6/22/2011 sermon: Saint Alban on life and death

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text: 1 John 3:13-16
St. Alban

On life and death

Today we remember a man named Alban, a pagan who was a soldier in the Roman Army. Alban lived about 25 miles north of London in the late second and early third century. We know where Alban lived because it is the site today of St. Alban’s Cathedral. I’ve brought a few photographs in case you haven’t had the opportunity to visit this great cathedral.

Alban gave sanctuary one day to a Christian priest who was fleeing arrest and over the course of several days the two men talked at length and Alban became a Christian. When Roman officers came in search of the priest, Alban met them dressed in the priest’s cloak. The officers mistook him for the priest and arrested him.

The magistrate was furious when he learned of this deceit. When Alban refused to renounce his new faith he was beheaded, becoming the first known Christian martyr in Britain. Tradition says that the second martyr was the executioner who supposed to kill him, but who heard Alban’s testimony and was so impressed that he became a Christian on the spot, and refused to kill Alban. Tradition also adds that the third martyr in Britain was the priest, who when he learned that Alban had been arrested in his place, hurried to the court in the hope of saving Alban by turning himself in.

The abbey at St. Alban’s Cathedral still prays Alban’s words to the magistrate when he was asked to recant his newfound faith: “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.”

This is all that we know about Alban. When we hear his story we think of him passing from life to death as a martyr. But our scripture lessons for today give us another way to look at Alban’s life. The Epistle reading says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” This is an astonishing claim, one that completely reverses the way that we humans normally perceive existence. The normative view is that we are alive now, alive after our conception and physical birth, and on some sad day we will die. Period. Fini. Finito. Kaput. The end.

But we Christians perceive a different reality. We believe that—even though we might be breathing—we are dead until we learn to love. On some happy day we learn the meaning of love and begin to live a life of love, a life rooted in Christ. And on that happy day we begin to truly live. Here and now. Eternal life begins now! And when we do that, there is no death. Our life, like our love, continues forever.

This is an amazingly healthy way to view life. This view recognizes God’s truth, that life begins not at birth but when we learn to love, and our life-in-love never ends.

Alban was only a Christian for a few days, but he mastered this lesson so completely that he was able to choose his new forever-love, his new forever-life, even in the face of physical death. Alban’s choice, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things,” was a choice of life, not death.

Church historian Robin Lane Fox, in his book Pagans and Christians, says that the martyrs’ deaths brought “great publicity and near-universal admiration.”[1] This is not a church-growth strategy in deliberate use today, but, counter-intuitively, martyrdom results in more rather than fewer believers. So in a way that is difficult for us to fathom, Alban’s physical beheading resulted in more rather than fewer Christians in Britain.

I trust that each of us, like Alban, has learned Jesus’ lesson of forever-life, forever-love. The only difference between St. Alban and us is that we apparently have more days of life here on earth to practice our forever-love.


[1] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995; 1987), 441.

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