Sunday 23 April 2023

On St George's Day

Years ago, when I was at college preparing for ministry, there were, in the library, a few shelves of books, books that were free for students to take. They were second hand books that had, no doubt, once belonged to either retired ministers or had once belonged to ministers that had just passed on. 

One book I took from this shelf, and I still have it today, is a book entitled ‘Everyman’s Book of Saints’ by CPS Clarke.  His full title was the Venerable Charles Philip Stuart Clarke, and he lived from 1871-1947. 

Now, Charles Clarke, was a minister in the Church of England, he was part of what was once known as the Oxford Movement.  The Oxford Movement was centred at the University of Oxford and sought a renewal of ‘catholic’ or Roman Catholic, thought and practice within the Church of England in opposition to the protestant tendencies of the Church.  So, it’s not surprising then, that Charles Clarke, an Anglican priest, a Roman Catholic sympathiser, should write a book called the Everyman’s Book of Saints.

In the second paragraph of the introduction to his book, Charles Clarke really lays out his theology.  He writes of the ‘immense volume of intercession which these long dead saints offer on our behalf before the throne of God.’

The Roman Catholic Church venerates the saints.  But it seems to me that they really do pray to the saints, even to individual saints.  Thus, prayer for the return of lost or stolen property in the Catholic tradition would be offered to St Anthony.  The patron saint of lost causes is St Jude.  And as we all know; the patron saint of travel is St Christopher.  And then there are the ‘Hail Mary’s Mother of God,’ uttered amidst the liturgy and the incense of the Roman Catholic worship.

It all sounds very rich and complex – but we Protestants simply point to the scriptures of the Old and New Testament and so I offer you these words that encapsulate the First of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt have no God but me, before no idol bend thy knee. In other words, prayers according to the Bible should only be offered to God 

And for guidance on our prayers and in our petitions to God, we have only to turn to the New Testament where we have the words of Jesus (John 14:13-17) who says ‘And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.’ 

Just as an aside, before we decide to make a prayer in the name of Jesus, we should be sure we are not merely making this prayer on a whim.  William Barclay wrote:

Can we honestly make this prayer in the name of Jesus?  The prayer which can stand the test of that consideration, and which in the end says ‘Your will be done, is always answered.  But the prayer based on self cannot expect to be granted.’

Returning to the Everyman’s Book of the Saints by Charles Clarke, I would hasten to say that I would not dismiss Charles Clarke’s work out of hand.  After all these years I still have his well-written, neat, and attractive little book which was originally published in 1914 and I really like it. In the introduction it reads:

What is a saint?  May we not say that the saints are the lamps of God lighted with His spirit, and reflecting the light of Christ, who lighteth every man, but is not reflected equally by all?  Trials, suffering, and labour are the opportunities given them, but which their light is cleansed and their light enabled to shine more brightly against the surrounding darkness. 

Charles Clarke also said that: “to study the lives of the saints is to be reminded of the fact of Christ as a living and working power in the life of man…’

I think that it’s in the spirit of these preceding words that we can go now to consider briefly, on this 23rd day of April, the life of our patron saint, the patron saint of England, St George. 

We often hear that criticism, which is what it is, that St George wasn’t even born in England.  But then again, the patron Saint of Scotland, Saint Andrew was born in Bethsaida, near the Sea of Galilee and St Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland, was born in Britain and not on the island of Ireland, so I think we can see that place of birth is nothing to do with the authenticity or the origin of a particular saint.

Our patron saint, George, is included in a list of saints written in AD 495 by Pope Gelasius – Gelasius refers to St George in these terms, George: “whose name is justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God”.

St George is said to have belonged to a noble Cappadocian family.  Where is Cappadocia?  It’s in central Turkey.  Paul travelled through Cappadocia enroute to Galatia and St Peter in AD 63 wrote his first letter, to the Christians there.  However, St George was, in fact, born in Lydda in Palestine. 

When he was 10 years old his father died, but the young George went on to become an officer in the Roman Army, he became a tribune in the Imperial Guard, which means he was one rank above a centurion.  During his military service he visited Urmia in Persia.  Charles Clarke writes that: as a consequence, there are still many churches in the area, (of Urmia) and near one of them is a rosebush, or clump of rose bushes, fifty yards square, sacred to him, (St George) which may account for his association with that flower. 

We may associate St George with the English rose but it seems that that rose as an emblem only came into prominence, in England, during the Wars of the Roses (1455 -1487).

St George, as an officer in the Roman army, was therefore not as popularly imagined, a medieval knight, but rather a distinguished soldier, known to be good looking, courteous and brave.  There is even a tradition that during his service he did actually come to Britain.

During the time of George’s service to the Emperor Diocletian, Christianity was tolerated but this changed in AD 303, when the emperor, who had surrounded himself with anti-Christian supporters, began what became known as the Great Persecution.  It was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, this persecution amongst other things involved the burning of Christian books and the demolition of Christian churches.  The punishment inflicted for resistance to this persecution was imprisonment and torture and in some cases death. 

