Faith in public: sermon for 29 June 2014 communion at St Stephen’s

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 25 May 2014: Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

SERMON
Texts: Acts 17:16-31
John 14:15-21

Faith in public

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In the Church of Scotland, all our Sunday services are traditionally described as ‘public worship’. For the death and resurrection of Jesus were public events. But how do we proclaim this in the public arena, how do we take this message into the world? Today’s reading from the book of Acts gives us some clues about how we can do it. It tells a story about St Paul visiting Athens. Luke, the writer of Acts, says that ‘all the citizens of Athens and the foreigners who lived there liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest new thing’. It was a world city, a centre of civilisation and philosophy, at the crossroads of east and west, multicultural and multiethnic. Paul must have been fired up by the opportunities it presented to argue out the case for the Christian message with representatives of all the other competing philosophies of the day.

St Paul Preaching in Athens: Raphael (Wikipedia Commons)

Yet Luke says that Paul was ‘upset’ by some of what he saw in the city. These days, your or I might visit Athens by the traffic congestion or the effects of the economic problems of Greece. It’s unlikely we would be upset by the ancient art and sculpture we might see. About a year ago I saw the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, and it is impressive art. But Paul saw the Parthenon and all the other temples, altars and statutes and thought- ‘idolatry!’ For he believed, as a good Jew, that there is only one true God- the God who made heaven and earth, the God of Abraham and Jacob and Moses, the God who had made himself especially known to Paul’s nation, the Jewish people. Paul believed that wonderful the art, however pious and genuine the practice, any religion which did not lead people to Israel’s God was simply false and misleading. And so Paul gets into discussions with those who do not share his faith: ‘he held discussions in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentiles who worshipped God, and also in the public square every day with the people who happened to come by. Certain Epicurean and Stoic teachers also debated with him. Some of them asked, “What is this ignorant show-off trying to say?” Others answered, “He seems to be talking about foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17.17-18).

So here is Paul engaged in what we might nowadays call ‘interfaith dialogue’. He is willing to talk to anyone who is interested- those of other faiths, those of no faith or who say they live by some kind of ‘philosophy’. It was an age when the ancient faiths were already held in disdain by many people (a century year earlier, Julius Caesar was appointed to the politically important post of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome, despite having no discernible religious faith). But there were new things on the way. Paul is willing to discuss with the secularists, the new agers, and the followers of the old religions.

And even although he felt that his view of God was superior to any other, Luke portrays Paul as having respect for those other beliefs. Asked to speak before the city council (because they are so curious about him), Paul notes that they are a religious people. He has noticed that they have altars dedicated to ‘an unknown God’. And he suggests those who worship that unknown God already, without knowing it, worship the true God- the God whom Paul will now make known to them. As he tries to describe God’s significance, he quotes approvingly from pagan poets and authors: that God is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ and ‘We too are his children’. But towards the end of his speech he makes it clear that it is not enough just to vaguely worship an unknown God.

The question of whether there is a god or not is not just an idle philosophical question- it cuts to the heart of our existence. For God makes demands on us. God is the source not just of life, but of right and wrong. God is the one who sets up the standards of justice. So worship of God demands that we don’t revere mere statues, but come into a relationship with a living being. And so Paul tells his multicultural, multireligious audience: ‘Since we are God’s children, we should not suppose that his nature is anything like an image of gold or silver or stone, shaped by human art and skill. God has overlooked the times when people did not know him, but now he commands all of them everywhere to turn away from their evil ways. For he has fixed a day in which he will judge the whole world with justice by means of a man he has chosen. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising that man from death!’

Paul gives his pagan audience respect for the wisdom that they undoubtedly have. But he moves on from there as he proclaims the significance of Jesus. But that can make people uncomfortable! Just after the end of our reading, Luke tells us that ‘When they heard Paul speak about a raising from death, some of them made fun of him, but others said, “We want to hear you speak about this again.”‘ Again and again this was Paul’s experience. Talking about Jesus, crucified and risen, takes us beyond mere dialogue into proclamation. It’s at that point that people will react- some with anger, some with ridicule, and some with a positive response: ‘We want to hear you speak about this again’.

