Sermon at Holy Communion at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, The Conversion of St Paul – 25th January 2015
Acts 9:1-22 – ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

For a couple of weeks now, I have been going to a house group, which is not one of ours, run by St Mary’s or St Andrew’s, but it’s a sort of spontaneous house group, run by some nice people who live locally, who go to the International Community Church (the American church, that was). I was invited to go along by a friend of mine who sometimes worships here but who usually goes to St Andrew’s, Oxshott.

It’s a shame, in a way, that in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the ICC church is no longer a member of Churches Together in Cobham, Stoke, Oxshott and Surrounding Areas. They used to be, when they used to meet locally, but now they hold their meetings in Chertsey, so they are not local to us any more.

The house group is watching a series of videos made by an American evangelist called Rob Bell, who looks about 15 but who is apparently a bit older than that, and runs a mega-church somewhere in the USA. If you want to look up his videos, they are on YouTube under the title ‘NOOMA’, N-O-O-M-A, which he explains as a phonetic transliteration of the Greek word πνεύμα, from which we get ‘pneumatic’, for example. It’s a word for a wind or a spirit: so το πνεύμα άγιον is the Holy Spirit.

On the NOOMA YouTube channel there are a number of videos, which are really illustrated sermons by Mr Bell. The one that we watched this week [http://nooma.com/films/001-rain] involved Mr Bell going for a walk in the woods with his one-year-old son – whose name I didn’t catch, but it sounded like one of those American ‘surname’ names like ‘Spencer’ or ‘Washington’ or whatever – although his friends probably call him Spike, or Bonzo, of course.

Mr Bell hoisted the baby on to his back in some kind of back-pack affair and strode off into the woods, in true frontiersman fashion. It looked like a scene out of a holiday promotion video: beautiful warm sunlight coming through the trees, birds singing, and so on.

They were walking round a lake. Half way round, the weather changed, and it started to rain. The rain quickly turned into a full-blooded thunderstorm. Mr Bell and his offspring were both wearing tops which had hoods. Mr Bell reached behind him and pulled the baby’s hood up over his head, to keep the rain off, and did the same for himself. The baby, of course, as babies do, immediately threw off his hood. However, Mr Bell was oblivious to this, because he had the baby hitched to his back, so he couldn’t see him.

He strode on, at a military pace. He told us that he was about a mile from home. Obviously this was not the sort of afternoon stroll that you or I might get up to after lunch today, but something altogether more athletic. Anyway, there’s Bell, striding along under his hoodie top, and suddenly, Rufus Alexander Williamson III starts to protest – because he is now wet, not having his hood up.

He shouts and screams and generally makes all the usual baby protesting noises. Mr Bell, finally, rumbles the fact that all is not well with the baby. So he unhitches the backpack and he tucks the baby under his own coat in front, snuggling him up and getting him nice and warm again, out of the rain.

All the while, Mr Bell is gently repeating to the baby, ‘I love you, Rufus Alexander Washington III: and we are going to make it.’ Fortunately, they do make it; they get back home – and we have to imagine the scene in the log cabin, with the blazing fire, jacuzzi and fluffy towels which no doubt the returning father and son then enjoyed.

Cut instead to Mr Bell, who tells us that the story was an analogy, a metaphor, for how God is. God is with us in our darkest moments, when it is raining on us and our hood is not up. God will be there, and He will say that He, our Heavenly Father, loves us, and that we will make it together.

I thought it was a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure. It was a pity that it wasn’t a Churches Together house group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because I would then have got a lot of points for being outside my comfort zone, but still, with Christian friends!

The leader of the group had a sheet of questions. One was, were we conscious of God being alongside us, perhaps in times of trouble? Did we have experiences like Mr Bell and his little boy, caught in the rain?

I was rather challenged. I haven’t had an experience like John Wesley, who was going to a Bible class and who suddenly felt his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, for example. I certainly haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience like St Paul.

I felt rather stuck – because I am not given to that kind of spirituality, unfortunately. I am a rather down-to-earth person and I’m not sure that I necessarily would hear a ‘still small voice of calm’ – although what St Paul experienced would surely have got through to me.

I have, however, been reading a new book, from our bookshop – and by the way, please remember, where bookshops are concerned, you must use them or lose them, and not be tempted by the likes of Amazon. Our bookshop can get you any book you like the next day, just as quickly as Amazon. (The usual disclaimers apply.)

Well anyway, I have been reading a new book, which is a series of papers assembled and edited by Archbishop John, John Sentamu, called ‘On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future’. It’s a series of essays designed to inform the debate which is going to lead up to our General Election in May. It’s not meant to be party-political in any way, but is intended to inspire all our politicians to think in terms of what Archbishop John calls ευδαιμονία, the Greek word which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’.

The idea is that it’s not enough for us to flourish in material terms, but rather we have to flourish as men and women made in the image of God. According to Genesis 1:27: … God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We have to flourish, to reach our full human potential, according to Archbishop John. The two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, are to be applied to our economic and political situation. The essays explore how we can become closer to how God intended us to be, and therefore to flourish and reach our full potential, in a fair, just and loving way.

John Sentamu’s book in many ways is influenced by, and perhaps was inspired by, Archbishop William Temple’s 1942 book, ‘Christianity and Social Order’ [Shepheard-Walwyn 1976, 1987, ISBN -10: 0-85683-025-9], which was one of the key documents which led to the creation of the Welfare State and NHS after the Second World War.

Archbishop Temple, R.H. Tawney, the famous economic historian, and William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, were all at Balliol College, Oxford. They were sent off by the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, in the vacations to work in the East End of London among poor and deprived people, which gave them an insight which they would not otherwise have received. People sometimes forget that, when the Welfare State and the NHS were created, the National Debt was far greater than it is today: but the inspiration which drove Archbishop Temple and his fellow students pointed to something far more important than money, or the lack of it.

In a similar vein, Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities where people with disabilities live together with able-bodied people, to great mutual benefit, was interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hkfzr]. He told a story about visiting a city in South America and being told, as they drove down a main road, that on one side of the road the poor people lived, in squalor and depravity; lives full of uncertainty, hunger and disease.

On the other side of the same road were the big houses with gates and armed guards, with police patrols, in which the rich and privileged lived. Nobody from that side of the road ever crossed over to meet the people in the slums. Jean Vanier said that his whole work had been to encourage people to cross the road; to go and see, and make friends with, people who are differently situated: handicapped or poor, just not so fortunate.

It occurred to me that for me, reading Archbishop John and his contributors’ words of hope, setting out a vision according to which more things matter than just money and the market: and Jean Vanier, showing how it is possible to cross the road – they, for me, showed that God is there. For me, no bright light; no voices from heaven. Like St Paul, I haven’t been fortunate enough actually to be around with Jesus and his first disciples. But just as surely, I felt the presence of God. I’m sure we all can, too.

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