John 14.15-21, Acts 17.22-31, 1 Peter 3.13-end
How do we share the good news of the gospel? How do we explain our understanding of what God is to others when there is so much scope for disinterest and misunderstanding?
I read recently about two young Roman Catholic priests on a roadside and as a car approaches one runs out in the road waving at the driver to stop whilst the other holds up his placard proclaiming ‘the end is near’. The startled driver swerves to avoid them shouting out ‘leave me alone you religious nutters’. The next thing they hear is a screeching of brakes and an almighty splash. One priest turns to the other and says ‘maybe we should change that sign to read BRIDGE DAMAGED! Perhaps it’s important that people hear our message in the right context.
If you walk up to a stranger and tell them that God loves them the chances are that most people will back off suspicious of what your motivation is.
I guess it shouldn’t be rocket science to discover that there’s a far greater probability that they will listen if you take some trouble to learn about them, know them already or if they have initiated the conversation.
Apply that logic to Paul in Athens and we would see that upon arrival he immediately began speaking in the synagogues. This was his normal practice and was also his most fertile approach. Paul was an expert in the Jewish law and was comfortable with Jewish culture. He knew that Jews had a hope for a Messiah and that he could show in Jewish scripture that Jesus was that Messiah. It is not surprising that Paul went to the synagogues. That was his comfort zone.
Bearing in mind that he has left behind Silas and Timothy after angry crowds made life difficult for him in Berea it is surprising that he seems prepared to go to places around Athens where he is less certain of the reaction he will receive.
In the market place he gets into religious debate with the Athenians drawing crowds interested to hear about what they perceive to be the latest god. Clearly he engages the people enough that they invite him formally to come and present his ideas to the Areopagus, the governing authority, ruled by the learned and respected of the City and this is where today’s reading from Acts began. He has done his preparation, walked around the City, looked at the idols, talked to the locals and heard of their hopes and concerns.
Good communicators will often start their talk with a positive affirmation of something their audience welcome hearing; it tunes their ears leaving them eager to hear more.
In President Obama’s speech to both Houses of Parliament this week he began by putting the relationship of the U.S. and Great Britain in historical context and praising the British idea for the creation of NATO.
Paul starts by complimenting the Athenians stating ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way’ and in my mind I can see the audience nodding smugly as they hear these words.
Having got their attention Paul moves on quickly to a subtle blend of flattery and criticism. Maybe my ears were a little more receptive this week as I had these readings in mind but it seemed to me that in an even more subtle way Barack Obama may have been following a similar pattern.
He stated that ‘being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it's about believing in a certain set of ideals…that is why we hold incredible diversity within our borders…it's possible for hearts to change, and old hatreds to pass; it's possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States.
Of course there is no actual mention of British suppression, land grabbing or racial inequality in colonial times nor does he specifically challenge this generation of Brits (us) to make real our stated ideals of fairness, democracy and opportunity. But to anyone really listening there was plenty here to reflect upon, particularly from a Christian perspective.
Paul also challenges the Athenians by first agreeing with them that we all share a common humanity derived from God but then his talk of the resurrection causes some to scoff, they aren’t ready for this message they like novelty, variety, chosing which god to worship and keeping all options open by offering sacrifices at many different altars.
It sounds confusing and exhausting to me. Can you imagine Friday prayers in the Mosque, Saturday at the Synagogue and Sunday mornings in church? Perhaps the other 4 days could be filled with Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and some Japanese Shinto. Like some Athenians the danger is that you end up confused and flitting between whatever is your flavour of the month, never going deep enough to discover if something is real. Paul challenges them to swap their multi faceted approach to religion for faith in one man and for some it seems this is just too much to ask.
What is most obviously lacking in the Athenians idolatrous worship is, of course, a relationship based on love and trust. In John’s gospel we heard Jesus explain to the disciples how when he can no longer be with them his spirit, also described as an advocate will be there to plead our case to God. Imagine that, our own pesonal advocate, who knows and cares for each one of us without any hourly rate to worry about!
In Pauls’s letter to the Romans he reaffirms this stating ‘ that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ and ‘ the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God, explanations it seems the Areopagus didn’t have the patience to hear.
In Peter’s first letter we heard that gentleness and reverence are the way in which we should show our faith to others. At the time the letter was written Christian persecution and suffering would have been commonplace (as it still is for some today) and the message is therefore not to respond to this with violence and sustain a vicious circle.
Whilst I have noticed a lot of horses coming and going in the paddock behind the vicarage I’m not aware that anyone in Seal is imminently seeking volunteers for a crusade but in a world where faiths and cultures have to live in ever closer proximity an assertion of our faith has to respect who others are and be prepared to listen to their views. If we don’t do this we risk the gospel message just being heard as cold words which stand in isolation.
It is also true that, if we live out the gospel as best we can in whatever setting we find ourselves be it home, school, work, family or sports club it takes on warmth, practical meaning and cultural relevance.
It was only when I got to the end of preparing my notes for this sermon that it occurred to me that I could recall 3 recent occasions where non church going people have initiated a conversation with me about Jesus that I can only assume is triggered because of actions rather than words. It’s not something that can easily be explained as individuals are very different but a common theme was that each time I had entered their environment without any religious agenda.
You’ve probably got your own examples of occasions where small things done because you believe in one true God show others that our lives have meaning, that to us he is not an unknown god like the inscription on the Athenian altar but a God which cares, motivates and abides with us in good and bad times through his Spirit.