We are, let’s face it, a liberally-minded congregation. We mostly think that others have things to teach us, and that we don’t have all the answers. We respect other peoples’ beliefs. And that is all fine, and I would not have it any other way. But like many other, similar, congregations, we’re a bit loathed to proclaim our faith. Yet we must speak to others about our faith, if the faith is going to continue to be heard in the marketplace.

I believe passionately that the Church today needs to be in dialogue with all kinds of people- atheists, agnostics, followers of traditional faiths and new age believers. We should be talking to the those who are interested, and also those who feign a lack of interest. And it ought to be a two-way dialogue- we can learn from others. As Paul says, we are all children of God. And some of those who seem to us to be a long way from Christ might well be worshipping at the altar of an unknown God, who unbeknown to them is the God of Jesus Christ. The Church does not have a monopoly of truth, and sometimes those we think are our enemies have much to teach us.

But in any true dialogue there comes a point when you have to say what you really think. Our culture, our city, like the city of Athens, has things about it that are good. Sometimes, indeed, the world around us seems to be ahead of many Christians in showing love for their neighbours. But there are other aspects of our culture to which God’s people must say no. It’s God’s world, but at the same time, it’s under God’s judgement! It’s good that we live in a free society, and that most people are materially OK. But it can’t be right that we allow so much poverty in our midst, or we defend our freedom with nuclear weapons. Too many folks who think they are basically good pay not attention to anything outside of themselves and their immediate circle of family and friends. Wrapped up in their own selfishness, talk of G0d is enough to make them shiver!

The Gospel of John has Jesus speak to his disciples just before his arrest in terms that make it clear that it will not always be easy for them. A bit further on from today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes it quite clear to his disciples that sometimes the reaction of the world around them will be hatred: ‘If the world hates you, just remember that it has hated me first. If you belonged to the world, then the world would love you as its own. But I chose you from this world, and you do not belong to it; that is why the world hates you’ (John 15.18-19). These are words addressed to a small group who would face persecution, ridicule, marginalization. But to see them through it all, Christ promises that the Spirit of God will go with them. He knows that we will find it hard to follow in his way: ‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments’, he says.

And for those times when we are tempted to simply go along with the assumptions of what John’s Gospel simply refers to as ‘the world’, Jesus promises a Helper: the Spirit that reveals the truth about God, who remains in us and with us. Later, John’s Gospel says of the Spirit that he enables us to figure out how we are to live in this world: ‘he will prove to the people of the world that they are wrong about sin and about what is right and about God’s judgement.’ (John 16.8). In other words, the Spirit Jesus promises helps us with discernment- to figure out what is good and bad, right and wrong, useful or dangerous for us.

Paul took the best of Greek culture and used it to show both how close the Athenians were to God, and how far away they were. And so we should hope that the Spirit will help us to figure out what is good in today’s culture, what we can affirm, what we can say yes to with a Christian conscience- as well as what we have to say ‘no!’ to. The story of Jesus is not another nice story which people can do what they wish with. It is a story which ultimately judges us all. Whenever I read the stories of Jesus, I get uncomfortable as I ask- where would I have been, and what would I have done? If I had been the rich young man, would I have followed Jesus, or gone sadly away? Would I have disapproved of healing on the Sabbath, or of the company Jesus kept? Would I have cried out to save Barabbas? Would I, like Peter, have denied knowing him when it got too dangerous and embarrassing?

Church of Scotland ‏@churchscotland May 23 Our excellent media intern Alexander Jones and his clippings board, just one of his many achievements. #GA2014 pic.twitter.com/MlKtayP5kV

At the General Assembly, which I attended back in May, there was a display board of press cuttings- an indication of how the news media were covering the Church of Scotland this week. It was all there- good and bad news about the Church of Scotland, and the doings of our Assembly. And there was a lot of news. For the Christian message is out there in the marketplace. And when we, as individuals or a congregation, we take the Christian message into the marketplace (which I think we are commanded to do), then we are going to need discernment, we are going to need that promised Helper, to see how we make the Gospel attractive without puncturing it of all its force.

The Gospel is good news to the poor, a welcome for those in need; yet it is also a judgement. It affirms what is good, but also says no to evil. To help us discern how to proclaim the Gospel, we need to be open to the Helper, the Spirit which Christ promised would abide with us, directing, suggesting and helping us as we try to take people beyond their unknown gods to an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo