Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Canakkale for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (25th April 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

This has been a week of anniversaries.  I am speaking to you from Canakkale because I have been attending the annual commemoration of the Allied landings on this day at nearby Gallipoli in 1915.  Friday was the feast of St George, Patron Saint of England, when the English do well to give thanks for their patron, and all of us remember his courage and devotion to Christ.  We also remember Queen Elizabeth who on Wednesday celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday, and give thanks for her years of service as Queen on her many thrones and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  St George was a martyr, one of the many who have given their lives for Christ, but the word martyr simply means witness.  Both St George and Queen Elizabeth have been in their different ways witnesses to the truth of the gospel, and today we rejoice to give thanks for them both. 

George was a Roman soldier who had been born in this country, in Cappadocia, and was living in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. He is believed to have been tortured and killed for his faith at Lydda, near the site of today's Ben Gurion international airport in Israel, in about 304 A.D., at the beginning of the persecution launched by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He deserves to be remembered for his courage in giving his life because of his Christian allegiance. He is of course best known for his battle with the Dragon. This legend may have grown up out of confusion with the Greek hero Perseus, who traditionally killed a sea-monster and rescued a princess at Lydda, but in any case is a wonderful symbol of a Christian's struggle against evil. We all have dragons of our own to face, and we can draw encouragement from St George's courageous battle against the embodiment of evil.

The story of St George and the Dragon is familiar in many countries, and in some of them, such as Greece and Bulgaria, the warrior is shown on icons accompanied on his horse by a boy who sits behind him clutching an item surprisingly like a coffee-pot. There are two traditional explanations for this. In one version St George was sitting in a cafe when news arrived that the dragon was coming and the princess was in peril. St George immediately jumped on his horse and prepared to do battle, but the cafe-owner, out of the kindness of his heart or sensing a marketing opportunity, told the waiter to ride with St George and take a coffee-pot with him. After all, what would be more refreshing after an encounter with a dragon than a quick cup of coffee? Nowadays it is fashionable to order coffee in Italian, so I suppose that the saint asked for a "caffe con latte dopo aver ucciso un drago" (coffee with milk after killing a dragon). The older version of the story describes how a Christian youth, who used to be an acolyte in a church dedicated to St George, was captured and enslaved by a heathen king, who instructed him to serve him at table. The boy prayed to St George for help, and the saint rode right up to the king's dinner table and took the boy away on the back of his horse. In this version the boy is holding a water-jug.  

Yet it was George's prowess as a warrior rather than his affection for freshly made coffee or his tendency to gate-crash dinners that made him such a popular choice as a patron saint. In England the patron saint was the saintly King Edward the Confessor, founder of Westminster Abbey, until his position was threatened by English warriors returning from the crusades who said that they had seen St George on horseback leading on the Christian forces to victory. St George seemed to be the ideal patron for a vigorously warlike nation and his position was ensured when King Edward III of England made him the patron of his newly-established Order of the Garter and built St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in his honour. (St George's Chapel recently hosted the funeral of Prince Philip.) The red-cross flag of St George became the flag of England, and in recent years it has appeared correctly at sporting events in which England is participating. Many other countries and cities have adopted St George as a patron, such as Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, and Portugal, and Genoa, London, Moscow and Istanbul, so he has quite an international following!  

In St George the Martyr we have an example of a Christian prepared to give his life for Christ. Today there are many Christians around the world who are facing martyrdom and we pray for them that they may show the courage of St George. We pray also for ourselves, that we may follow in his footsteps. We may not be called to give our lives for Christ, but we assuredly will often encounter evil, and we may take the story of St George and the Dragon as an inspiration to resist sin and evil, whether we encounter it in our society or within ourselves. The story of St George reminds us that it is dangerous to ignore a dragon. The dragon needs to be fought and killed. Today we thank God for George, courageous warrior against evil and valiant unto death.

If we find in St George an example of how to resist evil and give our life for Christ, in Queen Elizabeth we can find an example of service that we can make our own. The Queen has showed remarkable devotion both to the God of whom she is a sincere worshipper and to the peoples over whom she has been set and whom she serves assiduously. Jesus himself decanted the ten commandments into love of God and neighbour, and in both respects Queen Elizabeth has set a fine example. Her strong Christian faith, revealed publicly in her Christmas broadcasts and regular participation in worship and even in attendance at the General Synod of the Church of England, is an inspiration both to those who share her beliefs and to those of other faiths who value the emphasis that she places on the spiritual dimension to life. Her energetic programme of visits has enabled her to learn about the varied lives of her subjects around the world, and her unsurpassed knowledge of the Commonwealth enables her to give discreet advice as well as encouragement to her legion of Prime Ministers. Today we thank God for Queen Elizabeth's many years of service to God and to her peoples, and pray that we may similarly in our own circumstances love God and neighbour to the best of our ability.

Finally on Friday we commemorated the 405th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, England's greatest writer. His words have enriched our language and his perceptive writing has illuminated the full range of human emotions. For brilliant depictions of love or joy or hatred or despair, we need look no further than the writings of Shakespeare. Today we thank God for William Shakespeare's unparalleled contribution to our English-speaking culture, and we rejoice that he shared our language and our faith. Rather than quote any of his fine public writings I will close with the opening of William Shakespeare's will, which illustrates his faith. "In the name of God, Amen. I, William Shakespeare, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this last will and testament in the manner and form following. That is to say, first I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting..." In thus turning at the outset to God and the Christian hope Shakespeare the great writer showed that he had got his priorities right.

Today we have indeed much for which to be grateful. We can thank St George for teaching us how to die, Queen Elizabeth for teaching us how to live, and William Shakespeare for teaching us how to write. May we in turn strive to follow their examples.