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Thornbury Parish


A sermon based on Acts 17.22-31;

1 Peter 3.13-22, and John 14.15-21

I wonder what you thought of Paul’s speech on the Areopagus? How many marks out of 10 would you give it as an approach to evangelism? It’s quite good, actually. Although mostly they weren't convinced. But it’s hard to know if it was a triumph or a disaster!

Good points: he had done his homework well; he had studied the place and the people and worked out what mattered to them, what their cultural values were, what their language was, what they respected and thought. Good - because then he could speak to them in terms they would understand and identify with. He doesn't use a standard speech - this is very different indeed from what he says in other cities, according to Acts.

Also, he waits until they invite him to speak to them. He doesn't impose himself on them. He doesn't shout and try to make them listen. He does it the way Peter’s letter recommends: with gentleness, respectfully. He is ready to make his defence, as Peter says, but he is not aggressive about it. So far so good.

Another good tip: when he starts speaking he compliments his audience. I am impressed, he says, with all these altars - I can see that you are very religious. They agree; they maybe preen a little. They will listen more to a person who is nice to them! And then Paul slips in his first little nudge - yes, he says, so many altars that you even have one for any other gods that you haven't heard about yet - so I suppose - you would worship just about anything! I can imagine puzzled looks now in the crowd - was that a compliment or not - does he mean that’s good or not?

Later on Paul gets them on his side again by saying they all belong to one common human race, Jew and Gentile alike are part of a common humanity - they would have liked that. And he quotes from their own poets. But in a moment he is slating gods made of wood, stone or metals, dreamt up by humans; and calling for repentance and turning to the true God, the source of all being, not confined in temples. Now the Athenians would not have been so keen. They liked to cover all bases, and to have plenty of variety, as many gods as possible, as many philosophies, they loved to hear a new theory, and debate it. Paul comes along and says, well, sure there are lots of theories but there is one Saviour, one person who rose from the dead and who is our way to salvation, to God. Hmm; that didn't go down so well, and argument broke out about the idea of resurrection.

At the end of the account we hear that some laughed; others wanted to hear more, but it seems that only two people were convinced, and joined the disciples. Not a great end result by the standards of Acts events; still, its a seed and we don't know how much that seed grew.

So I wonder how that speech might have gone today? Say a modern day Paul were to preach to a contemporary crowd where people gather now - where shall we say - maybe in the Mall at Cribbs, on a busy shopping day. It is hard to imagine because people wouldn't ask him to do that, but let’s just play with the idea. You know the scene: families, couples, individuals, bustling to and fro or wandering slowly; shopping bags on arms, takeaway coffee cups in the hand, a babble of voices echoing round. Paul would look about first, take it all in, and what conclusions would he come to about this culture, the values of these people, what is important to them? Remember that is where he started in Athens.

Well, choice is clearly vital. So many shoe shops, so many clothes shops, each packed with different types of clothes, so many coffee shops even. Choice seems to be really important. What about values? what really matters? Fashion; being like others - looking like others; having the most expensive kind of thing; having designer labels. Wearing an outfit that proclaims that I am cool, sexy, young, trendy, and all that. What else? Acquiring stuff - that seems to be the overall aim. Lots of stuff. And if Paul could see what stuff is already in our homes, our wardrobes, he might well wonder, just how much of this stuff can a person really need or use?

So how would he then present the gospel to our shoppers, I wonder. Maybe he would say: well, I see you all look really attractive. I see that you care very much about how you present yourselves to others. He might even say, you clearly want to support the retail trade as much as you can, maybe to keep people in work. Or he might say, to have this much money to spend on stuff, you must be working very hard and be very successful in your job. So far, so flattering. And then what? What would the sting be? I suspect he might say, but God wonders what is inside you. God looks right through the outside, bypasses it, and looks inside. What does he see there with you? Is your spirit nourished? Do you model yourself on Jesus, can God see the fruits of the Spirit in you? Your appearance takes a lot of your time to get it just right; how much time are you spending on your inner self? Or is that part of you maybe dwindling inside, almost disappearing? Is there, actually, a bit of a vacuum in there?

When I was teaching in Switzerland, it was at a very expensive private school, with children often from very affluent families. The classes were small, 15 at the most, and I thought at first, wow, this will be a doddle. 15 or less! So easy. But I was wrong. Those youngsters were very hard to teach, and very hard to nurture spiritually, as was my job as school chaplain. For many of them the values they had been brought up with, at least implicitly, were the values of affluence. One author called it ‘affluenza’, and wrote of how disabled she had been in her life through ‘affluenza’. Basically for those youngsters the only value was wealth, and what you could buy with it, and being a consumer was all. It’s an exaggerated version of how most of us are these days. We are consumers - but for all we consume, what is there inside us? If we think the meaning of life lies there, in the shopping mall, the more we consume, paradoxically, the less we have inside us. The deeper our need, in fact.

Paul looked at the Athenians and said, gosh what a lot of gods you worship. But are you really religious? Are you really worshipping God at all? Today he might look at our culture and say - what consumers you are! how much you consume! And yet - where are the needy? Not just in the developing countries - we consumers could be covering up, papering over, such deep need.

What is the remedy for this? Peter said, in your hearts, sanctify Christ as Lord. In your hearts. Deep inside you, make Christ your Lord. That mean he is the most important thing or person in life. Jesus said, if you love me… If your heart is full of me… If I am Lord in your heart - you will keep my commandments - what happens visibly outside of you will be consistent with that love, that central value system. And the Spirit, the Advocate, will abide with you, and will be in you. That empty space within, in that spiritual place which humans have that makes them yearn for something more, always more, something deeper, that makes us search far and wide for meaning and purpose; that space can be filled with his presence. Jesus said, I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. You and I can be full of God, overflowing with the love of God, with the Spirit of Truth. That is something worth shopping for. And it is right here; and it is free.

Rev’d Jan