Preached as a sermon at the Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Croydon. Readings: Isaiah 401.1-11; Luke 1.57-66,80
‘His name is John’! And the name John means ‘the Lord is gracious’.
Today is our patronal festival, that is to say the festival when we celebrate our patron saint.
And that patron saint is St John the Baptist.
A patron, according to the dictionary, can be a couple of things.
First a patron is ‘a customer, especially a regular one, of a shop, restaurant or theatre’. That doesn’t sound quite the sort of patron we’re talking about here. John the Baptist doesn’t drop by to take in a show at the Minster: he’s not that sort of patron.
Another definition is ‘a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, cause, or activity’. Well, John doesn’t give us any financial support, he’s not on the direct debit planned giving scheme and he doesn’t use GiftAid. So what are we talking about here?
A patron saint has a deeper function and gives other support.
As Bishop Rowan Williams says, ‘Patron saints are not there to be benign mascots; they are given so that nations and groups and individuals may have identifiable friends in the company of heaven who will give a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’
What a beautiful thought, that here at this church, we have an ‘identifiable friend in the company of heaven’.
The Christian understanding of the Communion of Saints isn’t of a mush of people who have died, like drops making up a pool, but individuals whose identity is magnified as they praise God and pray for us on earth. So we can have an identifiable friend in heaven.
That patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, prays for us: there is nothing more encouraging than to know that your friend, living or departed, is praying for you at the throne of grace.
Our identifiable friend in heaven is an example to us in the living out of the gospel: there is nothing more inspiring than the example of a friend. A Christian friend’s life helps us in being a Christian.
And as Rowan Williams says, our patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, ‘gives a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’
You can certainly say that of John the Baptist.
Before I came to Croydon, I have to confess that I hadn’t really thought a huge amount about him, other than that he was a bit weird, somewhat off putting and rather remote.
I was, of course, aware of his high profile during the season of Advent, when he is identified as the one who proclaims the coming Christ and fulfilling the text of our first reading: John’s is the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.
But since I have been here I have pondered John much more. I ask his prayers for me, for you and our church. He has become my friend in the Communion of Saints!
And his example stirs and inspires me in my ministry here, and I hope all of us in our Christian faith.
Accounts of John begin with his childhood: let us rejoice in the presence of children and young people in our midst and ensure they are served and nurtured: that is a gift adult disciples can give to the young.
John the Baptist takes us to the heart of the matter, away from the fripperies and distractions: John leads us to a deep encounter with Jesus Christ.
John knows that his mission and ministry is to point people to Jesus Christ. And that he does.
He makes himself unpopular by speaking the truth, rebuking those who exploit the poor, and the tyrant King Herod, to the cost of his life.
What integrity. John the Baptist puts the grit back into integrity!
John is intensely humble and aware of who he is, ‘I am not worthy to untie the thong of Christ’s sandal’.
John’s blunt and direct: turn away from sin; turn to God.
In all of that John does not want to get in the way of his message: ‘Christ must increase; I must decrease’ (John 3.30). A bit like St Paul saying, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20)
Ultimately John tells us to look beyond himself to the very heart of the matter, to the depth of the mystery of God revealed in the one he calls the ‘Lamb of God’: it’s my message, not me.
John says to us, as our gritty, personal friend, ‘Behold. Look. See. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.
We sing John’s words at every Eucharist, ‘O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy upon us. Grant us peace’. In doing so we adore Jesus Christ; and John’s task is realised.
For this is where we come to behold, and to meet, Jesus Christ in his word and sacrament.
In John the Baptist, we have a friend in heaven, whose powerful prayers we ask for in our daily lives as disciples of Christ and in the ministry and mission of Christ’s church.
V. Pray for us, O glorious St. John the Baptist,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.