Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 21 May 2017, Easter 6, United Benefice of Holland Park
Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 21 May 2017, Easter 6
Being away with our youth last weekend was just wonderful. They really are great kids, very bright and not afraid to think and ask hard questions. We discussed in the car on the way down about the previous year and the discomfort they felt at the talks. In one of the talks, they were told that it was important that they told all of their friends about Jesus and try to get them to become Christians. One of them responded with such clarity – ‘That’, she said, ‘was a sure way to lose all your friends!’
It was helpful to explore the worldview behind this emphasis… of evangelising, telling people about Jesus. After all, that is what the Great Commission is all about isn’t it? At the end of Matthew’s Gospel the disciples are told: Go into the world and proclaim the gospel, baptising in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In fact, Christianity wouldn’t have reached these shores had not someone come and done exactly that.
We heard in today’s epistle: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…but do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). With that in mind, I wonder how you might answer the following questions: What does it mean for you to be Christian? Doesn’t science disprove God? What about all the other faiths in the world: how does Christianity relate to them? How do you reconcile the terrible suffering in the world with an all powerful and loving God?
These are a just few questions, some of which have been grappled with for centuries. They require a lot of consideration about what we believe and we’re challenged to have some sort of response, even if we don’t have definitive answers. This can be particularly difficult because, as anthropologists recognise, most practitioners of religion participate in their faith and religious practices more readily than they can explain or describe it.
St Paul was one of the most significant apologist or defender of the Christian faith in the early church. Having start out by preaching to the Jewish community, today we find Paul among the intelligentsia in Athens.
The Athenians were a complacent, self-conceited lot, self-confident of their philosophy and religiousness. They had the greatest philosophers in the world, philosophers we still talk about, and are influence by, today.
Paul changes tack in his preaching: he doesn’t refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, he meets the Athenians on their own ground. He quotes two Greek philosophers: the God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’. This would have been immediately recognisable to his hearers, as would his assertion that we are all the offspring of God.
St Paul communicated in a language and with concepts that the Athenians would have recognised. He looks for similarities, points of contact. He then gently and respectfully challenges their worldview. He invites them to think more deeply. He tells them that God isn’t to be found in shrines made of silver and gold, things made by human hands. Rather, the very being of God may be glimpsed in Jesus Christ, through whom we know that death is not the end. At the mention of resurrection, many thought he was talking nonsense, some wanted to hear more, and a few believed.
The challenge of offering a defence of one’s faith opens up a number of issues for us Christians living in the 21st century. If Paul’s sermon was particularly adapted to his audience in Athens, what about our context? There are a number people today who are aggressively hostile to religious faith. They have loud voices but there aren’t actually that many. Some in today’s society are simply indifferent to institutional forms of religion, busy with other things on a Sunday – family, sport, art, shopping, socialising. Not bad things in themselves. There are yet others who have a profound fascination with the spiritual life and its manifestation. But are nervous about seeing this given this institutional shape / organisation in the form of the church.
In summary, we have a situation in the UK where a few are aggressively hostile to religious faith; there are many people (between 50-60%) who still self-identity themselves as Christian;
and there are many others who might tick the ‘no religion’ box in census forms, but who describe themselves as spiritual, who recognises that there is a larger picture to reality than a purely materialist one, but who view institutional religion with suspicion. They perhaps see it as somehow less authentic than personal experience or a general sense of the transcendent.
If that’s our context, how might we respond? I don’t believe the answer is to enthusiastically try to turn every conversation towards Jesus. That is a sure way to lose friends. I think there’s a different way that’s unembarrassed about being Christian and one that’s inclusive, welcoming and gentle.
I’ve been influence by the Benedictine approach to the spiritual life. Fundamental to Benedict was hospitality. If you ever visit a Benedictine monastery you can be assured of decent food. Here in the United Benefice too, we try to offer a warm welcome, good food, nice biscuits and organic fairtrade coffee, a glass of wine. Rather than attempting to aggressively convert people, the invitation is simply to join the party. The church isn’t an exclusive better than thou club but a place where all are welcome. And the response to difficult questions might be, I don’t know, but let’s explore together.
Perhaps it's a little bit like Noah’s ark we heard about in the the rather perplexing passage from Peter. The church has used this imagery throughout the centuries. The church nave symbolizes a ship with its vaulted ceiling looking like an inverted keel. In this metaphor, the church is a safe place in a storm.
And what’s it like in this ship? Fredrick Buechner describes it (Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary, 1988):
… just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese;
some meek as lambs and others fire-breathing dragons. There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop.
It’s not all enjoyable…But even at its worst, there’s at least one thing that makes it bearable within, and that is the storm without…at its best there is, if never clear sailing, shelter from the blast, a sense of somehow heading in the right direction in spite of everything, a ship to keep afloat, and, like a beacon in the dark, the hope of finding safe harbor at last.
Thus, Jesus the redeemer effected a great reversal. Whereas the waters of the Flood brought death and destruction, the waters of baptism bring new life, protection from danger, and a shelter in the storm.