No longer a dirty word

It used to be something you wouldn’t mention in polite circles. Not really English, a bit intrusive, not the done thing.

Things have changed. Growing up in the 1980s. ‘Evangelism’ meant Billy Graham or Luis Palau stadium filling crusades, door knocking and invitation events. Many thought it was the same thing as ‘Evangelical’ which meant some churches were very keen, others decidedly less so. Nowadays the idea of sharing the good news, through words as well as actions, is embraced by all sections of the church, and there are some excellent Catholic examples.

The old assumption that ‘We are all Christian anyway, so what’s the point?’ clearly no longer applies, if in truth it ever did. This is not just due to a national growth of adherents to other world faiths – nowadays there’s a greater understanding that people make definite decisions to live their lives in different ways and that being a member of a Christian society is not the same thing as being a Christian.

Also, I think we may have got better at it. At the recent churchwarden’s visitation Bishop Lee showed a comedy video of two young men sending up old style doorknocking. It brought back embarrassing memories of hit and run style Bible bashing. While tracts, guest speakers and even door to door still have their place, there is now a much greater emphasis on sharing our faith naturally through friendship, on invitation to good quality events, and offering excellent courses like Alpha and Pilgrim.

Evangelism is no longer a dirty word. Christians have realised that it’s greater than a matter of more people on Sunday so the church can pay the bills. Instead sharing our faith is an outflow of our love for God and for the people we meet. Like me, you may feel that you need some help and encouragement in how to do this well. So our churches will be running a sermon series throughout June, exploding some of the myths, exploring what evangelism really means, and learning how to do it naturally and with confidence. Follow us at: https://revchristopherbryan.wordpress.com/ and http://deaconosity.wordpress.com

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Areopagus

I have a lot of sympathy for St Paul in our Acts reading, as he speaks to the university senate in Athens. It brings back some scary memories! When I was a third year curate I was invited to preach at my old college in Oxford. ‘Briefly’ said the chaplain. Not just that, it would be patronal festival, one of the highlights of the year when chapel would be full of dons and even the famously atheist Master would be present. To make it worse, the college’s patron saint was St Jude so I would be preaching from his notoriously obscure Biblical letter.

And the chaplain said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t go on too long – if you do I’ll have to miss out a verse of the final hymn’. I have few memories of that day. Of denting the car on a low wall as I arrived at college. Of praying with the chaplain before the service – his last words to me were ‘Please, don’t speak for too long.’ Of glancing down while preaching and seeing that my hands were shaking, and hiding them behind the lectern. Finally I came to the end and sat down. There was a long pause. The chaplain was fumbling for his papers, looking for what came next. ‘We shall sing hymn 374, all the verses.’ I had been too brief.

When Paul arrives in Athens, he has come to the intellectual centre of Roman and Greek culture. If Rome was like London, the grand capital, then Athens was like Oxbridge. It was a place of lively intellectual debate and also great religious variety – the verses before our reading describe St Paul being distressed by the number of idols. So he preaches at the Jewish synagogue and debates in the market place with philosophers. Word gets around that a new idea is in town, so Paul is invited to speak at the Areopagus, like a university governing body.

What an intimidating but wonderful opportunity! They want to hear him. Paul engages with it wholeheartedly. Today I am sometimes still surprised by how interested people actually are in Jesus. Of course, there are those who hold the old English view that religion is personal and shouldn’t be discussed. And there’s certainly a fair amount of apathy. Yet many people are genuinely interested in talking about faith.

They won’t necessarily agree, but they’re interested, even open-minded. They may not have learnt much at school. Quite a few of them have never before met an active believing Christian who’s prepared to talk about and defend their faith. And if you can surprise them with grace, love and humour, there’s a remarkable amount of interest.

We may not have St Paul’s abilities, but we do have, as it says in the reading from John’s gospel, the presence of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. God has promised he will give us wisdom, so we can step out in confidence. He calls us to share our faith, so he will equip us.

It is wise to be prepared. As our reading from 1 Peter 3:15 says: ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that you have in you’. In other words have you ever thought about what you’d say if someone asked you ‘Why are you a Christian’? If not, do so! It can be a logical, reasoned explanation but many people find a story or testimony more helpful. It doesn’t need to be a big deal but spending a few minutes thinking about it without pressure will help when the question comes out of the blue. The style is important too: Peter writes ‘do it with gentleness and reverence.’

I think we can see this gentleness as St Paul speaks. Of course, the record we have in the book of Acts is not Paul’s complete speech – it takes barely 90 seconds to deliver and would have been incomprehensible without more explanation. What we have here is Luke’s précis, an account of the main themes.

Paul starts respectfully: ‘Athenians, I can see how religious you are’. As we look at other religious beliefs, we can often affirm the integrity and genuineness of those who follow them. For instance good Muslims pray 5 times a day, and I find that discipline a challenging example, even though I don’t agree with Islam’s conception of God. It’s important that Christians share our faith humbly and respectfully – a huge contrast to the slanging matches you often see on internet sites.

When talking with others it often helps to find a point of connection. Something you can relate to in the other person’s practices. A belief you can affirm and build on. And to do this we may have to listen before speaking, observe, really understand what others are saying. Do some background reading. Ask questions. Like St Paul who mentions an altar he has seen dedicated ‘to an unknown God’. Maybe the Athenians wanted to cover all bases and make sure they didn’t offend any deities by missing them out? Maybe they had a sense that there was more to the divine than they had really understood? Paul builds on it ‘What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’. 

And there are other points of connection – Paul can find bits of truth in their religion, even if other parts are mistaken. He quotes from poets ‘In him we move and have our being’; ‘we are all God’s offspring’.

He builds a case. In v.24 there is one supreme God, who is the creator of everything. If he made the world, how can he live in human shrines? If he gives life to all creatures, how can he need sacrifices from us? God created humans in all their diversity so they might look for him and try to find him. Paul says all other religions are seeking God, knowingly or not they are searching for the one God, but their worship of him is human made. Limited, even misguided.

In v.29: ‘Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the imagination and art of mortals’. In other words: How can an idol do justice to God?

So far Paul has not said anything very radical. A good Greek philosopher may well have agreed with him on these points. For the  members of the Areopagus probably did not believe their idols were gods. They might have thought of the idols as harmless traditional religion, aids to worship, representing something greater.  They did not appreciate that the idols were unworthy, misleading and that people often confused them with divinity.

I also think Paul is going deeper than a critique of physical images – for he says ‘the deity is not an image formed by the imagination and art of mortals’. That might include an image of the mind. The true God is not a human creation but the Creator; the worship of the true God is not a human construct but something God has revealed. That’s a trap any of us can fall into when we get fixed on a particular way of imagining God –we inadvertently limit him to our picture. From time to time it is good to say ‘Lord, I know that you are bigger than I can ever imagine. I lay to one side those images in my mind- be present to me as you are’

In verse 30 ‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent’. This is where Paul deals with the unique difference that Christianity brings – but frustratingly it’s also where St Luke’s précis in Acts is most concise. In one verse he deals with Jesus, judgement and the resurrection of the dead. Surely Paul must have said so much more here!

As our readings last week described, Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ In speaking with others about faith we will find much to admire in their actions, some beliefs that we can affirm, but there will also be points of difference. Often those differences will be over the most important things, like God becoming man, the cross, and forgiveness. To truly describe Christianity we must be faithful on the differences too.

What were the results? In v 32, some scoffed, some wanted to talk again, others believed. In time Greece became a Christian country. Its Classical beauty and art were a wonderful legacy. Some Athenian thoughts were taken up by Christians and Greek philosophy used discerningly to illuminate Christian faith. Paul’s willingness to engage in conversation with love, humility and truth led eventually to Greece becoming the mother of a great Eastern church.

We too are called to share our faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is a great task, and to explore it our churches will be following a sermon series every Sunday in June – each will be posted on our blog. May we all grow in our faith and our ability to speak of what Christ has done and means to us.

I am the gate

What do you call a sheep without any legs? A cloud.

Because they’re white and fluffy aren’t they? And they live without a care in the world in lush green fields surrounded by hedges. At least the large flock I pass on the way to the Chippenham roundabout does.

But that’s completely different from the setup Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading. If you want to imagine what sheep farming was like in first century Palestine, then think of the wildest hill farm you’ve ever seen – and then make it worse.

Sheep back then weren’t cute, white and cloud like. They were tough old beasts. They had to be because they lived in the semi-desert hill country. Food was scarce, water more so, which meant the flock travelled constantly with the shepherd looking for fresh grazing. Wild animals and bandits lived in the open land, so the shepherd had to be ready to defend his flock against wolves and thieves. 

A good shepherd was diligent, wise in providing for his flock, firm in guiding them, strong and courageous, but with a gentle touch as he bound up the wounded and carried the weak. He was self-sacrificial in bearing hardship, walking miles, and enduring sleepless nights at lambing time. In the Old Testament the shepherd is held up as an ideal for how Israel’s kings should be, and as a picture of God’s love.

But with a lifestyle like that it’s perhaps understandable that there were also many bad shepherds. Hired hands, lacking diligence and courage, who would run away at the slightest sign of danger or maybe even kill sheep to eat themselves. They would then pretend that robbers or wild beasts had taken it. So while the good shepherd was a symbol for God and decent leadership, the hired hand shepherd was a proverb for dishonesty –the second hand car dealer of the ancient world, as it were. Remember that next time you hear the Christmas story – why did the angels come to shepherds? Is it a sign of God’s love for the unworthy?

