Sermon; Saint John's Day (tr); 150 years; 1 John 1:1-9
Today marks the official kickoff of the 150th anniversary of Saint John's in this space, the third and best building in which we have worshiped. Our first building was over on Mulberry Street, between Antietam and Baltimore streets. The graveyard attached to that building is still there and we still keep it maintained. When the congregation outgrew that building they moved to a new location around Antietam and Summit streets in the area where the Dagmar hotel is now located. That building eventually burned and this location was chosen for the next edifice, with the cornerstone being laid on September 4, 1872.
As we begin this year-long celebration we thought it would be appropriate to use the Book of Common Prayer that was in use at that time. What you have in your hands is a recreation of the Communion Service from the 1871 Standard BCP. For those of us who are Episcopalians, today's service is different and yet familiar. The order and flow are different, but many of the words and prayers are familiar, with many of those words and prayers going back to 1549 and the first Book of Common Prayer of King Edward VI.
As Episcopalians we are bound together in many ways, but the most visible instrument of our unity is the BCP. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter where you are in the country, you can walk into any Episcopal church and be familiar with the service. It may be Rite 1 or Rite 2, it may be Eucharistic Prayer I or II, or Prayer A, B, C, or D, but you know the service because we are bound together in common prayer. Today reminds us that we are bound together in common prayer with our ancestors. Just as this service is both different and familiar to us, our service next week would be different and familiar to our ancestors.
Not only are we bound together by the BCP with our Anglican ancestors, but we are bound together throughout all generations, with prophets, apostles, martyrs, and with all those who have looked to God in hope. We stand with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven as we proclaim the glory of the Holy Name. On this day when we celebrate our Patron Saint, and in this way with the 1871 Standard BCP, we are connecting with our past, worshiping in the present, and looking to the future.
This connection to our past and future can be seen in the Epistle reading from the First Letter of John. Tradition says this letter was written by the same person who wrote the gospel bearing his name – John the Evangelist, brother of James, son of Zebedee, and beloved disciple of Christ.
In this letter John writes,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard we declare to you that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
This is a beautiful way of saying we are connected to our past, present, and future.
We are connected to our past by having heard that which was from the beginning.
We are connected to our present by the Word of Life which we have looked upon and which our hands have handled.
We are connected to our Future by declaring to you what which we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.
We are in this place gathered with our ancestors, worshiping with our contemporaries, preparing for those to come.
We are part of an ancient faith. We have heard the words which were from the beginning – that in the beginning when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, God said, “Let there be light.” And the word that was spoken was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him. This is the light of the faith which was in the beginning and which we have seen. This is the light of the faith which shines in our lives and drives us to proclaim the good news and build houses of worship.
We are connected to this ancient faith both by what we have heard from the beginning and by our ancestors in this town; for it was in 1787 when the first Episcopal congregation was established in Elizabeth Town. Just as we give thanks to Almighty God for the gift of creation, so do we give thanks for our Anglican ancestors who established this parish.
These ties to history bring us to the life which was manifested, that we have seen and bear witness, and that we show unto the world. If all we do is celebrate and commemorate an ancient faith, then we do not participate in a life of faith at all. If that is the case, then all we are doing is performing ancient rituals that have no meaning, and this becomes no pathway to salvation but only a gathering place to share stories of what was. If all we did was to commemorate the ancient faith, we would still be using the prayer book version you hold in your hand.
But our faith is not simply a commemoration of what was. Our faith is a living, breathing, entity. We have seen the results of our faith. We have seen God's holy presence with the sick. We have seen the weary comforted and burdens released. We have seen the suffering given hope. We have blessed the dying. All these things bear witness to a living faith which we bear witness to the world around us.
This ancient faith which we have seen and heard we now declare to you, so that you may have fellowship with us. Our faith is ancient, but not static. Our ancient faith is alive and meaningful in today's world. Our faith is worthy of proclamation in order for those around us to be in faithful fellowship with each other and with God.
Traditionally we Anglicans/Episcopalians have not been very good at evangelism. In this, his first letter, Saint John doesn't exhort us to build awe-inspiring buildings or to paint our doors red as a means to drawing people to God. Don't get me wrong, awe-inspiring buildings certainly convey the presence of God – this building being one of them. What Saint John reminds us of is the only way today's ancient faith will continue to live is if we declare and proclaim that faith to others. The proclamation of that faith isn't to increase our financial stability; the proclamation of this faith is to help create fellowship – ties that bind us together, one to another and one to God.
Today we worship with the 1871 Standard BCP to commemorate our founding ancestors. Today we honor our patron, Saint John, who calls us to remember our ancient faith, live together in love, and declare to the world the glory of the Lord. Today we proclaim that what was is what is and what shall be.
May we, as the parish of Saint John, continue to live into the calling of our Patron Saint: by remembering what was, by living into the faith that is, and by proclaiming to the world what could be.