade. And he annoys people in the process. This comes from a passion for the Gospel. A deep desire to see the world brought back to what it was created to be, for people to realise the same truth he sees. A passion which leads him to death.
Two very different approaches to living the Gospel. But two approaches which marked them both as faithful followers and saints. Two approaches which resulted in both being persecuted in the way in which the Gospel reading describes. Two very different approaches … but both used the talents and personalities of Stephen and Agnes in a way that was authentic to them and their God created identity.
The reading from Galatians is also deeply concerned with identity. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins with a question of identity. The opening words are those of Paul setting out who he is as an apostle. He then goes on to give his autobiographical credentials. For those he is addressing, his identity gives a legitimacy to his teachings. But we’d be mistaken if we took from this that Paul believed his true identity was in his Jewish roots. His true identity is much richer than that. As we see in Chapter 2, from where today’s reading came, Paul’s true identity is in Christ. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me". And this is the identity Christ himself prayed that we would experience - that we would become one with him as he in one with the father - that we would find our identity in God.
Like Paul, we often present our identities as a picture of where we come from or what we’ve done. The world leads us to believe it’s important to take sides and proclaim our allegiance to a particular political party or to legitimise ourselves through our professions, wealth or pastimes. But our task is to discover who we are in Christ and what we have to offer Him. What can we achieve through our love of God? Are we gifted to shout about injustice when we see things which need changing? Or are we the quiet one who shows an example of a life of faith which inspires others?
Love of God and their identity in God led Agnes and Stephen to their actions. Their identity in Christ was expressed in different ways. You see, it is not the actions which bring us closer to God so much as the intentions behind them. Through our actions we express our identity in Christ and, at the same time, like the saints, grow closer to our true identity, as part of a world reconciled by God’s redeeming love.
We are here this morning to celebrate our identity knowing that we have different talents and different personalities, but celebrating that we are invited into one identity as the body of Christ.
Let us pray:
Father of us all, we pray that, following the example of the saints, we can become closer to you, bring your kingdom closer and become closer to our true identity - a saint in and for your kingdom.