Readings for the Feast Day of St. Alban
Matthew 10:26-28a, 29-31, 40, 42
This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany CA on June 22, 2014
Before England was called England, when it was just an island at the outermost edge of the known world, there was a priest named Amphibalus running around causing all kinds of trouble. He preached of a God who had a tremendous love for humanity and creation, a God who cared for each creature on earth from the largest whale to the tiniest caterpillar to the colorful sparrow and who knew the number of hairs on each person’s head. The Roman rulers of this island, which was then known as Britain or Albion, were threatened by this priest and his message and attempted to capture him and force him to renounce his belief in this loving God and pledge his allegiance to the violent gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon.
The priest Amphibalus always managed to escape from the clutches of the Roman soldiers. One day, after nearly getting caught, Amphibalus ran into a man, who instead of turning him into the authorities decided to welcome him into his home. The man who showed hospitality to Amphibalus was named Alban and he offered Amphibalus a tall glass of cold water in exchange for a conversation regarding this loving God about whom he preached. Amphibalus told Alban about how this loving God came to earth as a man, as a Palestinian Jew named Joshua, and embodied this love in his life and teachings. The Roman authorities of Joshua’s day felt threatened by his message and decided to have him killed, but even while he was dying, Joshua continued to show the love of God, teaching us that we need no longer fear death. Amphibalus explained to Alban that what looks like death is actually a transition into something far more grand. He said that this earthly life is another womb out of which we will eventually emerge. Just as life outside our mother’s womb is far more bright and expansive as life within the womb so too is the life on the other side. He used the image of a caterpillar in its cocoon, saying “If you open up the cocoon, all you see is white goo. It looks likes the caterpillar is dead and gone but, in reality, the caterpillar is transitioning into a magnificent butterfly that will soon dance in the sky with the sparrows. In the same way,” Amphibalus explained, “we will shuffle off this caterpillar-like clothing and emerge with more beauty and color than we can ever imagine. Joshua showed this to us by appearing to his friends in his resurrected body, by returning to us caterpillars as the butterfly.
Alban was deeply moved by everything that Amphibalus shared about the life and teachings of Joshua and asked how he can participate in this life and love of God. Amphibalus then told Alban about the sacrament of baptism, explaining how it is a visible sign and promise of one’s participation in the resurrection. Amphibalus took a sip of water and then looked at the liquid and said, “You see, Alban, water is necessary for survival and yet it can also be dangerous and deadly. The psalmist of Psalm 69 illustrates the potential perils of water when he prayed, ‘Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up.’ One of the reasons we use water in the sacrament of baptism,” Amphibalus explained, “is because it is potentially dangerous. Baptism is an immersion in water to show the world that what might look danger, drowning and even death is actually life; it is claiming for ourselves the promise that death is no longer something to be feared, but a transition into a deeper experience and understanding of God’s love and life.”
At this, Alban shuffled off his cloak and asked Amphibalus to baptize him. Amphibalus said, “I will be glad to baptize you, Alban, but you should also know that claiming this promise of life and love also means committing yourself to use your life for love, to stand up for the oppressed, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being, even if that means shuffling off your caterpillar-clothing earlier than you might have planned.” Alban agreed to take on this duty and then, after being baptized, handed his cloak to Amphibalus and said, “I want you to wear my cloak and I’ll wear yours so that when the soldiers arrive, I can offer myself in your place so that you can continue to spread this message of love and new life.” Before Amphibalus could refuse the offer, there was a loud bang at the door. It was the Roman soldiers who discovered the location of their meddlesome priest.
The soldiers barged in, overthrowing the table and spilling all the water. Amphibalus and Alban had managed to exchange cloaks just in the nick of time. So instead of handcuffing Amphibalus, the soldiers cuffed Alban and brought him to the judge. With the life-giving words of Amphibalus still echoing in his heart and mind, he approached the judge unafraid.
The judge, upon realizing that Alban was not the priest, threw a massive temper tantrum and said, “Because you have concealed a profane rebel rather than surrender him to my soldiers, and thus saved him from my wrath, you will have to suffer his punishment unless, of course, you curse the God of Amphibalus and worship our gods instead.”
