The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Online 10.30      17th May 2020
In him we live
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 17, John 14

In Acts 17 Paul, having been causing uproar, is brought for his own safety to Athens. He spends some time immersing himself in its ways and culture, and is so upset by the presence of things he regards as idols that he speaks out not only in the Jewish synagogue but also in the public market place. He is forced to explain himself before the Areopagus – a kind of combination of the High Court, the Academie Francaise, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Arts, and any other guardian of culture, law, thought and society you can think of. 
The Areopagus had its rules, but was also a place where different ways of thinking and acting were debated, held up to scrutiny, and people had their minds changed. There was openness as well as good practice, curiosity as well as articles of association. Because he is in a kind of trial Paul has to justify himself, so he draws from what he has seen all around him in Athens to act as evidence that the Gospel of Christ is worth a hearing. 
I’ve been wondering whether Paul’s experience in the philosophical and cultural whirlpool of Athens has anything to say about the presence and mission of the church in these days of lockdown, and our navigation of the swirling waters of thinking and communication on line. 
Paul concludes that there is great worth in what he encounters, but that it is directed down a variety of attractive dead ends. He finds that worship is enthusiastically practiced, but that devotion is offered to objects which ultimately cannot satisfy. The demonstration of religious faith before them is admirable but fruitless, and he can’t see that this devotion makes any difference at all.
There is much religion practiced in the general expectation that nothing truly life changing will happen as a result, only that it will be life enhancing. There is much online which contributes to well being, and draws people to the spiritual, but doesn’t go much further in terms of affecting the whole of a person’s life. Paul would say that this is good as far as it goes, but there is much more to being a Christian disciple. 
We worship one who does not just relate to us, but who fills us, indeed, we worship the one in whom our whole being exists. This God cannot be contained: through worship and prayer and discipleship we are welcomed into God’s presence and released to work for his glory. 
Paul talks to the Athenians about the effect that our relationship with the living God should have on the way our whole life is lived: the need for repentance, and to live in a way which pleases God, so that we are ready for the judgement. 
In John 14 Jesus speaks of commandments – the outworking of belief and thought – as being a part of God loving us and us loving God: in that complete relationship of giving one to another it is inevitable that we will aim to do what pleases God. 
Being a disciple is an outworking of love, not a demand for attention and a forcing of God’s hand. Just as God cannot be contained in the outward objects or disciplines of religion, so the love of God cannot be compelled by the compiling of good deeds. It goes much deeper than totting up credits with a distant deity. Love and life, prayer and action, thought and lifestyle are bound together. All should be one. 
Perhaps now, Paul would swim in the waters of the online world and commend the desire to communicate, to join together beyond the boundaries of the physical, rejoice in everything which points to the life of the spirit and the soul, enthusiastically debate types of thought and varieties of belief, and then call people to cash this out in relationship with God, and the service of others, and in the recognition that only in repentance and faith through Christ is truth and life to be found. 
We do not just believe. We are in relationship with the living God, and with those who are similarly believers. We are in relationship with God’s world, and we reveal our belief by what we do about that, giving to Christian aid, supplying the food bank, caring for our neighbours, advocating for the poor. 
In these lockdown days we are called to make that case in the Areopagus of the Internet, the Marketplace of Social Media and with those whom we meet, even at 2 metres’ distance. Jesus says, “They who have my commandments are those who love me”. It is always time, on and off line to make that happen.

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