The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      27th August 2017
In him we have our being
Jeremy Fletcher

What difference does what you believe – intellectually and theologically - make to what you do? How is that belief affected by the ‘spirit of the age’, the current trends in intellectual research, philosophical thought and social interaction? And how does individual belief relate to accepted norms in society? 

In Athens, in Acts 17, Paul, confident in his faith after rigorous study, learning and practice, immerses himself in the intellectual and religious beliefs of the Greece of his day. His conclusion is that there is great worth in the religious and philosophical thought 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. He looks at idols and altars and sees them to be lifeless and limited to the extent of the imagination of the people who made them. 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. Many take a welcome delight in visual beauty, in linguistic depth and in musical complexity, and even if that is offered in the name of God it is done in such a way that it is the religious practice and its outward demonstration which is enough. Paul would say that this is good as far as it goes, but there is much more to being a Christian disciple. Simply to be comforted, pleased or stimulated in worship is not enough. 

The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ offers us relationship: the object of our worship is not a statue which pleases with its line and shape: we worship the God who has made us his offspring, whom we call father, who walks alongside us and fills us with his power by the Holy Spirit. 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. Paint pictures, make windows, write icons, create anthems, write poems if you will, but try and contain God in them at your peril.

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. Such a living out of our faith can bring its own dangers also: to be overwhelmed with belief can lead people to believe that the most amazing things are absolutely the will of God. But the all too well-known excesses of religious fundamentalism should not put us off aiming to live out our faith: it would be dreadful if we did nothing about what we believe because some people give discipleship a bad name. 

Jesus speaks of commandments 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.

God loves us. God loves our brothers and sisters. How then can we stand by and see them harmed and oppressed? If they are hurting, so are we. Our cue should be the selfless and sacrificial love of Christ, in a life lived for the glory and praise of God. We do God down if we stand by when the world is unjust, when human life is demeaned. A God who is an idol might not demand anything from us in this regard: the God of Jesus Christ weeps for Syria, Barcelona, and Texas. We are connected to all this. Thanks be to God that a simple gift to Christian Aid, or a text to Save the Children, can make an immediate difference to people who are being made less than human. Thanks be to God that we here are planning to sponsor a refugee family, and to host guests this winter who are homeless, for whatever reason. 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.

It would be possible to treat this sermon in the Athenian way: to look at it as a piece of religious discourse, to find what it says about God, and offer a criticism of its construction. Some of the Athenians did this to Paul, and paid him the compliment of saying they would hear him again. But the response he was looking for came from Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, who believed, and found their lives changed. I’d like to encourage you not to be an Athenian, but to be a Dionysius and a Damaris; to do something about your belief, and aim to make a difference to a hurting world. Some give religion a bad name and do harm. You can go out and do good. 

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