How to present the central truths in Winchester in 2017?

Stephen Adam, 21 May 2017

Acts 17: 22–31; John 14: 15–21

Among the great glories of the High Renaissance are the Raphael cartoons, commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 – full-scale preparatory designs for tapestries depicting momentous events in the lives of St Peter and St Paul which were made for the Sistine Chapel. The cartoons, which are some of the most famous paintings in the world, are in the Royal Collection.

To mark the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to this country in 2010 the Vatican, in an act of extraordinary generosity, loaned four of these exquisite tapestries for display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where for the first time they could be seen alongside the preparatory paintings. This was a stupendous exhibition, enabling not only the beauty and art of Raphael to be experienced, but also the faith that illuminated and inspired him.

Among the subjects depicted is Paul’s address to the Athenians, one of the great set-piece narratives in the New Testament. For Luke, the author of Acts, this is a pivotal moment in the mission of the early church as the gospel news is brought from Jerusalem to the Gentile world, and Paul is the standard bearer for this.

Athens, the intellectual centre of the classical world, has symbolic significance as we read of Christianity’s encounter with classical culture. By Paul’s time ‘the glory that was Greece’ had somewhat faded; the glories of the fifth-century-BC Athens of Pericles’ time – the cradle of European civilisation – had waned. And when the Romans came in 87 BC and besieged the city, Sulla declared that he wasn’t concerned with its glorious past; he was there to punish rebels, not to learn ancient history. Athens was still beautiful, but its greatness lay in its memories of these past glories and in the enduring legacy it had bequeathed to the western world.

You can picture Paul wandering the streets of this still-great city, distressed at the strange idols he sees everywhere; encountering the intellectual climate of the day, with the various philosophical schools feverishly debating, and meeting with bantering curiosity as he daily argues his cause.

And then we come to this climactic address that Luke records, with Paul standing in front of the Areopagus – the hill next to the Acropolis where the judicial council met. Raphael’s portrayal depicts Paul dominating his audience in this daunting public space. Some pay rapt attention; others register a range of attitudes, from deep thought to surprise and scepticism.

By any stretch Paul’s speech in Acts 17, with its soaring rhetoric, is remarkable for both its style and language. It’s quite different in tone from the uncompromising language of his letters, where he preaches Christ crucified and nothing else. He speaks with respect, making measured arguments for his civilised pagan audience. He takes as his starting point the inscription on an altar, ‘to an unknown god’, and uses that to develop his argument for God as creator. This is a God defined by his relationship with the entire universe, a God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ and experience our common humanity.

This is a God defined by his relationship with the entire universe, a God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’.

This appeal to natural theology – to reason and to observation – is unlike anything else in the New Testament.

You’ll note that nowhere does Paul speak of the God of Israel, or the history of salvation, or the patriarchs and prophets, or the law given to Moses. None of that would have meant anything to his pagan audience. He does not quote from scripture or even mention Jesus by name.

In fact what Paul is doing is not presenting some alternative understanding of the gospel, but rather accommodating his method to the interests of his hearers – in other words, meeting them where they are coming from. He skilfully works through his philosophical argument to conclude with a specific Christian message focusing on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Even though not named, Jesus is the centrepiece of Paul’s thoughts, and the Easter event is the central fact of human history.

Jesus is the centrepiece of Paul’s thoughts, and the Easter event is the central fact of human history.

Paul’s rhetorical arguments in this classical style sound strange to us – they perhaps wouldn’t be our starting point in explaining the grounds for our faith – while the scene depicted by Raphael seems utterly remote from 21st-century Winchester.

Yet just like Paul we, as Christians and as a church, have good news to share, a gospel to proclaim. It’s simply that our world view, our context, is far removed from first-century Athens. We have to find the right words, appropriate ways of connecting, to present the good news in our time.

As Michael Mayne has written:

Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. It isn’t that the central truths change: it is that these truths need to be understood, interpreted and communicated to every new generation afresh. The question is how these truths are to be presented and the values and authority of Jesus Christ affirmed when confronted with the moral dilemmas as well as the social and technological revolution of our time.

Mayne was writing some 25 years ago, and the challenges seem even more pressing today. We live in a world that’s gone fearful, a world where alternative truths and alternative facts reign, a world of moral equivalence where there’s no agreed narrative or sets of values to act as a glue holding us together, a world where we’re ill at ease as globalisation challenges national identities and where – certainly in Europe – organised religion is in retreat in the face of strident secularism.

In the Space in the City series of talks last February Patrick Woodhouse analysed this in some detail, in a challenging and pretty uncomfortable way, as he explored ‘The Practice of Faith in a Dismissive World’. It’s still available to hear online, and I commend it to you.

This is an enormous subject, very much at the centre of thinking within the Church of England as a range of strategies and priorities are developed to respond to the context the church finds itself in. This isn’t the time or place to unpack that ‘Reform and Renewal’ agenda, but I would like to offer you this morning just two brief reflections.

The first is simple and perhaps sounds even a bit obvious: it’s the importance of hanging in there, holding our nerve, staying true to the gospel, and remaining faithful and trusting in a God who is infinitely bigger than we can imagine.

Today, the sixth Sunday of Easter as we begin to look towards Ascension Day and Pentecost, we’re reminded that the gospel we proclaim is not some bit of ancient history. As our gospel reading reminds us, we have the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who will be with us forever.

The faith that we profess proclaims triumphantly that through the Holy Spirit God is alive and active in the world today, animating us with a continuing revelation of his presence in every age. I think it was Rowan Williams who defined mission as finding out what God is already doing in the world and joining in. It’s about us remaining attentive and prayerful – and that’s very much the theme of the forthcoming novena or nine days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost which the archbishops of Canterbury and York are encouraging Christians of all denominations to participate in, praying that the Holy Spirit might freshly inspire us.

And then, secondly, alongside this and other evangelistic initiatives being developed in this diocese and by the wider church nationally, I’d want to suggest that what you might call ‘unintentional evangelism’ is no less important. It’s about how we live our lives, knowing that we are wilfully sinful, yet redeemed, forgiven, loved and valued by God. Knowing that we are loved by him sets us free to speak that same language of love to those we encounter, in our church and community, in our neighbourhoods and places of work, and especially in the neglected, broken and wounded places of our society.

Knowing that we are loved by God sets us free to speak that same language of love to those we encounter … especially in the neglected, broken and wounded places of our society.

Everything we do in this church is mission. It’s expressed in the depth of our liturgy and worship, our prayer and meditation; it was evident just a couple of weeks ago at our Community Day; and it’s evident in the love and care shown through our Parish Visitors scheme, and so on. In other words, being authentic means living out our faith in the personal and public domains we find ourselves in. Prayer, faithfulness and humility should be our watchwords.

The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, puts it like this:

Faith is understood in the living and proved in the doing … Seeing God’s face in the face of the human other … Leading us to acts of loving kindness that make more gentle the life of this world. Faith is life lived in the light of love.

‘Faith is life lived in the light of love.’ At the end of every Eucharist we pray that we might be sent out into the world ‘to live and work to your praise and glory’. As we look towards the culmination of this marvellous Easter season with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowering and energising those first disciples, may that same Spirit be a gift to us too, building us up as a community of love and service. Amen.