Acts 17 22-31 /I Peter 3 13 onwards
In the group of Cotswold villages that used to be home, there was a wonderful woman called Sheila. She’d lived in the village a long while, and was up to her ears in every aspect of community life, -the W.I., the village hall committee, and every sort of village celebration from Bonfire Night to the Harvest Supper. She was also one of those key people without whom the church could not survive, hosting the Mother and Toddler group, and taking her turn at the various jobs on the PCC as well as serving on the Local Ministry Team. She spent, and indeed still spends, nearly every waking minute in the service of other people, and is one of the most shining Christians I’ve ever encountered.
But, though Sheila is endlessly prepared to live her faith, she is firmly opposed to the idea that she might ever have to talk about it. Evangelism is almost a dirty word to her…indeed we used to tease her by referring to it as the E word, to be avoided at all costs.
The trouble is that, if we’re honest, most of us are pretty uncomfortable around that E word. It has gathered too many negative associations through the decades… It’s OK for those who have the gift, but most of us aren’t cut out to be Billy Grahams. So we have a problem.
We're tasked with sharing the Good News of God's love – there's no mistake about that and on Thursday as we celebrate Christ's Ascension we'll be reminded of our calling “Go and make disciples of all nations....”
but despite the urgency of God's voice, we really seem to struggle.
I think it may be specially hard in our current context...because the good news ISNT really new to our neighbours – or at least, that's what they believe.
They think they know all about Christianity and don’t need it
They are self sufficient and successful.
They don’t care.
And they still don’t know Jesus.
So, our job is to help them to meet him – through our words and our lives to make His love real wherever we may be.
It's challenging but essential – what the Church is really for. We can't not do it.
So – can we learn from an expert? Here's Paul, arriving as a kind of working tourist in first century Athens, and choosing to work with, not against the grain of the culture. In a city filled with religious activity, he builds on what he sees about him and with the motto when in Athens, do as the Athenians, goes to the Areopagus, - a kind of philosophical speakers' corner, and joins in debate there. It's all about meeting peope on their own terms in the kind of multi-cultural multi-faith context that is much like ours today.
After all, we live in a society fascinated by “spirituality” but reluctant to buy into any one religious creed.
Christianity may be approved as the basis for moral decisions, while eastern religions are plundered for meditation techniques, and reflective CDs mix plainsong uneasily with new age dolphin noises. Ours is a pick and mix world, in which people hedge their bets by taking the most attractive features of a range of world faiths, cafeteria style...What do you fancy? Ancient or modern?Christian worship without social action? No problem...You choose...
It's only a slight caricature, I'm afraid.
On the whole, people choose a faith that meets their needs but demands little. That's why so many churches are all but empty. We've lost the plot....forgotten that if we practice our religion without knowing God, we're wasting our time.
So too, the people of Athens were 'hedging their bets'. It wasn't enough that there were shrines and temples to dozens of different gods and goddesses, here was an altar dedicated to the 'unknown god', just in case they’d missed one! Rather than lamenting this, Paul recognised an opportunity and launched straight in with the Gospel,doing everything in his power to introduce the Known to the unknowing.
These are the people who are, as verse 27 says, groping for God…“seekers”…which, of course, is where that E word comes in.
Unlike Sheila Paul has no inhibitions.
Evangelism is his vocation. He wastes no chance to share the good news he has experienced, even recruiting an Athenian poet to his cause, for he has a message he is burning to share.
But what about us?
Does God want us to court ridicule by broacasting through a megaphone in Sainsbury's car park? Or to twist every conversation with our friends to enable us to sqeeze God in somewhere....
Relax. I really don’t think that IS what we are called to.
But we do have something amazing to share…
Our world is full of lives and altars, dedicated to the “unknown God”.
But here's the irony...all of those altars scattered around Athens were dedicated to unknown gods. Not a single one of the gods of stone was known personally by the citizens. There were no personal relationships with Zeus or Apollo. They were merely statues of legends. Paul presents something completely new--a deity who is both infinite and personal, the God of people, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God desires to be in relationship with His creation, so much that He took on human form. This is a God that is knowable.
I sometimes wonder how many who define themselves as Christians really know God.
Have we simply constructed altars for worship, instead of actually getting to know God?
We know a church building, but that's not God.
We know an inspiring theologian, but that's not God either.
We know a liturgy, a discipleship course, a supportive faith community, but that's no substitute for knowing God. We even know our Bibles, but that should not be mistaken for knowing the infinite, personal God who is revealed in its pages.
It's one thing to 'know about Him', another thing entirely, to "know Him” and we know God when we meet him in Jesus. After all, ours is a God who so wants to be known that he joins us in our humanity. Jesus, in last week's Gospel, pointed out that if you had seen him, you had seen the Father, for "I and the Father are one". The Gospel speaks of a self-revealing God who calls us into relationship with himself. Once we have met him, well then our task is to invite others to get to know God and worship Him.
So we're all involved, reluctant or passionate evangelists...
We all have our own stories to tell of how we met God, how he makes a difference to our lives, why we come here Sunday by Sunday.
That’s not the stuff of sandwich boards, or wayside pulpits…but it is the sort of thing that might come up in an ordinary conversation. The Epistle calls on each of us to have ready our own story, to be able to “give an account of the hope that is in you”.
The more distinctive and attractive our lives, the more we are likely to be asked what makes us tick…We don’t so much have to preach Good News as live it, and then respond to the interest in will generate.
What hope is it that builds inclusive communities when the rest of society is divided and segregated?
What hope is it that allows you to be people who travel light in a world dominated by consumerism?
What hope is it that allows you to transform your homes and workplaces with grace?
What hope is it that keeps you uncomplainingly joyful and positive, even when life deals you a worse hand than you deserve?
This hope is surely something to shout about, something that is Good News to those nearby and those far off.
So share it!
Give an account.
And, when you’re asked the question, answer by telling the story of who Jesus is, what he has done and what he will do. Tell it clearly, courteously and respectfully, and your neighbours and friends will find themselves wanting to share your hope.
You may well have done this already…
So, there you are…you’ve fallen victim to the E word. Thank God for it.