Just If I’d…By Faith (Romans 5:1-8)

A Prayer of Confession

 O Lord, how we love a good boast!

As Christians, we love how our boasting brings you glory!!

We suffer with patience,

and are patient in our endurance.

Our hope is that our character

will prove this intolerable suffering

was worthwhile.

 

We are proud of our scars Lord,

the evidence of trials unseen,

(but oh, let me testify to how brave

I was…umm…of course for Jesus’ sake.  Of course.)

 

Thank you for your endurance, Lord.

For the ways in which you were patient

as we noisily endured,

racking up our Frequent Martyr Points.

 

Thank you for peace with God,

made obvious to us by the work of Jesus Christ

in revealing God’s truest nature as love beyond dimension.

 

Thank you that while we were sinners,

that God died for us,

thinking only of us,

and that the words of Christ from the cross

were of pity for us and not for himself.

 

Thank you for the assurance,

that you’d do it again if it were necessary,

which it isn’t,

but you’d never know from all the

pious whining.

Amen.

Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.

Through Matthew (Matthew 9:35-38)

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus went out:

teaching and preaching,

healing and raising,

revealing and praising.

And then he went to the next town and did the same again.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus had compassion.

Enduing the crowds

and curing the crowded.

Shepherding the lost

and gathering the blest.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus needs assistance.

Here we are: send us.

 

Amen.

Whoosh!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 4th June 2017.  It was the Day of Pentecost.

Numbers 11:23-30; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:27-30; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

Last week when I spoke with you about Ascension as a forgotten festival I mentioned that it’s the more Evangelical churches, which are more often low-church in style, who overlook this event.  Today is Pentecost and of course Evangelicals love this one.  But like Ascension, Pentecost is not known to the world, and like Ascension we Christians can go about our business today safe in the knowledge that the Secular Humanists are not insisting upon equal rights for bunnies, bilbies, or fat men in red suits.  (Mind you, this being Pentecost there’s nothing wrong with being a fat man in a red shirt at all!)  Yet today is also a forgotten festival, or so it seems, in some parts of the Church; and those parts of the church, somewhat surprisingly, are the Pentecostal movements.

I used to belong to a church which was Pentecostal in orientation; and even though our senior pastor didn’t like that title for its negative connotations, we were a congregation where the Spirit was welcomed and allowed sovereignty.  But while we certainly celebrated Christmas on its nearest Sunday, and Easter Day on Sunday (but not Friday), I don’t remember us ever celebrating Pentecost despite it always falling on a Sunday.  I guess when you belong to a fellowship where the arrival of the Holy Sprit in the worship time is a weekly occurrence, and the gifts of the Spirit Godself, and as released through the people, are expected and desired, you don’t need to set aside one particular Sunday to celebrate the Spirit.  After all, if you don’t expect the Spirit on the other 51 Sundays in the year, what are you doing?  In other words, if you are always Pentecostal, who cares really what happens on the seventh Sunday after Easter?

It’s actually a good question, but I don’t think it has just one answer.  Of course, we want Holy Spirit to be here each week, and in our town each day of the week, including today.  But that’s not enough of a reason for me to not celebrate the anniversary of this momentous occasion in the history of the world.

When I lived in Darwin the pastor of the local Assemblies of God church drove the sort of car that many men would drool over.  It was a black XR8 ute, so a V8 Falcon with big wheels, narrow tyres, a rorty exhaust, and everything that screamed “boy racer”.  The local Uniting Church minister at the time drove a platinum VRX Limited Edition (brackets Series One end brackets).  So, a Magna V6 with bigger wheels, narrower tyres, and a far rortier note than a standard Magna, or even the standard VRX.  It also had red leather seats.  It wasn’t as cool as the XR8, but the VRX was still pretty cool.  Both ministers had personalised rego plates on these cars, the Uniting Church bloke had his name “REV.ROB”, which was pretty self-explanatory and went with his other job as track chaplain at Hidden Valley Motorsports Park, home of Darwin’s round of the V8 Supercars plus weekly dirt squirts, motorcycles, and even speedboat races in the Wet Season.  The AoG pastor had “WHOOSH”.  I was present when Rev Rob, my dad, asked his colleague in ministry about the rego plate.  “Whoosh?” says Rob, “that the sound of an XR8 flying past you?” “Nah mate,” replied the pastor, “Acts 2:2, mate, whoosh!”  So, there you go, Pentecostal people do know about the sound of the Spirit first descending upon the Church in might and power.

