Sermon - 18th September 2016
Who was St Ninian and our calling to be missionaries
Scripture - 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 28:16-20
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Each Sunday, we make our way here, to Wilbraham St Ninian’s United Reformed Church. Many churches are named after saints. Some church traditions continue to name new saints: two weeks ago, the Roman Catholic church declared the Albanian nun, Mother Theresa, to be a saint. But who was our St Ninian, and why is this church building (partly) named after him?
St Ninian is believed to have lived between the years 360 and 432 CE, and he is documented to be among the first to bring the Christian message to the Southern Picts, who were home in an area which today we call the Scottish Lowlands. In short, St Ninian is considered to be the one who first brought Christianity to Scotland. And the reason for this sermon today is that last Friday, 16 September, was the annual Feast or Saint’s Day for St Ninian, marking his death in 432 CE.
So what has a Scottish saint got to do with South Manchester? Thanks to local historian, Roger Tome, for his history of the church. The church now on this site started in 1903, albeit in rented space, before moving to this site in 1907 and was known as Chorlton-cum-Hardy Presbyterian Church, and it grew in the early decades of the 20th century and to create a strong and vibrant identity for itself within the Presbyterian tradition and among the many Manchester residents who had been brought up as Presbyterian by virtue of Scottish family connections. The old church is what today we call the “Old Hall”.
During the Second World War, the nearby Whalley Range Presbyterian Church was severely damaged by bombing, and by July 1941 it had been agreed that the Whalley Range and Chorlton churches would amalgamate on the Chorlton site under the name of St Ninian's Presbyterian Church; however, the existing church building was not large enough, and the new church in which we find ourselves today opened for worship in November 1951.
In 1972 the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales came together to form a single denomination, the United Reformed Church. This is where the “Wilbraham” part of our church’s name begins its story. The Wilbraham Road Congregational Church became a United Reformed Church, and they were forced to close their building in 1985 due to dry rot, and the two United Reformed Church congregations merged to become “Wilbraham St Ninian’s”. (The old Wilbraham Road church is now the Hindu temple.)
The Christian congregation here is no stranger to change, having joined twice with other congregations in 1941 and 1985, and a third time in 2015, when this congregation, as the Metropolitan Church, joined Wilbraham St Ninian’s. At its heart is a worshipping Christian community with a proud heritage, a distinguished history, and a vision of the Good News of Jesus, which have all resulted in the love and respect in which Wilbraham St Ninian's is held by all who are associated with it.
The first written records about St Ninian can be found in a book of church history written by the Northumbrian monk, Bede, in the 8th Century CE. These, together with Aelred’s “A Life of Saint Ninian” by Abbot Rievaux in the 12th Century CE, and the archaeological evidence from the small, stone church at Whithorn, near Galloway, in South-West Scotland are about all we know about him.
Ninian is recorded to be the son of a chieftain. He is said to have travelled to Rome to study and become a priest, before returning to Northern Britain to be a missionary. The journey from Scotland to Rome then was hard and long, around 1,500 miles and would have taken around 6 months on foot. Without Ninian’s faithfulness and zeal to proclaim the Gospel, the history of our church, the church in this place, might be very different indeed.
When the Catholic Church declared Mother Theresa to be a saint, they did so by ascribing two miracles. Aelred’s history of Ninian’s life mentions a number of miracles during his lifetime, and several following his death, including: healing a blind man, healing a man of a fatal wound, curing a boy of deformities and several people of leprosy. Whatever we may think about miracles, their common theme in restoring wholeness to the poor, the sick and the needy. Ninian’s part in bringing the Good News of the Gospel to the Southern Scottish tribes is his enduring legacy, a part of which is this our church community here.
The monastic school which Ninian founded in Whithorn included the then future fathers of the Celtic Church in Ireland: Finnbar, the teacher of Columba, founder of the monastery on the isle of Iona, known today as the Iona Community; and Caranoc who baptised St Patrick, regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.
(If you are interested in reading further about St Ninian, there are some web-links at the end of the sermon text on our website, including a creative re-telling of his life published by the newspaper, The Galloway Gazette.)
