Farewell Sermon — Chris Bowhay

Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

In the magnificent Russian city of St. Petersburg, along the banks of the Griboyedov Canal, you will find the stunning Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood. The name refers not to the blood of Christ, but to the blood of the assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was mortally wounded on that site on March 13, 1881. On that day, the Tsar was riding in his carriage along the banks of the canal when an anarchist conspirator threw a grenade that exploded nearby. The Tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of his carriage to talk with the conspirator, when another conspirator detonated another grenade that killed the assassin and left the Tsar bleeding heavily. He was taken to the Winter Palace, where he died. His son, Alexander III, decided to build an elaborate enclosed memorial shrine on the spot where his father’s blood was shed. Inside, the exact place of his attack was garnished with precious gems that circled the exposed cobblestones on which the tsar’s blood was spilled.

Over time, the Romanov family built an ornate church building around the shrine where beautiful liturgies were celebrated, but after the extermination of the Romanovs, the building entered a long period of decline. During the Bolshevik revolution, the services were halted and the building was sacked. During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, the building was used as a morgue. During the Soviet premiership of Stalin and Khrushchev, the building was used to store vegetables. Finally, in 1970 the Soviet government decided to refurbish it and in 1997, after 27 years of construction, it re-opened.

Three summers ago I had the opportunity to walk through the Church of the Spilled Blood, and saw its architectural splendor. The walls shine with over 80,00 square feet of glistering mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and the New Testaments, more than any church in the world. As I wandered its halls and rooms and admired its haunting icons and gleaming altar, I asked our guide when the next worship services were scheduled. She told me that there are no worship services there. Seeing my confusion, she elaborated: The Church of the Spilled Blood offers no worship, holds no classes, sponsors no ministries, and assembles no community. She told me that the formal name given to the building by the Russian government is the Museum of Mosaics. I then realized that in spite of its name, in spite of its history, in spite of its splendor, in spite of the religious imagery that shines from the walls and ceiling, the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood is not a church—it is a money-making museum and tourist attraction.

What is a church? Or, more specifically, when is a church not a church? A church is not a building; it is not an institution; it is not a denomination organized around beliefs or structures. We say that we worship at St. Thomas’, that we are Episcopalians, and that we are a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but our most fundamental identity is that we are followers of Jesus Christ.

The Church that Jesus established is the family of God, into which we are were adopted as brothers and sisters through His death and Resurrection. After Jesus Ascended into Heaven, He sent His Holy Spirit to us to binds us to God through the sacrament of Baptism. The Church is our relationship with God through God in which we discover and proclaim the dignity and purpose for which God created and redeemed mankind. What we call “church” happens inside a building only when the people within it gather not as spectators or tourists, but as disciples of Jesus Christ, personally and actively dedicated to pursue one purpose that God gives to all who believe in and follow Him as their Savior and Lord. Jesus described that purpose in His last words to His disciples before He ascended back into Heaven: “Go ye therefore into all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always (Matt. 28: 19-20).” In a mystical sense, there is only one Church, the mystical body of Christ’s followers who are washed, united, and empowered through the Spilled Blood of Our Savior. The Church is people, in relationship with God, who serve Him and the world in His Name. The Church is you, and God in and among you.

Twelve years ago, Sally, Augusta, and I first worshiped with you as visitors. How things have changed since that time! Six years later, when you called me from St. Martin’s to serve and work alongside you as your fourth Rector, you had already begun to become more open to new faces and new possibilities. Today, six years after that, we see the fruit of our labor together. We see dozens of new families of all ages. We see leadership in worship, leadership in our ministries, and leadership in our Vestry open to all. At the 10:30 AM services we see hordes of new young children in Sunday School swarming toward the altar to receive their blessing. We see an almost 70% increase in giving, which not only means that we see more resources and more opportunities to serve our people and our larger community but also that we see more trust in God and see more joy in giving cheerfully.

And perhaps most importantly, we see that a traditional parish like St. Thomas’ can, with the grace of God and the dedication of its people, remain faithful to its traditions while engaging lovingly with the world, for whom God sent His Son to save. These things, like so many other good things that are taking place at St. Thomas’, can only happen through you, and through God working in you. You are the ones who prepare the Altar in the Altar Guild, man the doors as Ushers, lead worship as Lay Readers, Acolytes, Torch Bearers, Oblation Bearers, Lamp Bearers, Bell Ringers, and members of the Adult and the Children’s Choirs. You are the ones who offer food fellowship as Friars, greet visitors in the Newcomer ministry, and teach our children and each other in Sunday School for all ages. You are the ones who work patiently as Bookbinders, serve the needy in the HALO ministry, connect our seniors in the Senior Saints, and connect our women in the Episcopal Church Women. In the near future, you are the ones who will hire and work with a Director of Youth Ministry to help our Middle and High Schoolers learn that they are not just the future of the Church—they are its present. In the near future, you are the ones who will hire and work with an additional priest who will be dedicated to our seniors and their needs, ensuring that they always know that their wisdom, gifts, and challenges are a vital concern for everyone at St. Thomas’. And in the near future, you are the ones who will work with your vestry to articulate anew the precious identity and unique calling of St. Thomas’, so that you will call the next Rector who will work with you to discern how God plans to lead you into a time of even greater spiritual depth, membership growth, and servant leadership. In countless ways, sometime in ways that are seen only by God, your faithfulness, your prayers, your forgiveness, your generosity, and your service not only makes St. Thomas’ the healthy place that it is today, but makes it a “church” in its truest sense.

I hope that you’ll forgive me for repeating a story that I’ve told before, but it’s the most perfect story I’ve ever heard since my childhood in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, in Oakland California. St. John of the Cross, or San Juan de la Cruz, was a heroic reformer of the Church in 16th century Spain; he was also a mystic who wrote some of the most breathtaking and haunting spiritual poems in Western culture, including “The Living Flame of Love” and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” But even reformers and mystics need to make their beds. From the towns and villages that surrounded John’s monastery, older men and women, both wealthy and poor, often offered their time and their lives as secular servants to the monks from their shared desire to serve God. These servants helped the monks cook their meals, clean their chapel, scrub their floors, make their beds, wash their linens, and perform the thousand small tasks that every community needs done in order to survive and grow. One such servant, Brother Pedro, spent years in such humble service. Finally, he came to the day of his death.

As he lay in his cot, many of the brothers he had served surrounded him: praying for him, comforting him, and weeping. St. John was there, too. Suddenly, Brother Pedro sat up in his cot, reached his arms heavenward, and began to cry out: “Lo veo! Lo veo! Lo veo!” (“I see it! I see it! I see it!”) St. John leaned forward and asked him, “Brother Pedro…what do you see?” Pedro replied, “Veo el amor! Veo el amor! Veo el amor!” (“I see Love! I see Love! I see Love!”) And then, radiant with joy, Brother Pedro lowered his arms and died, in ecstasy.

Dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ at St. Thomas’ Church, I look at you and I see love. I look at you, and I see fellow servants in our Lord’s house and in our Lord’s world. The life of service to which we have been called is a life of love that grows and deepens until our last day, when we shall see for ourselves the Love that made us, redeemed us, directs us, and will finally and forever embrace us. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. Thank you for your service and your love. My family and I will always love you, and keep you in our prayers.

Hold the faith, and share it. Love God and each other. Continue the service.

Be a church.