And many of you know, because you’ve met him, that Rev Rob now drives an orange XR6 bearing his “REV.ROB” plates now in SA rather than NT form.  The legendary VRX is sitting out the front of this building today.  Orange paint job in one place, red leather seats in this place, don’t let anyone tell you the Uniting Church doesn’t do power from on high!!

But, as with many stories of God acting powerfully in the life of Jesus or the first three generations of Church as recorded in the scriptures, these are not the first times this happened.  Whoosh! is also a sound familiar to the Hebrews, and rightly so.  In our reading from Numbers 11 this morning Joy told us of how when Ruach ha-Qodesh rested upon the seventy they prophesied loudly.  Even those not in the gathering, but who had been chosen, prophesied while the spirit was present above the tent of meeting.  We are not told of fire or wind, perhaps the evidence of the cloud’s descent was enough, but certainly there was noise as seventy men shouted aloud the news of God’s sovereign glory and God’s desire for the world as it was to be related through the Abrahamic people. Moses’ prayer for the people was that everyone would carry the authority of God in this way, not just the seventy men and not only while the cloud was descended upon the group.  Moses saw that the Spirit had been given without limit, Moses certainly didn’t lose power by God taking from him to share with the seventy.  Moses understood, and we understand now, that when God blesses a people with power and authority for the work of proclamation there is more than enough empowering spirit for everyone to be filled to overflowing.

In the centuries after the arrival of the Hebrews in the land given to them by God as a base from which to tell of God’s glory to the world, the settled people continued to hear from the wind of wisdom and holiness, Ruach ha-Qodesh.  The Psalmist wrote in 104:27-30 that the world is entirely dependent upon God’s sustaining presence.  You shall send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth says 104:30 in the wording of the New King James Version.  God’s creative act by the Wise and Sacred Spirit is an act of renewal, not only of creation.  The Spirit does more than the activity of brooding in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit is active in renewing and refreshing the creation; therefore, the activity must take place more than once.  Like Pentecost, which the Church believes was not a once-and-only event, so Jewish tradition in the Torah and the Ketuvim, the Law and the Writings of scripture, attests that God continues to send the Spirit when the Spirit is required.  We are to expect the Spirit and welcome the Spirit when the Spirit comes, because the Spirit is sent by God to meet our need for God.

The gifts which are given by God through the Spirit are as diverse as the needs of the Church in the world.  Paul instructs the Church at Corinth in this, saying that prophecy and prayer language are not enough: many human needs would be left unmet if God sent prophets and interpreters, but no one else, into the world.  Each need therefore has its corresponding ministry, God’s response to that need, and each ministry has its corresponding gift, God’s empowering for the work of that ministry.  Paul addresses the matter from the other side in saying that every gift has its corresponding ministry, in part because the Corinthians were so fascinated by the extravagant work of God amongst them that they had forgotten to utilise the enabling of God to conduct and complete the work of God.  Each gift has its corresponding minister who brings the gift to remedy the need with the presence of God.  It follows then that different gifts are given to different people for them to use in different situations in the world.  No two Christians are identical in their make-up, nor should they be.  We are each unique and all complimentary, designed to work together, to fit together.  Since no Christian is exempt from the call to ministry, (I told you a few weeks ago that it is baptism which makes you a minister, not ordination), since no Christian is exempt from ministry all Christians are provided with the gifts required.  Women and men have gifts, not just men; girls and boys have gifts, not just boys; and of course, children and adults have gifts, not just adults.  New converts and life-long disciples have gifts, not just the decades old believers; ordained and lay have gifts, not just the ordained; and the same can be said for diversity in race, nationality, material wealth, health, marital status, and so on.  If you are a Christian you have gifts, because if you are a Christian you have ministries.

