First Evensong of Pentecost Fourteen, Proper 17A Year II (Acts 13: 26 – 43)
I don’t know if you saw the news. It was perhaps a little obscure. Curiously, or maybe not, two friends of mine saw it, thought of me, and sent it along. Both had followed my walk last fall along Hadrian’s Wall. It was announced last week, that during an archaeological dig at Vindolanda, a Roman fort near the Wall, a fifth century lead chalice, covered in Christian graffiti had been found.
What is significant about this find, is that it demonstrates that within decades of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain in AD 410, if not before, there was a community of Christians in northern England, who gathered to pray, worship, and celebrate the Sacraments. This chalice is the oldest, dateable, find of its kind in northwestern Europe, and is further evidence that Christians existed in Britain more than a century before Columba of Iona, or Augustine of Canterbury.
This find, brings together some of my interests. Having walked Hadrian’s Wall, I am fascinated by accounts of life there throughout history, from before the Wall was built in AD 122, to life there now. I’m also interested in the story of how Britain became Christian. As I walked the Wall, I imagined walking in the footsteps of any number of missionaries and saints who had walked there before me. I’m also curious to know how the story of a first century Palestinian carpenter spread, first around the Mediterranean, and then as far afield as Vindolanda, then the edge of the known world.
We hear in our lesson from Acts tonight, the account of Paul’s missionary journey, which took him from Antioch in Syria, around Cyprus, to Perga, and then to Antioch in Pisidia, now modern-day central Turkey. This journey took a couple of years, roughly AD 46 to AD 48. What fascinates, amazes, and inspires me, is that in less than 400 years, Christians are celebrating the Eucharist in far off Vindolanda.
We know from Acts how the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world. It is less clear, but no less certain, that the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ spread its way, at the speed of sail and foot, to the far corners of the Roman Empire, and beyond. The reality is, if there was one Christian community in Vindolanda, celebrating the Sacraments, there must have been others throughout Britain. How this happened, is an interesting historical question. Why this happened, is a vastly more important question, at least for us. Tonight’s lesson gives us a clue.
Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets … they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; … And we bring you the good news that what God promised … he has fulfilled for us … by raising Jesus …. Let it be known to you therefore … that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all … sins ….
Just as the preaching of Paul brought hope to the people of Antioch in Pisidia, so did the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins, bring hope to the forgotten Christians of Vindolanda.
For those early Christians of Britain, life was bleak. The security of Rome was a distant memory. Peace, always fragile along the Wall, was a thing of the past. Exposed to bands of Picts and Scots to the north, the Welsh to the west, and increasingly Saxons from across the eastern sea, the Romano-British became increasingly desperate. A word of hope, promised by the good news of Jesus, must have been good news indeed.
Paul discovered in his own life, that hope transforms a person, and changes their life for the better. The hope he found in Jesus Christ literally knocked him to the ground. For the rest of his life, wherever the road took him, even to the executioner’s block, Paul proclaimed this message of hope in Jesus. Somehow that same message of hope made its way across Europe, and into northern Britain, changing lives along the way. That small lead chalice, about the size of a cereal bowl, tells us that there were people of hope living around Vindolana by AD 450.
From the dawn of time, people have searched for the gift of hope. In an age, and a world, and dare I say, a nation, marked by bitterness, division, suspicion, and even hatred, we are all desperate for that gift which changes lives.
The promise of Jesus, known to Paul, and discovered by countless since, is the promise hope. This is the gift brought by Paul. It is this gift that the small chalice, found in Vindolanda once held.
In a world so lost, the best thing we can be, is a people of hope, for hope will save the world. Today, the world needs hope. Clinging closely to Jesus, you and I can be people of hope, and when we are, like Paul, we can change the world.
 Hadrian’s Wall, built in AD 122 at the command of Emperor Hadrian of Rome, is the largest Roman ruin in the world. It runs for over 80 miles from the North Sea, east of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, to Bowness-on-Solway, west of Carlisle. A popular long-distance walking path follows the line of the Wall.
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