Knowing the unknown God

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 12 May – the day before Ascension Day. Here it is for you again, or you can listen on Spotify, here:

I don’t know whether you have ever been to Glastonbury. As a child looking out from our garden, I could see the distinctive shape of Glastonbury Tor rising out of the Somerset levels. The only hill for miles, it was topped by the ruins of an ancient chapel.  As a teenager I used to cycle every summer to climb the tor and then to sit in the peace of the chalice well gardens, where I drank the metallic tasting water from the holy well in the shade of the Glastonbury thorn, a flowering tree said to have blossomed from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. By then the sleepy Somerset town had begun to be a magnet for hippies searching for enlightenment. The High Street is perhaps the same size as Prestwich Village. The shops are rather different. I was disappointed when the Psychic Piglet closed, but Man, Myth and Magic has remained open for years. There is an all-pervading scent of joss sticks. You can buy every sort of crystal and books to help you with your spells. There is a shop selling mitres in case you want to start your own religion and declare yourself a bishop. As well as all the New Age froth there are more traditional places of worship: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Sufi, Buddhist… there are said to be 70 different faith communities in all.

I think when Paul came to Athens, he must have had a similar experience. The verse just before our lectionary reading says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul, we are told, was deeply distressed that the city was full of idols. He began preaching to the expatriate Jewish community in the synagogues and to anyone who would listen in the marketplace. So, he was brought to the Areopagus, the highest court in Athens, overlooking the marketplace. The audience would have been a wide variety of listeners including observant Jews and academic philosophers, as well as the idly curious.

Given that Paul was distressed by the idols, you might have expected him to launch in with a first century equivalent of “No Popery” and denounce all the practices he found unacceptable. But what he did was to look for the best in the attitudes of the people before him and praise them for being religious, rather than criticise them for being superstitious. He had swallowed his revulsion and looked carefully at the at the plethora of altars and found one “To the unknown God”. This was his way in. He spoke to them about God the creator, who is not confined to manmade shrines and who needs no sacrifices from us – everything we are and have comes from him. He then borrowed some lines from Greek poets to reinforce the idea that they were already halfway to Christianity. But he finished by taking them the final step, calling them to repent, and preaching about the resurrection, even though a well-known play about the founding of the Areopagus explicitly said that there was no resurrection. So, he started with where they were but took them much further, challenging them with the gospel of Christ.

Tomorrow is Ascension Day when we hear Christ’s parting words “To go and make disciples of all nations”. The apostles obeyed that command by preaching in public spaces. For the majority of Christians that has never been the way to share their faith. For most people it is through relationships. How can we do that, without sounding preachy or holier than thou? Firstly, we can pray. Tomorrow also sees the start of Thy Kingdom Come, a season when we are challenged to pray that five specific people who are not yet Christians may come to know the love of Christ. They could be family members or friends. If we value church and God and prayer, then we will want to offer the people we care about a chance to share what we have found brings us hope and peace. The second step is to listen. Like, Paul, we start where they are. What brings them a sense of meaning in their lives? Can we see in that a reaching out to the God that they cannot yet name? Can we share our faith journey, not from a position of superiority, but humbly offering our own experience in the hope that it might chime with theirs and draw them a step further on the road to God?

Every journey starts with he first step. Choose your 5 people to pray for every day. And see what happens.

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