But of course, we know that not all gifts are prevalent in all people.  I actually believe that all Christians have all gifts, you’ve not been given a portion of the Spirit at your baptism but all of God, but I also believe that God only uses some of the gifts in each person to ensure that all of the gifts are expressed in the local church.  For example, not everyone in this room can preach, but in the very next breath I say that I am not the only person in this room who can.  You each have the fullness of the Spirit that I do, but only a few of us, me included, are called to use the gift of preaching.  And of course, the inverse is true where even as your minister, and whoever comes next to this place, ordained or not, is the same, there are things which God has not called me to do and I therefore cannot do as well as those of you whom God has called.  I have no idea what those things are, because I am incredibly gifted, but I’m sure there something someone here can do better than I could.  😊

Paul provides a list of gifts.  This list is not exhaustive, there are other gifts which Paul does not mention here.  I don’t think the unmentioned gifts are less important, it’s just that Paul is making a point and his point has been made.  It’s not all about the prophets and tongue talkers, he is saying, just look at all the other examples.  There are gifts of Wisdom (application of information) and Knowledge (insight to partner wisdom).  There are gifts of Faith (confident assurance for encouragement), Healings (note that this is plural), and Miracles.  Consider how Faith might work in a team with Healings and Miracles; that’s how it’s supposed to work.  There are gifts of Prophecy: (telling the truth with boldness), and of Discerning of Spirits (naming names for the purposes of directed response, perhaps by the prophet).  There are gifts of Prayer Language (for worship and intercession), and of Interpretation of prayer language (to partner with the pray-ers and the prophets).  And as I say there are many more.  I have been used by God in the ministry of Intercession in the past, which draws from the list just read but also needs further detailing, some of which is found in Ephesians 4:11-13.

The evidence is clear from the history of the people of God, from the time of Moses, the time of David, and the time of Paul that God is pouring out the Spirit on all humankind.  In his Pentecost Day sermon Peter declares the evidence of God’s action, and that it is God who is acting, is seen in the present day amongst those who are prophesying and speaking of visionary dreaming.  In other words, God’s people are speaking the truth clearly and with a deep and trustful hope for the future, even as Joel said they would in his day, Peter’s day, and on every day leading into the last days.  Again, no one shall be made exempt, not by age nor by social status, not by anything other than his or her unwillingness to act for God.  There will be no doubt what is happening, this will all clearly be the work of God, and those who see this and call out to God will be rescued by God from whatever and wherever they are lost in.

When the spirit falls, the truth is told and people are saved, healed, and restored.  Moses saw it in the desert, the 120 saw it in Jerusalem, and Paul writes of it to a church in a pagan city in Europe so they know what to expect and how to operate when it happens.

Are you ready?  Are you willing?

Then let’s have at it.

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.

Up! Up and (not) Away!

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 28th May 2017.  It follows the readings for Ascension.

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-53.

Ascension is one of those days in the liturgical calendar that many Uniting Church congregations appear to overlook.  It’s there on the calendars, marked on my lectionary and on the two month-per-view calendars I have on my wall at the manse, one each from the Synods of Victoria-Tasmania and South Australia.  Perhaps Evangelicals see this festival as a bit religious, a bit High-Church, more than a bit irrelevant to the cause of global evangelism.  Perhaps it is that, unlike many other Christian festivals which move with the day of the year, Ascension is always on a Thursday and never on a Sunday.  Good Friday, always a Friday is an exception because of what it is, and of course Christmas need not be Sunday to be Christmas, but otherwise if it doesn’t happen on Sunday it doesn’t seem happen at all.

I think that’s a shame:  I like Ascension.  I like what it represents and I like that it goes almost completely ignored by the world.  I mean, if you aren’t a High-Church person now or you didn’t go to an Anglican or Roman Catholic school back in the day, you probably don’t know it exists at all.  So, it’s one of ours, a day that the Church gets to keep for itself.  We can worship God in the way we want, without interruption or compromise, and we get to eat all the lollies on our own and we don’t have to share them with anybody.