What is it that we can learn from Ninian’s life? Today’s set New Testament reading from St Paul’s first letter to Timothy in many ways echoes Ninian’s life and calling. The world in Paul and Timothy’s time was dominated by Roman and Greek beliefs; Ninian’s world was heathen; and our 21st Century Britain is no different, where we, devout Christians, are very much in the minority, despite the UK being nominally Christian at least. Yet for Paul, Timothy, Ninian and us, the calling to make the Good News of Jesus known is the same in times and places with the same level of challenge.
Let us look again at the advice St Paul gave to Timothy and to us:
Firstly, that we should pray for all people and all those in authority. That may sound easy on the face of it, but how much more difficult is it to pray for those people who wish us harm, maybe because of our gender or sexual identity? Most of us in our church congregation have had the experience of rejection because of who we are, and it hurts. It can also be difficult to pray for those leaders whose politics are different to ours. But by praying for everyone, we are mirroring God’s own desires and love for all humankind, and in doing so, prayer will change us.
Secondly, St Paul tells us that God our Saviour wants everyone to be saved! For Paul, Timothy and Ninian, the task of bringing that message must have seemed almost impossible, particularly with the difficulties of travel and communication they faced. It takes us very little effort to post something about Christian faith on social media for our friends and family, or even the whole world, to see. How challenged are we to speak up and bring Jesus’ true message of unconditional love and acceptance?
Thirdly, and perhaps quite uncomfortably for some of us, St Paul wrote about the exclusive nature of Jesus: that there is but one God, and it is Jesus alone who reconciles, that is, “brings God and human beings together”. In our so-called post-modern, enlightened, multi-cultural and multi-faith world, how do we feel about Jesus’ statement: “I am THE way, THE truth and THE life”? Paul words support the theological views of both exclusivism and inclusivism but not pluralism.
While the message of Jesus being “THE way” may seem exclusive, excluding those of a different mind-set or cultural identity, we must remember that the very nature of Jesus’ way is one that is fully inclusive. In St Paul’s words, Jesus gave Himself to save the whole human race.
What would Paul, Timothy and Ninian have made of Christians today who shy away from the definite – “THE way” – and speak of “A way”? Would their ministry have been as effective and nation-changing? Ninian returned from Rome and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus, bringing Christianity to Scotland, the legacy of which lives on some 1600 years later here in this church.
Those whom Jesus first called, His Twelve Disciples, as the Gospels and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles report, did not find it within themselves to carry out God’s great missionary task: if they had, it would not have been God’s work. It took God’s gift of His Holy Spirit to inspire and fire them up to this work. If you read the Book of the Act of the Apostles, you will read that it did not always go smoothly: they were arrested many times, Stephen was martyred and there were disagreements between them. Yet even among the Jewish council of high priests, the Sanhedrin, one of their number, Gamaliel, recognised that the work which Jesus had begun could not be stopped if the movement is of God.
The Gospel reading set for St Ninian’s feast day was our Gospel reading today, found at the very end of St Matthew’s Gospel, often entitled the Great Commission. Ninian took this commission to heart. Jesus said, “Go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples.” Ninian went to those around him, the early Scottish tribes, and preached the Good News of Jesus. To whom should we go? Who are the people in our lives to whom we should bring the Good News? The LGBT community in the UK has been hurt deeply by the un-loving, hateful nature of many who call themselves Christians. Many LGBT people are deeply distrustful of the church and Christianity.
Jane Anne Ferguson, an American theologian in the United Church of Christ wrote this:
“Their lived experiences of discrimination, persecution, and even oppression teach them about God's grace and mercy, salvation and justice in pivotal ways that those of us who live in the more central spaces of Christianity and culture need to hear. Their stories call us to consider salvation as a journey toward wholeness through the experience of knowing God.” [Feasting on the Word, C, Proper 20]
The work of St Ninian goes on, here in this place named after him, here in this congregation on a Sunday afternoon, through First Wednesday and throughout the week as we meet with those in our lives. Ninian was inspired by God and motivated by God’s love for the Scottish people, and some 1600 years later, their descendants, having come to Manchester, among others, made our LGBT congregation welcome: and now, we are part of that church family.
Jesus said to His Disciples: “I assure you that if you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this hill, ‘Go from here to there!’ and it will go. You could do anything!” (Matthew 17:20)
Ninian’s faith is an example of a life open to God.
“O God, who by the preaching of your blessed servant Ninian caused the light of the Gospel to shine in the land of Britain: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labours in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Links about St Ninian: