21 May 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
Heavenly Father, as we come before you this morning in worship, word and sacrament, we pray that each of us will encounter you in the way that we need to draw us closer to your loving heart today. Amen.
What is it that you truly worship?
I don’t mean ‘what is the nature of God that we come here to worship on a Sunday morning’ I mean looking at our lives, objectively, perhaps from the perspective of a person on the Clapham omnibus, what is it that we really worship?
To worship something, of course, to make something worthy of our attention, to venerate it, to be devoted it, to give something esteem and value. If someone were to look at the way in which we live our lives, day by day, moment by moment, what is it they would say that we really worship?
Perhaps it is the God that we talk about here as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If it is then you may be promoted to Glory with no further ado. But perhaps our real worship is directed elsewhere; towards our electronic devices, our favourite television programs, a celebrity of screen or stage, perhaps it is a hobby, our family, or perhaps it is the pursuit of career or money, sex or power. Our lives and our world are filled with a seemingly infinite number of objects of potential worship, but it is up to us to decide which we enthrone and to which we bow down.
If we are honest with ourselves then we can all end up worshipping that which is not God. And if that is true of those who have made the effort to be here on a Sunday morning then how much more true must that be of those not in church?
Now it would be tempting at this point to blame ‘modern society’ for all these distractions of our worship from God. To hark back to a world free of Apple products, television advertising, celebrity culture and so on and so forth. To a golden age of the Church before both multi-culturism and secularism. But that, of course, would be intellectually lazy and wrong, it would be seeking to let ourselves off the hook by blaming our milleu rather than ourselves.
Why would it be wrong to blame modern society for all its distractions from true worship? Because my reading of both history and the bible tells me that people don’t actually change very much.
Do you remember what the Israelites did the moment Moses went up the mountain? They melted down their jewellery and started worshiping a golden calf.
And something like 1500 years after the Israelites made themselves a golden calf we read in the book of Acts how St Paul entered the city of Athens and found it teeming with all sorts of idol worship and idle discourse.
At first, it seems that Athens distressed Paul. In verse 16 of chapter 17 (which comes a few verses before todays reading starts) it says that “Paul was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Not only was Athens full of Philosophical discourse, which we will see again in a moment, but the full pantheon of the Greek and probably the Roman gods were also worshiped there; in fact there were probably hundreds of other temples and gods being worshiped. But, although Paul’s monotheistic sensibilities were offended by this spectacle that he did not just hide himself in the local synagogue to preach but he went out “into the market place” to speak to whoever was there about his faith.
The more philosophically minded Athenians began to argue with him in the market place and they then invited Paul to come and speak at the Areopagus, not least because we are told that ‘all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.’ I said a moment ago that people don’t seem to change very much – the people of 1st century Athens would have loved Twitter and Facebook – they liked nothing better than to have new ideas and the latest thing flying at them from all directions, and this Jewish traveler seemed to have some interesting new ideas which may divert them for a few moments.
So Paul stood up to address the gathered meeting of Philosophers. What does he do? Although he was distressed by the sight of so much idol worship going on does he simply denounce the Athenians as being heathens and pagans with no more right to be on God’s clean earth than a weevil?
No he doesn’t – Paul starts out by commending them for being so religious:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
Paul is capable of seeing that within the proliferation of idols and temples the fact that at least these people are thinking seriously about godly things, and he uses that as a starting point:
“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God.” What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Although Paul was distressed by what he saw in Athens he still took the time to look closely at what was going on and to use the language and culture of that society as a starting point from which to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We should not seek to ignore, throw out or simply condemn everything in modern society and culture that distresses us – rather we should look closely at what is going on and start there.
But Paul also recognized that an essential part of what it means to be human is to be a worshipping being. We all, perhaps apart from Donald Trump, seek to find value and purpose outside of ourselves, and we all seek to plug that God-shaped hole with something: if only I get that payrise, that new car, if only I can get that new album, that holiday, that spa treatment or perhaps that next drink – then I will be fulfilled and happy and have found my true purpose.
I don’t think that our world is that different from the Athens that Paul experienced and, if we are truly honest with ourselves, if we look deep within our own hearts, are we truly as different from that world as we like to think we are?
Nonetheless, God made us to be worshipping beings and rather than condemning ourselves, the surrounding culture or even the Athenians for worshipping the wrong thing, God longs for us to turn our worship to him because it is only when we do so that the ‘God-shaped hole’ can be properly filled and we can truly find completion and wholeness.
But, here is the rub and the paradox. Although God made us to be worshipping beings and although he longs for us to turn towards him he does not take away our free will, he does not force himself upon us and the reality is that it is so much easier to worship that which we can see and touch or aspire to attain than it is to worship a God we cannot see.
That sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it?
The good news is that it is not hopeless at all. God knows us better than we know ourselves and even though Jesus left us to return to the Father, as we shall be remembering on Thursday at Ascension Day, he did not leave us hopeless or helpless, like orphans abandoned in the world.
On the contrary in today’s Gospel Jesus promised to send another comforter, another advocate, who will be with us forever – the spirit of Truth. Don’t forget that last week, in the readings just before these, Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life” and now he says that the spirit of truth will come upon those who love Jesus and keep his commands.
This is, of course, the Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the waters at the beginning of all things, who brought Jesus into being through Mary, who hovered over the waters at the baptism of Jesus and who brought the church fully into being at the first Pentecost.
Jesus says very clearly that the world cannot accept that spirit because it neither sees him nor knows him, and is therefore very easy to avoid if you are so minded, but he also says that this Spirit lives with and lives within those who follow Jesus.
In v. 23, which was not read this morning, Jesus said: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And in v. 26 “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
The Holy Spirit inhabits the church collectively and dwells within each of us individually and where the Holy Spirit is, there God is. Although God the Son ascended, God the Spirit descended and lives within me and lives within you. God is not far off in distance or in time but God is closer to you now than you are to yourself. The fullness of God lives within you, God has made his home in you.
But, even so, God does not make us into automata or take away our ability to get it wrong, and boy are we capable of getting it wrong. But he does give us a help, a comforter, an advocate, a guide, the spirit of truth. Within the jumbled market place of our lives and amongst all the things we worship that are not God we are not abandoned orphans.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, press the pause button on all that distracts you from God for the moment. Seek to listen to that still small voice of calm, ask God the Holy Spirit to lead you and trust that the spirit of truth can point in one direction only, towards God the Son who sits at the right hand of God the Father.