This week, on the calendar of saints in The Episcopal Church, we remembered St. Alban. Alban is the first British Christian that we know by name. While we do not know when Alban was born or even when we died, we know the story of how he died quite well. It is believed that Alban was a Roman soldier stationed about 20 miles northeast of London. A persecution of Christians broke out across the Roman Empire sometime during the early to mid-third century, making its way from the Continent to the British Islands. One day, a Christian priest found himself at the door of a Roman Solider named Alban, desperate for safe lodging. No one knows why Alban welcomed the priest into his house, but this priest made an impact on Alban. After several days of watching the priest pray and give thanks, Alban was moved by his faith and became a Christian.
Eventually, word that the priest was holed up at Alban’s home made its way to the prince in the area and a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest him. Quickly, Alban hid the priest, took the priest’s clothing, and presented himself instead. Alban was taken before a judge who was standing at an altar making sacrifices to pagan gods. The judge turned around and asked Alban, “What is your family and race?” Alban replied, “How does my family concern you? If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.” “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge, “Tell me at once.” “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”
The judge was enraged by Alban’s confident faith and, having figured out that he wasn’t the priest they had been looking for, sentenced him to the full torture and execution that the priest would have received. He was scourged and, when he still wouldn’t renounce his faith, sent to be beheaded. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban was led to his death by several executioners. They came to the river Ver, which was too fast flowing to cross on foot, and the bridge was clogged up and made impassable by a mob of townspeople. Alban, wishing to “do his Christian duty” and be martyred, raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, so that they could cross over on dry land. The first executioner was so astonished by this miracle, that he threw down his sword and asked to be executed instead of or alongside Alban. While the other executioners figured out what to do next, Alban went 500 paces up a gentle hill, covered in thousands of beautiful wildflowers, and awaited his fate. He became thirsty and asked God to provide him a drink, which caused a spring to erupt from beneath his feet, and after he drank, he was beheaded alongside his first executioner. In less than a week, Alban went from a pledged persecutor of the Christian faith to the first Christian martyr in Britain. It is clear from Bede’s recounting of Alban’s story that he had fully been set free in Christ, and feared nothing, not even death, for the cause of Jesus Christ.
I tell you this story, not because I think any one of us are going to be called to martyrdom anytime soon, but because I think it is the epitome of what Saint Paul was writing about in our lesson from Galatians this morning. We who follow Jesus have been set free, not so that we could fall back into bondage to fear and sin and death, but so that we might use that freedom in Christ as an empowering force to work for the betterment of our world in the pursuit of loving our neighbor as ourselves. This morning, we will welcome into that freedom little Zara Veletanlic through her baptism into Christ’s Body, the Church. In so doing, on behalf of this congregation and the Church universal, I will pray that she experiences the fullness of her freedom in Jesus with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage of Saint Alban to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
It is important for us not just to pray this prayer on behalf of Zara, but to remember that this is a prayer for all baptized Christians. While in sermons on baptismal Sundays, I often focus on the Baptismal Covenant as our calling to ministry, with this lesson from Galatians in our lectionary for today, with Alban on my mind, and with the growing sense of fear in our nation around gun violence, inequitable access to healthcare, and the threat of the loss of basic civil rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, I’m convinced that this prayer for the courage of Alban is more important than ever. In baptism, we have been set free in Christ Jesus to love our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us. This means following the example of Blessed Alban in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, no matter the cost. It means speaking out on behalf of those who are forced back into the yoke of slavery to fear because of who they have been made to be in the image of God. It means, as Mother Becca reminds us in the blessing she so often uses, that we make no peace with oppression – in our community, our state, our nation, or in the wider world.
How do you do that in a world so defined by fear and self-preservation? Jump with me, if you will, to the end of the Galatians lesson for this morning. After Zara is baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will anoint her with oil, and declare, on behalf of God, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. In so doing, we believe that Zara receives the Holy Spirit who will lead her as an advocate and guide for the rest of her days. That same Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is exemplified in the life every disciple by producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Simply put, when we are living into the post-baptismal prayer, living into the freedom that comes from Christ, the fruit of the Spirit are present in our lives. When those fruit are not, it is most likely that we have fallen back into the yoke of slavery to sin, fear, or corruption. What fear has you in bondage, holding you back from loving your neighbor as yourself? What is keeping you from embracing the courage of Saint Alban to follow Jesus no matter the cost? In baptism, we have all been set free in Christ. Be careful, dear friends, not to fall back into slavery to fear, but be led by the Spirit into hope, joy, and love. Amen.