On Tuesday, the first day of the Synod for the Gibraltar Archdeaconry, Bishop Robert Innes preached at the opening Eucharist. The date coincided with commemoration of Anskar, remembered as Bishop and missionary. He is the patron saint of Scandinavia.
This is the text of Bishop Robert’s sermon.
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news!” Today we are invited to remember Anskar, the 9th century missionary who first took the gospel to Denmark and Sweden. Anskar established the first church in Sweden and founded the first Christian school in Denmark.
The injunction to preach the good news comes to us, of course, just as it came to Anskar. “How can they believe unless they have heard, and how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”, asks St. Paul.
It is natural to share good news: whether it news of an engagement, or a wedding, or a birth – or a new birth. In the early church, the gospel was shared most often informally and by ordinary lay people around market stalls, in people’s homes, amongst friends. We tend to have the mistaken view that most people come to faith through the preaching of a professional. In fact, all the evidence shows that it is in the sharing of personal stories amongst friends that faith is most effectively passed on.
Sharing the good news is a natural part of being a Christian. But compared to St. Paul’s time, or Anskar’s time, it feels hard. It feels counter-cultural. And for at least three reasons. Firstly, the news is no longer news. We live in an old continent, where people feel they already know – and have maybe rejected the gospel of Jesus. The good news is part of our continent’s past – it is not usually understood as part of its present and future. Secondly, the news is, sadly, not always good. Too many people have had bad experiences of the institutional church, be it in situations of conflict or even abuse. And thirdly, we have learned to be suspicious of religious news. Religion is thought to be something private, to be kept on the inside, certainly not something we should ever ‘push’ on someone else.
The good news is no longer news, it isn’t always good and it isn’t easily to talk about. Sharing the good news is hard. Hard yes, but not impossible.
For people are built with religious and spiritual instincts. As St. Augustine famously said: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.” We have spiritual needs that no amount of material goods can satisfy. And in every kind of European community we see those needs: whether they are expressed in loneliness, or lack of purpose, or frustration, or fear of the future or whatever.
And part of our Anglican church’s commission, with our sister churches, is to share the good news of Jesus. And actually, the statistics tell us that, even amongst English ex-patriots, we are only just scratching the surface. There are very many people who have no connection with our churches at all.
So we gather here as representatives of our different churches as a synod. We are here to take counsel together, to enjoy fellowship and support, to encourage one another, to share the joys and sorrows of local church life, and to seek the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit for the future. I hope we can also stir one another up to be effective witnesses of the gospel of Jesus. As Anglicans we have five marks of mission, and the first mark is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.
Finally, there is one fascinating thing about Anskar’s missionary work, which is that, towards the end of his life, he saw his work being entirely undone by resurgent paganism. In a sense his life appeared to end in failure. Despite this, Anskar was later honoured as the patron saint of Scandinavia. Which reminds us that, God does not require us to be successful, but to be faithful. And if we are faithful then he will ensure, one way or another, that we will also be fruitful. The gospel is good news. AS the Alpha Course puts it: the best news ever! It gives us a sense of purpose, a new set of human relationships, intimacy with God and the hope of heaven. May God give us beautiful feet to share joyfully this good news with others.