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'Paul was in a tight spot' - Diocesan Secretary preaches in Cathedral

Date: 26 May 2014
Preached in Guildford Cathedral, Sunday 25 May 2014, by Stephen Marriott, Diocesan Secretary

John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31

Prayer:
May the words I speak be those You want spoken,
May the words we hear be those You want heard,
May we live to Your glory. Amen

In the second letter to the Corinthians St Paul writes: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger and he goes on in this vein, laying it on thick, for another 4 verses. So, in the situation we heard about in our first reading from Acts, what was St Paul thinking at the Areopagus – the moral and religious high court of Athens? It was illegal to preach of a foreign deity in Athens – “hey ho” here comes another beating …. if I am lucky?

At this moment I feel a slight resonance with Paul, standing here, a lay person who is only an Occasional Preacher, and looking down a long line of stone columns. Still, in this country it is rare to beat or imprison preachers!

Paul, however, was in a tight spot; we cannot but admire his silver tongue. He cunningly avoided the trap of preaching about a foreign deity by referring to an altar to one that already existed – the unknown god.

But Paul is not seeking to slide away from risk. He cleverly engages his audience in a way that they understand. If we were to continue reading from Acts we would learn that When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ …. And …. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.

Either Luke, the writer of Acts, transcribed Paul’s speech so that it is clear and intelligible, or Paul adapted his style to fit the occasion. There is a great contrast between this speech and Paul’s other writing - for example, in particular, the letter to the Romans, which was no doubt designed to be studied, and requires at least one cold towel to get even to first base!

Today, and down the centuries, we are taught to preach the Gospel afresh to each generation. Like St Paul in Athens we need to connect to our audience, to our time, to our culture, to our society.

Preaching the Gospel afresh to each generation – there is the old and the new in this phrase – the eternal Gospel and the new generation. The eternal Gospel, so neatly set out by Paul to the Athenians where he weaves in phrases from Daniel, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Job and so on – the new generation in our time, those who say they are “good” when I might say “I am well”, or “Can I get?”
when some of my generation might say “Please may I have?”
St Paul calls the Athenians to turn away from “images made by man’s design and skill”. We might not now make many golden calves, but we in the church can still treasure our fine buildings and glorious music, seeing them to be an “end” and not a “means” to eternal life.

This Cathedral is fast approaching some crossroads. There is the asbestos to deal with, and the possibility of new housing, and a significant endowment. How will this be faced – with a grudging acceptance of necessity or with an excitement for the future, whatever it may bring? How will you grasp the opportunity?

There is the old joke which asks, “How many Anglicans does it take to change the light bulb?” – “Change, what’s that?”

It is not the job of this preacher to give suggestions as to what to do and how to interpret “afresh” but to set out the challenge that change is likely to be necessary if we are to embrace the eternal Gospel whoever we are.

And today our Gospel reading starts with:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth.
This reminds us of the season of the year and what we can look forward to. We are coming to the end of the Easter season where the risen Christ was physically with His disciples. The reading notes Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. This week we commemorate Ascension then we enter a short, almost dark period, where we take on the realisation that we have responsibility passed to us before the “Spirit of Truth” arrives.

The reading gives us two other pointers: in the name – “Spirit of Truth” – from whom there is no hiding; and in the command to love – such an excellent thing for us Christians to remember as we face change – whether it be in doctrine around human sexuality or how to respond to physical changes to our building.

From the Gospel Reading: Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them

In a nutshell, Jesus is requiring that our attention is focused on Him – not ourselves, and not even our church. What we keep the same, what we change, what we do is to be focussed on keeping Jesus’ commands.

Matthew’s Gospel finishes with the command “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” - a command clearly taken up by St Paul in Athens. But the writer of St John’s Gospel was probably referring to the command to “love one another”.

Somewhere between 2 and 3 % of the population come to CofE churches – add in other denominations and religions and about 90% are not actively worshipping. We may not be surrounded by pagan temples, but the demand for Christian witness is just as high now as it was in Athens for St Paul.

Standing up in the town square and preaching is not fresh for today’s society, but a welcome or engagement, which are part of the vision of this Cathedral, or the love shown by Street Angels or food banks or the everyday going an extra step beyond our comfort zone, these are expressions of Christ’s command to love and are recognised and valued as authentic Christian love. They are preaching the Gospel afresh.

In two weeks’ time the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit – this Cathedral’s patronal festival. How will this institution and you as individuals grasp the gifts of God given to us through the power of the Spirit? Will you, will we, be like St Paul and take the risk of love for the sake of the Gospel?

Amen

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