"It's about what God can do for us."
Readings: Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21
The Areopagus, the place from which St Paul was preaching, was a rocky outcrop on the outskirts of ancient Athens, which overlooked a large collection of temples, cultural facilities, and a high court. The Athenians were sophisticated and cosmopolitan and temples and altars were dedicated to pretty much very known deity – and the altar for ‘the unknown God’ was presumably a sort of insurance policy against offending some unheard of divinity who might otherwise be offended.
I can’t help feeling that the Athenians society was a bit like ours, in that we now accept and respect such a diversity of religious perspectives and ideologies that it can be really hard for someone wanting to explore their own spirituality to know where to start. It’s tempting to combine a bit of Buddhism, a bit of Christianity and add a pinch of paganism into an individual mix.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’ve spent a lot of time working in interfaith contexts and I have huge respect for other world religions; indeed, we’ve lots to learn from each other, but we don’t show respect to those of other faiths by fudging over the very fundamental differences between us. That is not inter-faith dialogue, but a watering down of what they and we essentially believe. How God sorts it all out in the end, is God’s problem, not mine. I need to humbly recognise my boundaries and the limits of my understanding of God’s purposes in the grand scheme of everything.
St Paul begins his speech by recognising and applauding the religious instincts of the Athenians, who attempt to reach out in wonder and awe to that which can be sensed but not fully comprehended. The problem is, he goes on to explain, they have rather got hold of the wrong end of the stick. By setting up so many altars to different divinities and worshiping in so many diverse ways, they are making the mistake of thinking it was all about them; that by employing the very best of their “art and imagination” they could conjure up God's presence and ‘buy’ God’s grace with elaborate worship. That’s very obviously idolatry and idolatry is very easy to spot in other religions – or even other denominations. But Scripture reminds us, it’s so much easier to spot the speck in someone else’s eye than the log in our own. What do you, what do I, revere in our worship, perhaps to the point of idolatry? It’s said that in moments of crisis, our deepest allegiances are revealed. What has the current crisis told you about yours and me about mine?
One of the things that has been revealed, as Rev’d Paul pointed out in his recent newsletter, is that the pandemic has encouraged people to think more seriously and actively about what they believe. A greater percentage of the population (I’ve seen figures around 25%) are now accessing religious services online. That’s a lot more than previously attended church. Perhaps there’s a link here with the Athenians of St Paul’s time. People now, as then, really do have a spiritual sense, but there’s so much out there, it’s easy to get drawn into a pick and mix, click and collect sort of mentality, it can be really hard to encounter the one true God, as opposed to an idol shaped in the image of our own ‘art and imagination.’
This is the crux of St Paul’s message. It’s not about how we can imagine God or what we can do for God. It’s about what God can do for us; what God has already done for us, firstly through creation and secondly through coming to dwell amongst us in the person of Jesus.
The reading from John’s gospel covers some of the same ground. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells the disciples will be with you (us) forever, but ‘This is the Spirit of truth, the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.’
So, what can we do, as Christians or as wonderers, or maybe as both? How can we let go of our unconscious idolatries and seek that Spirit of Truth?
Adopting a different perspective is a brilliant thing and maybe this current crisis has given us all the chance to notice and reassess our old allegiances and priorities. We’ve all been forced into some new patterns of behaviour, including how we do church, how we worship God and although that’s been painful for most of us, there have been new insights and new things to treasure. God has not changed, but maybe we have – at least a bit.
Last week I was due to lead a walking retreat in Whitby, following in the footsteps of St Hild. It was so disappointing not to go to Whitby, but instead I suggested some individualised walks, based on the planned themes of ‘inspiring people’, ‘ruined buildings’ and ‘closeness to God.’ It felt very second (third) rate to send my students off walking on their own, to accessible but meaningful places, but it turned out to be surprisingly amazing. In our Zoom reflection groups, as we shared pictures and experiences and we began to tease out together that making time to walk purposefully and spiritually, didn’t result so much in us finding God, but God finding us.
I’ve been discussing with Paul this week, the idea of individual or paired walks as a possible alternative (or pre-cursor) to our planned Parish Pilgrimage, which was always envisioned to include those on our fringes, those wanting to tentatively explore faith. Tell us what you think.
I’ll end by sharing a reflection offered by one of last week’s pilgrims. She began, at the first Zoom meeting with the words ‘My walk was a complete failure. Nothing happened at all.’ She ended, at our final Eucharist by saying, ‘You know, maybe there are burning bushes everywhere, but it’s only when we have eyes to see and ears to hear that we take off our shoes and recognise that we are standing on Holy Ground.”