The days we’re all living through are inviting us to be bold, to be radical

Peter Seal, 17 May 2020

Acts 17: 22–31; John 14: 15–21

As the lockdown restrictions ease a bit it’s very good to be back here in St Matthew’s. One of the things that we’ve realised afresh in recent weeks is the importance of our church buildings. They are valued, of course, by those who worship in them, but also by many others who come seeking a time of quiet or prayer. This is why the current restrictions – though completely understandable from the point of view of helping contain coronavirus – feel so tough, and indeed provoke such strong reactions. Let’s hope that in July this church can be open again every day.

We know, however, that social distancing restrictions are likely to be in place for a long time. This means that I, for one, cannot yet envisage when churches will be open again for worship. We’re advised that singing presents a particular risk of spreading the virus. These unprecedented conditions make it even more important that we go on supporting and encouraging one another in every way we possibly can.

Not having access to our church buildings, due either here to lockdown or at St Paul’s to building works, is making us aware of just how much we need them; and indeed of the opportunities they give us to be a welcoming, caring presence for everyone, whatever they believe.

(Bill Lucas is leading some imaginative work in groups, anticipating the re-opening of St Paul’s. If you’d like to be part of these discussions then you’d be very welcome. Details are on the welcome sheet.)

Today, as we heard in our first reading, Paul is in the centre of Athens. Some of you may have been there. Many of you may be able to picture this iconic scene, as Paul stands in front of the Areopagus. Here, Paul comes face to face with the awe-inspiring centuries of Greek philosophy and civilisation.

Paul has preaching in his bones. He just can’t help himself. He’s got a sermon ready to burst out from the inside. He’s got things he needs to say about Jesus, his Lord and his Saviour; and in particular about Jesus’ resurrection.

But first we see Paul doing his homework, his research, his preparation. He’s spent many hours wandering the streets and public places, intuiting the atmosphere, noting various images that give him clues about what’s going on for the people who live there.

I think that these Covid times are an opportunity for us to seek to intuit what’s going on. To be observant, perhaps in a new way; or a way we used to know and perhaps have forgotten. These days are an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and the years that we anticipate we have still to live.

Now, I believe, is a time to look Beyond Ourselves: to bravely engage with the big issues of our day – and not least the environment. I think the days we’re all living through are inviting us to be bold, to be radical – and to be radical means to get back to the roots. So often in the past (and I speak for myself) we’ve heard something like, ‘You can’t do that because of the effect on x, y or z’ … and often the reasons have been simply financial.

This terrible, devastating, frightening, devilish virus is saying something to us about how our limited human control of our lives in our world is a reality. The sense of vulnerability, whoever we are, is a tremendous leveller. We really do belong to one another. And as we know, some are in much greater need than others. We need each other. We really can make a difference to others both by what we do and by what we refrain from doing.

(Adrienne Marsden and Canon Philip Morgan have begun an interesting conversation about all this. They invite you to join in. Details are in my Saturday email.)

This terrible, devastating, frightening, devilish virus is saying something to us about how our limited human control of our lives in our world is a reality.

Paul, the preacher, has thought hard about what he’s seen going on in Athens. He’s eager to tap into the worldview of his audience. You see, Paul has been invited, politely and formally, to come and address a gathered group who are eager to listen to him. He begins cautiously with compliments. He’s noticed, he says, that they are a deeply religious people. You can imagine the audience nodding and maybe preening a little.

Paul continues: indeed they seem to be prepared to worship almost anything; to put up altars to nothing in particular, just in case. You can sense the audience beginning to frown, wondering if this is a compliment or actually rather less positive.

To listen to Paul preaching is to hear a subtle, sharp blending of flattery and criticism – first he compliments them on the array of the altars they have set up, and then he tells them that their altars are useless.

Paul the preacher is bold but takes great care to be clear. He bends over backwards to speak in a way that can be understood. He speaks in universals, inviting his hearers to think on a vast scale. In these Covid days we are being challenged to think on a worldwide scale.

What Paul is having to do is something we as Christians have always had to do, but now have an opportunity to explore in a new way. That is, to translate the gospel into terms that can be understood.

First of all we need, I suggest, to think and to pray hard about what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus actually mean for us. Then, we’re urged to find our own voice. I don’t mean become preachers like Paul; but I know some of you listening are potential preachers. I mean, to be ready to give the simplest account of why you/why I call ourselves/call myself Christian.

You may know there’s something known as the ‘elevator pitch’. If you found yourself with one other person in a lift (as we would call it), and they asked you what you believed, what would you say? You’ve got time perhaps for four short sentences, before you reach the next floor and the doors open.

We’ve all got an ‘elevator pitch’ within us. Looking ahead just two Sundays to Pentecost, I challenge you to write your own personal elevator pitch. And I’d really love you to send it to me.

The inevitable climax of what Paul is going to say is of course to speak of the Lord’s resurrection. He does this even though he knows that, at this precise point, he might lose all credibility with the intellectual circle that are gathered around him.

We’re faced with a similar hesitation. We know that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is at once the very heart of our Christian faith and at the same time a huge stumbling block for many people today, as it always has been.

This Eastertide, may God bless each of us and keep us safe this coming week, until we meet again. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

View the sermon here
(8: 34)