Sermon for Mattins on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 21st May 2017

Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21 

I really like the story of St Paul standing up on the Areopagus hill in Athens and addressing the ‘men of Athens’, the philosophers, the Epicureans and Stoics, who had been rather scornful about him – ‘… some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection…’ (Acts 17:18)

It reminds me of my undergraduate days studying philosophy, at the end of the reign of the great logical positivists like A.J. Ayer, whose book ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ still has an honoured place in my bookcase. I’m sad to say that in those days most of the great Oxford philosophers were atheists. The idea was that words only meant something, had significance, if you could contradict them. You can know what it is to be a table because you can know what it is not to be a table.

And the trouble is that statements about spiritual matters or even moral values are not so straightforward to contradict: so Wittgenstein, the father of logical positivism, famously said, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. He had nothing to say about values, good and evil, or about God – although interestingly, Wittgenstein was a churchgoer all his life.

I like to think that Wittgenstein must have been impressed with this story of St Paul talking to the Athenians. They were sceptics – not unthinking sceptics, quite the reverse, as they were steeped in knowledge of Plato and Aristotle as well as the more modern Stoics. That name came from where they gathered with their students, the στοά, or colonnade – Stoics such as Zeno or Chrysippus, who had a theory of physics, life being caused by πνεύμα, or breath – and who had a theory of nature and reason, seen as objective qualities, so that for us to think rationally is to think in ways which converge with other rational thinkers and reach the truth. 

Or there were Epicureans, who also had theories of physics involving atoms, logically reasoned from ideas of being and not-being, and from arguments about divisibility – there must be something rather than nothing, and things must be able to be divided until you reach an indivisible part – ‘uncuttable’, indivisible, which is what ‘Atom’ means. In moral philosophy the Epicureans followed a pleasure principle: ‘We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily’ (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 128). Epicurean philosophy was anathema to the early Christians, as it taught that man is mortal, the creation of the cosmos was just an accident, that there is no providential god, and the criterion of worth is pleasure. 

But the point was that these were not just shallow superstitions, and the Athenians were not just pub bores. The Areopagus was hundreds of years old, and had evolved from being a chamber of government, a democratic assembly, to being a law court. To address the members of the Areopagus was to tackle a very sophisticated audience.

But these learned people knew the limitations of their philosophy. There might well be things which their reason could not reveal. So they set up an altar to the ‘Unknown God’. And St Paul appropriated that mysterious deity. He made it his own. This Unknown God is the Creator, who created the ‘world and all things therein’, who made us all alike as humans – ‘hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on all the face of the earth’. But He is an unusual God, not living in a temple or demanding sacrificial worship – because he has it all. He ‘giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.’

The Unknown God was very different from all the other gods which the Greeks worshipped. He didn’t live above the clouds or on Mount Olympus, or in a temple. He wasn’t far from them, ‘For in him’, said St Paul, ‘we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Indeed, ‘as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’ St Paul was quoting a Stoic poet, Aratus (Aratus, Phaenomena, 5). Paul was clearly Greek-educated as well as being Jewish. He was well able to debate with the Greeks in their own terms.

When I thought about this story from the Acts of the Apostles, in the light of that rather sceptical Oxford Philosophy of my student time in the late sixties, it rang true against what was happening in the Church of England at the time. This was the era of Honest to God, Bishop John Robinson’s book which dared to say that God wasn’t situated anywhere in particular – he wasn’t a genial old man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds – and indeed, later on, also of Don Cupitt’s 1984 TV series, which you can still see on YouTube [https://youtu.be/J396Lamxu9I], called ‘The Sea of Faith’, which argued from a review of the philosophical and theological developments of Galileo, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, as well as more recent figures such as, indeed, Wittgenstein, that the only possible way to understand God was in a ‘non-realist’ way. 
This is the God whom St Paul describes, ‘That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.’