In John chapter 10 verse 11 Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and in this passage he is building up to it. He describes in verses 1-5 some of the practicalities of the shepherd’s life. How in the villages there might be a stone walled fold into which all the local flocks would be brought at night. How the gatekeeper would guard the door. How at dawn each shepherd would stand at the gate calling his sheep. From the midst of this great combined flock, his own animals would come out.

For that was how it was done. They knew his voice. No sheepdogs back then, and the shepherd did not follow, herding his flock. Instead the shepherd went ahead, he gave each sheep a name and they would respond to his calls and follow him as he led the way to new pasture.

Jesus says his followers are like sheep because he is their shepherd. They know his voice and follow him. That describes a great mystery. Something which can seem counter intuitive and somewhat surprising to anyone who’s never encountered the idea before. That Christianity is not a religion. It is fundamentally a relationship – knowing Christ.

In this passage, hearing Jesus’ voice describes a very personal relationship, that commitment to Jesus which is the heart of our faith. That’s what it’s all about. Knowing Jesus is the wonderful centre of what it means to be a Christian. Loving him, depending on him, being sustained by him, going where he calls.

Last week I was at a two-day conference in the Albert Hall. It’s a massive event with over 6000 people and I’ve been going annually for the past three years because it’s so good for me. It’s a chance to leave behind all the buildings, meetings and pressures and instead take some time to be refreshed. There’s worship, good speakers and prayer for one another. It takes a while to get into, but when I have, I love it because it all creates the space just to be with God. To rest in his presence, to be open to him and his call on my life. I’m so grateful for this opportunity as it centres me on what’s really important.

That’s an event which really helps me return to my relationship with God. I wonder what helps you? Could you consider a time for retreat or a quiet day at somewhere like Mays Farm? If you have a regular prayer time, make sure you don’t spend all of it talking to God – build in time to rest before him, to listen. Many of us are working hard to serve God and grow his church, and that’s wonderful but please don’t forget amidst all the activity to take time to be and to rest in his presence.

But what if you’re going through a dry patch? Let’s be honest, many of us do. If I look back over my life I can see times when God felt very near and times when he really didn’t feel near at all. Sometimes he felt far away but it wasn’t him that had moved – I had wandered off and needed to come back. And we must always ask ourselves if God seems far away: is there anything of which I need to repent?

For several of the Biblical passages about sheep emphasise the one who is lost. Our reading from 1 Peter 2:25 says ‘you were going astray like sheep but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’. Christ the good shepherd seeks the lost sheep and if we have wandered there is no time like the present to come back to him.

But looking back on my own life there are also plenty of times when I have been honestly searching for God, regularly making the time to be present and open to him and haven’t felt anything. Times when prayers have seemed dry, worship a struggle. Maybe you can identify with that – and if so I want to say: ‘it isn’t your fault’. It just happens, we have to plug on, keep praying and eventually we pass through that season.

I think it’s like one of those foggy days we had a few weeks ago. When you go out in the morning and can barely see a few yards in front of you. The sun is invisible. It feels like the mist goes up and up and up, but actually the fog bank is only a few yards deep. Very soon the sun burns through and the day is glorious.

Of course the sun hadn’t gone, it was doing its work, but I couldn’t see it. Sometimes when God feels most absent, that’s when he’s actually carrying us.

Jesus’ listeners don’t get it, so in verse 7 Jesus said to them ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’ It sounds like he’s mixing metaphors, but actually out in the wilds the shepherd acted like a gate. Apparently, at night time, if they were too far from a village, the flock would go into a simple enclosure with a single entrance. There was no door, instead the shepherd himself lay across the gap, with his own body safeguarding the sheep.

Jesus does this for us. Just after our reading, in v. 11 it says he lays down his life for the sheep, pointing to his self-giving on the cross. In v. 9 he says: ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.’ He’s saying do not follow false Messiahs and self-appointed prophets. Don’t try to find salvation through the soul-deadening religious legalism of the Pharisees. They are like self-seeking thieves and bandits. Instead, come to God through Christ, who has come, in v.10, that we might have life and have it abundantly.

So to sum up Jesus says he is the way to salvation, the way to the Father. That is what makes the Christian faith unique – it is about a person. Religions are systems, structures of belief, ethics and culture. And yes Christianity can become a religion, – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the structures of religion can give discipline and perseverance to our relationship with God. Christian religion in society can create the background for individual faith to flourish.

Yet Christianity is fundamentally about Jesus: Christians are disciples of Christ. We are members of his flock. Through Jesus we are saved. In relationship with him we find fulfilment. He is the good shepherd, and he has promised abundant life to those who join his flock. If we hear his voice today calling us to know him, let us respond.