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Onward Christian Soldiers (Richard Cloete)

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First, may I say two ‘Thank You’s. A first to Fr Andrew for inviting me back here today, (much appreciated), and a second to St Matthews, Redhill in general. Forty Four years ago you welcomed a very green and unfashioned young curate into your Church family and gave him the basis on which his whole future ministry in the Church was based. I have hugely enjoyed that Ministry, and am still enjoying it today. But it would not have been possible without the loving foundation which this church family here at St Matthew’s gave me.

It is tempting to go down memory lane and to recall something of the life of this Church and the lives of some of the members of it, people such as – I shall resist. Time has moved on by 40 years, and many of the names will be unknown to many of you. But as Ivor Smith-Cameron, our former Diocesan Canon Missioner in Southwark, was fond of saying “we take our past into our present and on into the future”.

150 years ago, St Matthew’s was born, and continues to thrive today, taking the past into the present Redhill and then onward into the future. Just a few months before that birth, a hymn was born, which is still very much part of our hymnology today. I suspect that part of it’s continuing appeal is the tune that goes with it – a stirring military march by Sir Arthur Sullivan (he of “G and S” fame). They hymn is “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It was written in 1865 by Sabine Baring-Gould for his Sunday School in his parish in Yorkshire. It was the custom then for the children to take part in a Procession on Whit Monday from one village to another. The children would be led from their church by the Processional Cross and various banners and they would sing hymns as they went on their way.

The hymn is sometimes criticised today on the grounds of outdated language and for it’s military imagery. But whatever we may think of the words or the metaphors in this hymn, there are aspects of the truth of the Gospel to be found here. The theme is that of the Church militant here on earth. But what sort of a Church is it?

“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before”.

The Church is on the march. The very first word “Onward” reminds us that the Church is moving. It is not a static institution, it is not at a standstill, or comfortably settled into a rut. Nor is it bogged down by the past, and forever looking back to the good old days – whenever they were. (Early 1970’s). No, the gaze of the Church, our gaze is directed to the future as the Church, and this Church, moves forward to fresh tasks, new challenges, different opportunities and further conquests. That is how it should be with the whole Church of Christ.

Moreover, the church must move forward with a sense of purpose. It is going somewhere with “Christ the Royal Master” leading the way. “The Cross of Jesus going on before”. We remind ourselves of the context for which this hymn was written. The Cross at the head is leading the people out of the building and into the world. “Go”, said Jesus, “make disciples of all nations and be assured I am with you to the end of time”.

Not only is the Church marching outwards, it is “marching as to war”. There is a battle to be fought, an enemy to be confronted and conquered.

“At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee:
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!”

The Christian warfare is not a phoney one. It is essentially a spiritual battle, but it is none the less real on that account. St Paul knew this, and in his Letter to the Ephesians, he urged Christians to “put on the whole armour of God”, and he says “Our fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.

Beyond question there is an active power of evil at work in the world – what the hymn calls “Satan’s hosts”. We see about us much evil. We see the rise of a narrow racialist nationalism in so many nations even our own, which all too often can spill over into conflict. We see too the rise of fundamentalist religion, not only within Islam, but without other faiths too with the religious intolerance that goes with it, and not only in the countries of the Middle East, but, alas, seemingly everywhere, even in this country. We see too the ever growing menace of drugs; the ever continuing destruction of the environment; the tendency of earthly powers to violate basic human rights. The list is long. This is why the Church must be ready for battle. We remember that when we were baptized, when the priest made the sign of the cross on our foreheads, he said “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Fight manfully under his banner against sin, the world and the devil, and continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life”. So we, the Church, as soldiers of Christ, cannot remain neutral or compromise with evil, or adopt a pacifist role. Indeed, we need to be on the offensive rather than the defensive and to be ready to carry the battle into the enemy’s camp as we strive for the furtherance of the Kingdom in an increasingly secular and pagan society.

In this battle we are not left on our own. As soldiers of Christ, we are part of a large army. A soldier is nothing apart from his army, and we have the backing of the whole Church visible and invisible:

“Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.”

The mighty army is not the local congregation – we are hardly more than a godly few. But we are part of a great and glorious company, the fellowship of the saints, the one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church. And that is comforting. An individual on his own cannot do much; he cannot, by himself win a war, but going into battle as part of an army, he or she can rightly claim a share in the victory, and ultimate victory is assured, for the Church is invincible

“Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.”

A mighty army, but it needs new recruits if it is to maintain it’s strength. And the Church is perpetually involved in such a recruiting campaign – it is called evangelism. The church extends an invitation to all to “join our happy throng”. And thank God that St Matthew’s Redhill is just that, a happy throng. Moreover the invitation is to everyone who wants to find a worthwhile purpose in life and to serve the greatest of all causes – the Kingdome of God.


“Glory, laud and honour unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.”

In Redhill

And God bless you all here at St Matthew’s.