Most of you here in Crowland will be familiar with the name of Guthlac, the Anglo-Saxon monk who can be regarded as the founder of this town. After he came here Guthlac acquired a very good reputation on account of the good works he did for the people of this remote and sparsely populated area, a reputation so good that he came to be regarded as a saint. Although all Christians are called to be holy, as holy is technically the meaning of the word ‘saint,’ we commonly call saints those Christians whose lives are outstanding on account of their good deeds. In our churches these people are often depicted in stained glass windows with halos over their heads. And let’s be honest, these people, most of whom lived long ago, can seem to be very remote from us and from real life.
Yet the interesting thing about Guthlac is that before he came to what is today Crowland he was not a very nice guy. He grew up in a world of violence, intrigue, back-stabbing, and betrayal, in short, a world of dog-eat-dog. Guthlac was very much a part of this world. He was a freebooting soldier who did his share of robbing, killing, and destroying. This was his way of life until something amazing happened: he came to know the God of Jesus Christ. When he was twenty-four years old his heart, rather like that of John Wesley many centuries later, was ‘strangely warmed’ by a mysterious encounter with God. After this experience he decided to give up his former ways and obey Jesus’ call to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
To do this he knew he had to make a complete break with his old life and his old companions, a break that eventually led him to the remote island of Crowland, deep in the fens. He thought that by leading a simple and solitary life of prayer he might make amends for his past life and help to advance the kingdom of God. Although he tried to live in solitude, the people who lived on other islands in the area often came to him for help and advice. And so his reputation as a special man of God grew.
Guthlac’s story is one I find very heartening, as it shows us that with God change is always possible for us, no matter what our previous life story may be. If the power of God working in a robber and murderer such as Guthlac can make him into a different, a better person, can’t God do the same for us? The possibility of change is something that is fundamental to the Christian faith. It is there in the water of baptism, water that stands for God’s cleansing, forgiving love. God in his love for us his children is always ready to forgive us and help us to make a new start, whenever we truly turn to him and from the depths of our hearts cry out to him in sincere sorrow for what we have done. God never forces us, but he is always there looking out for us, inviting us to turn to him and discover his way of life, the only way that can both truly satisfy us and at the same time enable us to change for the better. Just as he can bring life out of death, so God can bring good out of bad.
In this year when our community has been suffering from a lot of anti-social behavior I think the story of Guthlac ought to give all of us pause for thought. If he had been a teenager living in Crowland today Guthlac would probably have been a drug user, a window breaker, a tombstone smasher, and more. But he would eventually have found a better way to live. So let’s all of us, young and old, for us older folk have our share of bad behavior to feel sorry about – it’s just that the sins of some of our young people are more publicly evident- take heart from Guthlac’s story. God is still very much at work in the world today. As he helped Guthlac defeat his demons, so he can help us defeat ours. Thanks be to him for offering us this help every day.
Yours in Christ,