1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, 22 January 2017
Who was St Salvator?
According to our best available sources, he lived in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early part of the first millennium. Much of his early years are obscure, but he seems to have become known for his miraculous abilities. Many people would travel for miles in the hope they would receive back their sight or hearing or the use of a limb, or recover from a serious illness. He may even have cured people of mental disturbance; and there are a handful of accounts of bringing people back to life. He was also a travelling storyteller, some of whose tales we still have, which show us how to follow God. He took the side of the poor and the vulnerable, of women and children, and the records show that he was executed by the State. His followers maintained that they encountered him following his death.
Are you there? If you didn’t know before, have you worked it out now? St Salvator was, is Jesus. Salvator is Latin for Saviour. (Or Salvator – I’m not entirely sure how to pronounce it.) It does seem a little odd though that this man who was more than a human being be given a saint’s title much like St Andrew, St Leonard and St Mary, also associated with this town and University. In fact, Jesus is really only known as St Salvator in the name of churches. And this Chapel is not unique: from the 12th to the 20th Century, churches for example in Bruges, Prague, Glaslough, County Monaghan, Ireland, and Venedy, Illinois have been given the same name.
Why was our University Chapel given this designation? It was built and consecrated in 1460 as part of St Salvator’s College, founded ten years earlier by Bishop James Kennedy as part of the young University of St Andrews. Kennedy was determined to make theology the heart of the college, believing that all learning should serve the cause of Christ. Indeed, the College comprised 13 people in honour of Christ and the Twelve Apostles – three graduates in Theology, including one Doctor who was in charge; four priests who studied Theology, and six students of Arts who would also have sung the services. I think it is worth exploring the meaning of the name a little further as we begin a new semester here – Salvator, Saviour – and salvation more generally.
We said together Psalm 27, beginning The Lord is my light and my salvation. And so salvation is an ancient idea in the Bible, rooted in the experience of the Hebrew people. A strong clue to its meaning is found in the second part of verse 1. Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism, that is the second part of a verse expresses the same idea as the first, using synonyms. “The strength of my life” is parallel to “my light and salvation”. Other English translations say “stronghold”. Indeed as the psalm goes on, it’s clear that it expresses the fears of someone who is in danger from others – it mentions enemies, a host encamped around the psalmist, a day of trouble. Salvation then has the sense in this psalm of shelter, safety, sanctuary. Although the writer is conscious of serious risk, there is also a deep sense of trust that such danger will be faced with God. And so there is nothing to be afraid of.
It’s helpful to pause here, with the Old Testament. Salvation in Christian rhetoric is often seen as meaning going to heaven when we die, no more and no less. For example, if you enter “salvation heaven” into Google, the first website out of 28,300,000, www.allaboutgod.com says: Plan of Salvation — We think life’s most important question is “Are you going to heaven when you die?”
But the Old Testament, except for a few late hints, has no particular beliefs about life beyond death, in heaven. Salvation is not about the destiny of the human being after death, but the nature of life until death, including preservation from an early death. As the churches’ charity Christian Aid put it in their old strapline, We believe in life before death. That might be another parallel expression for The Lord is my light and my salvation. Of course salvation in the New Testament will have its own emphases, and given that Jesus is called, in this space Holy Saviour, a Christian understanding of salvation will not be identical to that of the psalmist’s. But it cannot be opposed to it. It will build out from it, deepening our understanding of how God saves, perhaps finding the fulfilment of God’s salvation in Jesus. But the basic understanding of salvation in the Hebrew scriptures is fundamental.
And anyway, the Psalmist’s hope seems so current. As students and staff begin a new semester in St Andrews, as exchange students begin their time here, as a new year begins, we may very well feel we have reasons to be afraid. We may indeed have the physical assailants whom the psalmist hid from – though I hope we do find that St Andrews is as safe as its reputation. But in a metaphorical sense, many people may well feel that a host has encamped around them, or at least one or two foes. Anxiety about studies. Friendships causing grief. Relationships going sour. Loneliness. Feeling rubbish about everything, about ourselves. Struggles with food, with our bodies. Illness. Loss. And for those who are embarking on their final semester, what on earth will I be doing when I leave?
The question Are you going to heaven when you die? seems almost beside the point compared to the complexity and depth of the issues we face in our lives here and now. And while I’m focusing on personal issues, a parallel sermon might explore salvation in terms of what is happening today in Syria, Iraq, refugee camps, Brexit preparations and the White House. Yet the psalm is an example of trusting in God in the tough circumstances of this life. The psalmist did not ignore the troubles of life, but went through them with God, trusting in God’s mercy, that that mercy was the strength of life.
And of course this mercy is available to all. Evelyn Waugh in his novel Vile Bodies, has Mrs Ape, an evangelist who, following an impromptu service at sea, took round the hat and collected nearly two pounds. ‘Salvation doesn’t do them the same good if they think it’s free,’ was her favourite axiom. But it is free, free to all.
Turning to Jesus, the short saint’s biography I gave at the beginning showed how he did confront assailants, from leprosy to Pilate, from blindness to death. Our reading from Matthew summarised much of this ministry, teaching, proclaiming, healing. Jesus believed in life before death, and his ministry was a ministry of salvation, of rescuing people in the troubles and mistakes of their earthly life. He offered shelter. He encouraged people not to be afraid, in a storm on a lake, when a daughter had died, when he walked on water, on the night before he died, when appearing risen in the garden. His life showed him to be light and salvation, and trust in him takes away fear.
But the heart of this and the reason we can call him St Salvator, Holy Saviour, is what his life and ministry led to – his death on the cross. As St Paul made clear to the Corinthians, as we heard earlier, the cross is the heart of the gospel. And that is why it is fitting that the central stained glass window in the Chapel is of Jesus on the cross. It was designed by Gordon Webster, who worked mainly in Glasgow, and died in 1987. The window dates from the years following the Second World War. It does not really show Christ’s suffering or even death on the cross, but rather the triumph over death which the cross represents. For Webster, this is a Saviour who can save because in him, God confronted the absolute worst which had emerged in creation’s freedom – a murderous sin, appalling pain, the deepest humiliation, the apparent finality of death. But sin, pain, humiliation and death could not hold Jesus. Our university website suggests that Webster’s window for St Salvator’s is a symbol of hope raised after the dreadful realities of the second world war. And this to me seems right. It is a depiction full of hope, in the fullest awareness of the worst that life can bring, of God as the strength of our lives.
Following the service, come and look more closely at the window, or indeed, any of the features of the Chapel. I’ll be looking more closely myself. Most weeks there will be a visiting preacher at Chapel services, but this semester when I am preaching, I hope to draw out some more aspects of the decoration of the Chapel. The stone, wood, glass and more are themselves a rich series of sermons on the Christian faith, and I look forward to reflecting on them between now and May.
For now, however, as we gather in the Chapel, let us give thanks for the Lord, our light and salvation, and for the gift of God’s Son, St Salvator, the strength of our lives. This Saviour freely offers shelter, help, forgiveness and hope in all we face, and promises that even death cannot take us away from him and from the love of God. Whom then shall we fear?
I wish you every blessing for the Candlemas semester.