That’s not the same as saying that ‘God does not exist’. It is rather that God isn’t a thing, isn’t ‘out there’ in some way. A word which comes up in this context is ‘transcendence’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘God is the “beyond” in the midst’, (quoted in Robinson, John, 1963 (2013 edition), Honest to God, London, SCM Press, p.32, n28). John Robinson approves of Paul Tillich’s idea of God as ‘The Ground of our Being’: indeed, the ground of our being, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’, as St Paul put it, in almost identical words, 2,000 years earlier.

John Robinson says, ‘The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of ‘what you take seriously without any reservation’, of what for you is ultimate reality ‘ (p.33).

This ties in also with what Jesus himself tells the disciples in our second, Gospel, reading. Jesus prays that the Father will send in his place another ‘Comforter, … Even the spirit of truth’. The Martin Luther, German, translation of the word for ‘comforter’, Der Tröster – it sounds like ‘ the truster’, adds more here. Earlier in the same chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel came the famous passage, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’, many rooms, many dwelling-places; and the key was, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: yet believe in God, believe also in me.’ 

‘Believe’, or ‘trust’, depending which translation you are looking at. The Greek word (πιστεύω) means ‘have confidence in’, ‘have trust in’ something or in someone. The ‘truster’, Der Tröster, the Comforter. The word can also mean an advocate, a barrister in court, even. ‘Grant this, O Father,’ we pray, ‘for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate’. Advocate. Comforter.

I heard a sermon recently where the idea was that, if you did something less than Christian or otherwise behaved badly, it was because you did not ‘trust’ enough in Jesus. I thought at the time that I didn’t really know how that was supposed to work. I can be sure that I’m driving the best car: but that belief, by itself, won’t make me a better or a worse driver.

I think it is more like what St Paul says, for example in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5:16. ‘I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature.’ If the Holy Spirit is in you, then ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ will come out in you. But it isn’t deterministic: you are not a robot. Again St Paul can appreciate the problem. In his letter to the Romans, chapter 7. He knows what is right, what God has commanded: but he doesn’t do it. It’s not a question of how strong our belief in God is, but our baser instincts – ‘In my unspiritual nature, [I am] a slave to the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25).

Back to Athens, to the Areopagus, Mars’ hill. What I think we can draw from this is that as Christians, just as St Paul was up against the Greek philosophers, so we, when we meet people who say they’re atheists – and imply that religion, the Christian gospel, is just not believable any more – we can see how those essentials which Paul identified – that for us God isn’t an idol, a mere thing, however pretty or impressive – are still true. God isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere. He wasn’t there, Yuri Gagarin said, when his space capsule broke through the stratosphere into space.

Instead we have to get in touch with the Ground of our Being. The man at our side. Footsteps in the sand. The Comforter. And then perhaps we can be that Comforter for someone else, the man who fell among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – or maybe on the Portsmouth Road, even.

It’s great that we can show our love of God and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in this beautiful church, and in the harmony of our wonderful musicians. We thank God for blessing us in it. But we need to turn outwards as well, in the power of the Spirit. We are therefore developing a vision, to follow Jesus’ commandments to love and serve. 

We are looking to start actively to look out for and befriend elderly people who are our neighbours. Are they actually hungry, but too proud to admit it? Are they lonely? Afternoon TV isn’t as good as a nice cup of tea with a friend. 
We’re going to do more with our families and young people. Sunday School may sound a bit formal these days, but Messy Church or sports teatime might be more like it. 

We need to reach out more to involve our church in the local community. You’d be pleased to know how many people from St Mary’s are involved in volunteering for our Foodbank, and who drive people to hospital appointments through Cobham Care. 

But there’s more we can do. There are still only a couple of refugee families from Syria in the whole of Elmbridge. But there are literally millions in refugee camps. There are actually still quite a lot of refugees in the Calais area. 

In the next few weeks, in St Mary’s Hall when you’re having coffee, you’ll see some display boards showing the various ideas which came up in the vision day which we held a couple of Saturdays ago, and there will be sign-up sheets for you to add ideas and to volunteer to ‘do stuff’. I do hope you’ll go for it.

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