So, when the emperor Diocletian issued his edict of persecution, St George retired from the army and resolved to plead the cause of his persecuted fellow Christians before the emperor.  He returned to his home in Lydda, he freed his slaves, sold his possessions, gave away his money and went to see the emperor.  However, his appeal to the emperor proved to be unsuccessful.  Instead, he too was charged with being a Christian – he was ordered to sacrifice to, and worship the Roman, pagan gods.  Refusing and confirming his faith in Christ, St George was tortured and then beheaded.  His body was taken back to Lydda, by three of his servants.

Charles Clarke wrote that the emperor Constantine, who was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, afterwards built a church near the tomb of St George.  The first church of Jerusalem dedicated to St George is said to have been erected by Helena, Constantine’s mother, near to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in AD 326.

Again, I’m reminded of those words of Charles Clarke, who wrote that to study the lives of the saints is to be reminded of the fact of Christ as a living and working power in the life of a man, In the life of St George, as we have it, albeit, from the dim and distant past, I think an image of the character of the man, does shine through.  His story is set against irrefutable historical events, his piety, his devotion to Christ and his martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Emperor Diocletian do not seem to be in dispute.

In the stories of great men and women, there are always accretions, embellishments that perhaps whilst not strictly true do point to the attributes and virtues of the person concerned. What about the story of George and the dragon then? Well, if any actual living animal resembles a dragon, it’s of course the crocodile, it’s a fearsome, formidable and terrifying beast. The story goes that St George, on his way home to Lydda, passed through Beirut; near there was a river called ‘the water of the crocodile’ out of that river would come an enormous crocodile, it was notorious for killing and eating and terrorising the local population.  It’s suggested that St George heroically killed that crocodile thereby ridding the population of that particular menace.  Thus arises, possibly, the legend of George and the Dragon. 

Whichever way we consider the life of St George, I’m sure that what does come shining through is the portrayal of a brave man, a hero, a distinguished soldier, but he is remembered really for his faith in Christ and his martyrdom as a Christian.  Let’s turn to the words of that children’s hymn by Jan Struther: When a Knight Won his Spurs. The words of this hymn should speak to children and to adults alike reminding us that like the warriors of old that we too should gird ourselves for our own personal battles against the dark forces of this world, dark forces that we are all too familiar with.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side

Yet still into adventure and battle I ride

Though back into story land giants have fled

And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.


Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed 

Against the dragons of anger the ogres of greed 

And let me set free with the sword of my youth 

From the castle of darkness the power of the truth 

Charles Clarke described the Saints as the ‘heroes of the Church.’ The lives of such great men and women can and do stand out as examples for us to follow, to encourage us and to inspire us. It’s probably not given to us to literally ride on to the battlefield, dressed in a suit of shining armour, and to carry a sword and a shield in our ordinary day to day life, but our life of faith and righteousness still calls us to put on the spiritual armour of God, as St Paul put it:

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we battle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:11-12)

Prayer of St George

 Almighty God, who gave to your servant George boldness to Confess the Name of our Saviour Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen


Tuesday 11 April 2023

Paul 3


Let us recall what happened to Saul after he was blinded on the road to Damascus, in his encounter with Jesus. How for three days he remained in the house of Judas on Straight Street, praying and fasting until he was visited by Ananias who had been sent by the Lord, and how Ananias had laid his hands upon him saying:

Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Instantly something like scales from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptised. Afterwards, he ate some food and regained his strength. (9:17-19)

We move the story on apace now, keeping the focus on Saul in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we want to see what happens next to this fiery Pharisee, persecutor of the early Church who through divine intervention has now become a convert, a believer in Christ; a follower of The Way. We know from last week’s discussion that Saul being the man he was, and full of the Holy Spirit, wasted no time in going to the synagogues in Damascus, preaching and witnessing that Jesus indeed, is the Son of God. We can infer again much about the ability of Saul because Luke in his account of the Acts of the Apostles wrote that:

Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. (9:22)

In the end, Saul aroused a lot of opposition in Damascus, from those Jews who would not accept this new message, this turn around, coming from Saul which was of course his preaching of the gospel of Jesus. We will recall that Saul aroused such opposition that the Jews plotted together to have him murdered. And so it was that under cover of darkness that he was helped to escape by being lowered in a basket, through an opening or a large window that were part of the city walls of Damascus.

Now in Luke’s account, that is the Acts of the Apostles we could be forgiven for thinking that Saul, having left Damascus, went straight to Jerusalem because in Acts 9:26-31 we can read:

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.

So Saul stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. He debated with some Greek-speaking Jews, but they tried to murder him. When the believers heard about this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus, his home town.

The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers.