Alban responded saying, “I am now a Christian, which means I worship the true and living God who created all things and I am now ready to do a Christian’s duty.” The judge then tried to convince Alban to renounce his newfound faith by subjecting him to brutal torture, but Alban remained steadfast in his faith. Finally, the judge ordered that Alban be executed by decapitation.
A crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the beheading, but while being led to his execution, Alban came to a torrential river that obstructed his path. When he saw the raging waters, he was reminded of the words of Amphibalus and of his recent baptism. He then prayed to the God who created all things, including the river in front of him, and asked God to use his death to teach the people about the life and love about which Joshua and Amphibalus preached. At that moment, the river dried up so that Alban could cross easily over onto a flower-covered field. When he reached the highest ground of the field, Alban prayed again to the Creator of all things, who responded to Alban’s prayer by causing a spring of fresh water to shoot forth out of the ground by Alban’s feet. Alban then explained the meaning of the water miracles to the crowd of onlookers, saying, “Although it looks like my life is about to dry up just like that river; in reality, I am entering into a new life that will bubble forth unto eternity. I was baptized today in the name of God, the Creator of all things, who knows the number of hairs on each person’s head, who causes the river to dry up and the springs to shoot forth. Today, he invites us all to participate in his life and love even by no longer living in fear of death but by using our lives to work for love, to strive for justice and peace, to stand up for the oppressed and to respect the dignity of every human being.” At these words, Alban’s appointed executioner laid his sword down by the riverside and fell at Alban’s feet, saying, “I want to participate in this life too. I am willing to die with you or in your place.” Alban smiled and then proceeded to baptize the executioner with the fresh water, but before he could do so, another man from the crowd picked up the sword and swiftly beheaded both Alban and the man seeking baptism.
Everyone was stunned by the dramatic sequence of miraculous events but no one could have ever imagined what happened next. The man who carried out the beheadings began to scream in horror as he covered his face. Some people initially thought that he was overwhelmed with shame for what he had done, but as people got a closer look, they noticed two holes in his face where his eyes had once been and then spotted two eyeballs rolling on the ground. The people quickly realized that as he was beheading Alban and the appointed executioner, the man suffered from a form of extreme retinal detachment; in other words, his eyes popped out of his face. He had clearly failed to see what Alban was trying to show everyone through the water miracles.
However, the judge, who was initially appalled by the miracles, now fell on his knees in wonder and awe. He realized that the God whom Alban worshipped was truly the Creator of all things. And furthermore, he was moved by the courage and fearlessness of Alban in the face of execution and grew convinced that Alban’s God offered a life and love that made death powerless. On that day, June 22nd, the judge immediately ordered the persecution of all Christians in Britain to cease.
Years later, the judge met Amphibalus, the priest whom he once tried to kill and asked him some questions about his faith and about the sacrament of baptism. They spoke for several hours and then the judge told Amphibalus about the miraculous martyrdom of St. Alban and asked him something that had been bothering him for a while. He said, “The man seeking baptism from St. Alban was beheaded before he was actually baptized. Does that mean he missed his opportunity to participate in the life and love of God?” Amphibalus said, “Although he was not cleansed by the waters of baptism, he was cleansed by the washing of his own self-giving love and was therefore participating in the life and love of God already. Baptism,” he explained, “is an outward and visible sign of an invisible grace. The invisible grace is given when we choose to give ourselves over to the life and love of God, which empowers us to use our life for love, to stand up for the oppressed, to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.” The judge realized he wanted to give himself over to this life and love and so Amphibalus and the judge decided to walk over to the field where St. Alban was beheaded, where they were now building a church in the saint’s honor. Amphibalus then baptized the judge with the water still flowing from the miraculous spring for which Alban prayed.
The church built in St. Alban’s honor still stands today in the city of St. Alban’s in England and thousands of churches bear the name of this first British martyr, including the church we are in right now. And we continue to uphold his legacy of sharing in God’s life and love whenever we participate in the sacrament of baptism and renew our commitment to the baptismal covenant. And we will do this today on the feast day of St. Alban, the one who showed us that the life we enter into in baptism is one that will never dry up but one that will shoot forth with new life and live, like an everlasting spring. Amen.