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Sermon for 21 May 2017


Acts 17.22-31, John 14.15-21

Bad joke alert:

A man burst into the doctor’s surgery flapping his arms and rushing around. He said, "Doctor, doctor, I think I’m a moth!” "You don’t need a doctor,” he replied, "You need a psychiatrist.” "I know,” said the man, "But your light was on and I couldn’t resist coming in!”

In our New Testament reading from Acts this morning, we hear about Paul standing in front of the Areopagus, a great rock on the outskirts of Athens, where he speaks to the Athenians. As I was reading this passage during the week, two questions came to mind, which I think might be helpful as we meditate on these words from scripture: why does he speak to them? And how does he speak to them?

So, why does he speak to them? He speaks to them because he sees something in them, something real, something holy. Paul can see that Athens is not a godless place, far from it: we are told that, as Paul walked through the city, he took note of how it was crammed with religious objects and altars. Some of us may have looked at all of the altars and thought, "What a terrible place, full of worship to idols,” before shaking the dust from our feet and running as far as our Birkenstocks could carry us. But Paul was a clever man: he had the discernment to see that God was at work in that place and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell them of the God that he had come to know and live for.

How does he speak to them? Well, for a start, he doesn’t begin by telling them how wrong they’ve been before correcting their foolish ways, for that way lies closed ears and hardened hearts. Instead, he meets them where they are in their spiritual lives and leads them forward to something greater. He tells them that the altar which they have dedicated to "An Unknown God” is the God of all things; the God who created the world from the beginning; the God who doesn’t need our worship to gain his favour, because he is the God of love; the God in whom we live and move and have our being; the God who is very near to us. Paul doesn’t speak to their heads, as if some clever argument was going to turn them away from their old ways; no, he speaks in their language, he speaks to their hearts, he speaks to the yearning that he sees deep within them.

As I was reading this passaged and as it revealed more and more to me, I began to see that the climate in which Paul found himself is not unlike the world around us. Secularists would have us believe that faith is dead and we now live in a more rational age. For them, faith is the product of our unenlightened past and that’s where it belongs: as a slightly embarrassing page in the history books. But that’s just not what I see. I think these are the death-throe arguments of a system, which has lost the argument it brought to the table; it seems that God just won’t go away.

Look at the bookshelves in Waterstone’s: whilst the "Religion” section may be thinning, it isn’t being replaced by the "Secularist” bookshelf; instead the "Spirituality” section grows ever larger as people attempt to find an outlet for the deep spiritual yearning that they experience day-to-day. That’s been my experience too: I rarely meet a person, who is not longing for that elusive something in their lives, something which will help them make sense of themselves and the world around them. Like the man who thinks he’s a moth, people are looking to give expression to what is in the depth of their hearts, in whatever way they can. To borrow a phrase of St Augustine’s, their hearts are restless.

And we know what they are restless for: the God who made them in his image; who loves them to the very depths of their being; who longs for them to come home. We know that they are restless for this because we too were restless once but we know what it is to be welcomed into God’s generous heart of love.

Our New Testament reading is a reminder to us that people are searching and God calls us, as he did Paul, to help them find. It is also a brilliant lesson in how we might share our faith with those whom we meet. Why should we share our faith with others? Because they want to hear about it, believe me, they do. You will rarely find hostility (though it does exist), but you will often find an openness to hearing about your experiences of God in your life. But that will only remain if we think carefully about how we share our faith. We can sometimes be quick to rubbish the spiritualties that people have chosen, perhaps because we are suspicious of them or maybe even scared of them. But just remember: God made the world, every square inch of earth is hallowed ground, he is there with you, so don’t be afraid.

More than that, we must see in others what we know to be true of ourselves, that they are seeking and they need our love not our judgement. We must meet people where they are, hear their stories and, just as Paul did, help them to come to an understanding of where the unknown God is already at work in their lives.

I would love you to hold on to those two questions this week: why does Paul speak to them and how does Paul speak to them? He speaks because he can see what God is doing in that place and he speaks out of their experiences, drawing them on to an understanding of the unknown God, who longs for their return.

May God grant you discernment to see where he is at work and the words to reveal the unknown God as the one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the one in whom we live and move and have our being; the one for whom we exist.


Posted: 21/05/2017 at 21:34
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