Thus, we get a portrait, a picture that depicts the courage of Saul, a man who although to save his own life had to escape from Damascus, now enters Jerusalem where the same kind of enemies also existed and were prepared to murder him. Indeed, as we have just heard from the text that is indeed what they tried to do. And again, it was the believers, the disciples in the early Church who ensured his safety by smuggling or escorting him out of the city of Jerusalem, taking him to the port of Caesarea and getting him on a boat to his hometown of Tarsus which was in the country we know today as Turkey. In the proceeding account taken from Acts, apart from his boldly preaching in Jerusalem in the name of Jesus and his eventual escape, we can also see that the apostle, Barnabas, was instrumental in introducing Saul to the other apostles vouching for him and giving witness to his conversion and his fearless preaching in Damascus.

However, you will remember that previously I did say that in Luke’s account, that is the Acts of the Apostles, that we could be forgiven for thinking that Saul having escaped from Damascus, (lowered in a basket from the city walls) went straight to Jerusalem. But apparently, this is not so, because according to Paul's own writing, as in his Letter to the Galatians he tells us that in fact, he did not rush up to Jerusalem straight away, but went away to Arabia and then returned to Damascus, and neither, he says, did he consult anyone. By this, I think he meant that he did not seek religious or spiritual instruction from anyone but spent three years in the Arabian desert before his return to Jerusalem. Time alone in the Arabian Desert to give him time to reflect and pray and consolidate and to prepare for all that he would have to face. Indeed, as he stated in his Letter to the Galatians, the gospel he would preach, he received from God and no one else. There was to be a three-year gap before he returned to Jerusalem, where Barnabas would vouch for him and introduce him to Peter, the leader of the twelve and to James, the brother of Jesus.

Recalling that Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in Jerusalem (AD 34) and that it was Saul, then as a young man, who looked after the coats of the men, men whom he completely agreed with, looked after their coats while they stoned Stephen to death. From then on, the believers, members of the early Church fled and scattered to avoid persecution. One such place that the believers migrated to was Antioch in Syria. As the gospel of Jesus began to spread beyond Jerusalem, that same gospel spread beyond the confines of the Jewish faith to the Gentiles.

In connection with this, we have the story of the apostle Peter, on that rooftop in Joppa, seeing in a vision as the sky opened, seeing a large sheet let down by its four corners, seeing a sheet containing live animals and then there was God’s command, ordering him to ‘kill and eat’, even though the animals for consumption would not have been acceptable according to Jewish dietary law. This dream prefigured Cornelius the Roman centurion and his gentile household receiving the Holy Spirit at Caesarea the following day, in the presence of Peter.

And so it was that some of the believers who went to Antioch began preaching to the gentiles with great success, so much so that the Church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch:

When he arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. And many people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.) (11:22-26)

It seems that such a lot has happened since Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and of course it had. Saul’s conversion is thought to have taken place in 31 AD, but it was some fourteen years later that we actually find Paul now at that growing and dynamic church in Antioch Syria with Barnabas, and what energy there was there!  And so, with the blessing of that church and led by the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas taking with them a young man, John Mark as an assistant, Saul embarked on the first leg of his first missionary journey, to Cyprus, to preach the gospel of Jesus; the year was 48 AD.

They sailed from the port of Seleucia which was sixteen miles from Antioch, a sea journey of 130 miles. With a favourable wind it would take only a day to arrive at Cyprus. In Cyprus, there was no church as there was in Antioch. There, the believers in the gospel of Jesus were for the most part Jews and so Saul and Barnabas first preached their message, proclaiming Christ in the Synagogue at Salamis in. We can imagine that Barnabas being a native of Cyprus would have played an essential role in making those first contacts, introducing Saul and John Mark in the local synagogues and paving the way for the Christian message.

Ninety miles southwest of Salamis is Pathos, this major city was the seat of the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus. Arriving at Pathos, we are told that Saul and Barnabas were invited to appear before him. In this audience before Sergius Paulus appeared also, a Jewish sorcerer named Bar-Jesus or otherwise known as Elymas. Elymas, it seems, had gained some credibility and influence over the Roman governor, and attempted to intervene and to prevent the governor from hearing the gospel message. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul* responded by proclaiming that the ‘Lord had laid his hand of punishment’, on Elymas and that he would be ‘struck blind’. This happened instantly and when the governor, Sergius Paulus saw what had happened, he became a believer, ‘for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.’

Eighteen years in the life of the early Church:

  • Stephen the first Christian Martyr (30 AD)
  • The scattering of the Jerusalem Church
  • Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus
  • Ananias visits Saul, restore his sight and baptises him
  • Saul’s escape from Damascus (in a basket)
  • Saul’s time in Arabia
  • Peter’s vision at Joppa and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles
  • Barnabas introduces Saul to the Apostle’s Peter and James
  • Saul’s escape from Jerusalem and return to Tarsus
  • Saul and Barnabas at the church in Antioch
  • Commencement of the First Missionary Journey (48 AD)
  • In Cyprus Saul becomes Paul

I hope that this ‘helicopter tour’ may be useful to you in helping, as far as it goes, to trace Paul’s movements in relation to the development of the early Church.

*After 13:9 in Acts, Saul is thereafter referred to as the Roman equivalent: Paul


 Photograph: Peloponnisios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons