A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 13th September 2023
Today we remember John of Antioch, who became Bishop of Constantinople, and died in 407. He was one of the early church’s most prolific and influential writers, and also a great preacher. We know him now by his nickname, “Chrysostom”, from the Greek Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos) meaning “golden-mouthed”. That is probably enough to stop any modern preacher speaking about him: and our collect too is intimidating, as it prays that God may mercifully grant to “those who minister your word such excellence in preaching” that all people may share with those who heard John in the glory that shall be revealed. Perhaps here the key word is mercy. Those of us who are called to preach rely on God’s mercy for guidance in what we should say, and on divine mercy too for those who hear to have receptive ears to what God might be saying to them. It is said that some of our Anglican ancestors viewed sermons as a spectator sport, particularly when there was little else to entertain them on Sundays. Not so with us.
But what might remembering John Chrysostom mean for us?
As a young man John sought an authentic faith and like many at the time went out into the desert, away from the corruptions of city life. He lived first with an old Syrian monk, and then in ascetic isolation. His health collapsed and he returned to Antioch, where he was ordained priest and started to become known as a great preacher. His main intention was to educate a nominally Christian society in the faith, and to reform their morals as befitted believers. Here our epistle is particularly appropriate for this day as it shows how from the very earliest days of the church ministers of the faith struggled to help their congregations understand what new life in Christ should mean in very practical terms. They had to realise that they were new men and women called by the name of Christ, and thanks to the mercy and grace of God, constantly being re-fashioned in His image. In 398 John became Bishop of Constantinople, and it said that he was removed secretly from Antioch as the authorities feared popular demonstrations at the loss such a preacher! Once in Constantinople he turned the full force of his eloquence on those in power in church and state who had amassed great wealth for themselves, at the expense of the poor. He particularly alienated the Empress Eudoxia, and he was finally exiled and died en route to Pontus, his place of exile, on the southern coast of the Black Sea.
Perhaps the main message of John’s life, rather than his many writings, is Christian courage. We are not called on to face persecution or hostility on the grounds of our faith in quite such dramatic ways as John and many others through Christian history. We live in a fairly tolerant society. But it is so easy to be sucked into the values and assumptions of our surroundings. The assumptions all around us of what constitutes value, success and influence, what makes a worthwhile life, how people should be free to make and remake themselves in whatever way they please – these are as hostile to Christian believing and living as the blatant evils faced in pagan and semi-Christianised societies by the early Church. We do not have to shut ourselves away in a holy huddle, live in a believing enclave, as some sects and groups have done and still do. We are called to be calm and kindly witnesses to an alternative truth, an alternative vision of what constitutes real value, and to demonstrate that by our care for others, particularly those least able to help themselves. This calls for Christian courage – in what we do, but also in holding firm to the faith that God through Christ remakes us in His image, is continually at work transforming us and through us influencing his world. You will remember the words of Paul in chapter 12 of the epistle to the Romans, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Graham preached in part about this text on 27 August. Maybe here the Lord’s parable of the kingdom of heaven being like yeast is a good image of what Christians are called to be. Somewhat insignificant, small and hidden – but a powerful agent of change in what is around them.
Allied to the virtue of courage is patience. We don’t often hear it preached about in church. But there is a lovely passage in the Book of Revelation (ch. 12). It speaks of the patience, the endurance, of the saints. That meant to keep God’s commandments and to hold fast the faith of Jesus. We are mostly impatient people. We want to get things done, to succeed, to fix things. It is part of our modern culture. We are so often impatient with those around us, with our society, our church and with ourselves. But God’s way is persistence, faithfulness, constancy in believing and action. These qualities surely lie at the heart of our gospel reading. There are no quick fixes in the spiritual life or in the redemption of the world. Just as God is faithful and patient, so must we be. Like John Chrysostom, we are called to constancy despite all the seeming odds, and to leave the outcomes in God’s hands.