So, what is Ascension?  Well in simple terms, and there is no need to be any more complicated than this, Ascension marks the day when Jesus returned to Heaven after the resurrection.  Pretty much all of Christianity believes that after Jesus rose from the dead on that third day, the day now called Easter Day or Easter Sunday, Jesus wandered around with the disciples for seven weeks or so, popping up here or there, before finally giving the Great Commission to the readers of Matthew, and the assurance of the Holy Spirit to the readers of Luke, and then was taken bodily into Heaven.  That’s one long sentence, because it’s one complete idea.  The risen Jesus is the one who ascends; the one who walked out of the grave is a different sort if being from the one who was carried into it.  More of that later.

Luke suggests in Acts 1:3-8 that Jesus ascends and descends many times in the forty days between the day of his resurrection and this final ascension ten days before Pentecost.  I find this idea fascinating, and somewhat under-reported.  If you’ve heard anything about the ascension before you know that it happened once, on the sixth Thursday after Easter.  Jesus rose from the dead, hung about for forty days, and then was beamed up Star Trek style from a rock just outside Jerusalem.  But Luke, and therefore the Bible, says something different.  Luke says that Jesus came and went many times in those seven weeks, and that raises a question for me.  Why did Jesus stop coming back after those forty days?

In the way that Luke reports it Jesus’ final ascension is an apocalyptic event with the cloud of presence and the angelic figures.  So, does Acts 1:11 predict an apocalyptic second coming?  He will return, just as you have seen him depart say the messengers.  I don’t doubt that Jesus will return to the earth in glory, but I don’t think this is a proof text for it.  Remember that Jesus has been up and down from Heaven on a frequent basis for the past six weeks; what I think this text says is that this will continue, even if less publicly.  In other words, Jesus did not stop coming after the forty days, he just did it differently.  Think of how Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9.  Think, if you believe them, of the millions of accounts of Jesus appearing to people right up to our own day, many of them not Christian when he came. “Aha, but”, you might say, “Jesus appeared in person to the apostles; his appearances to Saul and the people in our day were only visions.”  So, were Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus, and back in Jerusalem when Cleopas and friend returned, appearances in person or in vision?  After all, in Luke 24:13-49 Jesus eats a piece of fish and breaks apart a loaf of bread in his hands, but he also appears and disappears suddenly and at will.

I’m not trying to tell you that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, I believe he did, but I am asking the question whether what we read in Acts 1:10 and Luke 24:50-53 really is the end of the story of the Christ in the world, or whether he indeed continues to come and go by the grace and will of God.  Again, I say, the Jesus who walked out of the tomb is different in substance from the Jesus who was carried into it.  The real, present, resurrected Jesus was not limited to one place at one time in the same way that the pre-crucifixion Jesus was; this is true of him today but I believe it might have been true of him in that six weeks too.

Forty is a number with Biblical significance: in Jewish philosophy, it tends to signify completion.  Forty days and forty nights of flooding rain is sufficient to destroy all life on earth except the lives God personally saved.  Forty years in the desert is sufficient to effect generational change in the Hebrews who left Egypt.  Forty days in the wilderness takes Jesus to the brink of giving in to temptation, he has reached the very limit of human forbearance.  Where in the Lord’s prayer we say, “save us from the time of trial” we mean “don’t push us beyond our limits, our ability to say no to evil.”  For Jesus that limit was forty days or turmoil and starvation: his emptiness was complete.  So, forty days between the opened tomb and the opened sky brings about the completion of the teaching and coaching ministry of Jesus the disciple-maker.  Jesus returned to Heaven when the work was completed.  And what was that work?  Preparation of the 120 to receive the Holy Spirit.

That is why it does not surprise me at all to hear or read of Jesus returning to earth in our day.  He comes for the same purpose, here time and again to continue to complete the work of preparing new generations of disciples to receive the Holy Spirit for the work of mission.  I mean, look at Jesus’ last works in Luke (24:48-49) and Acts (1:4-5, 8): wait here in the place to which I have brought you until the Spirit takes you on to the next step with the Spirit’s power.

The power that Jesus promised to give the apostles is not the power to restore Israel to superpower status, but the power (boldness, authority security) to go with the good news of the Reign of God to neighbours, strangers, and aliens (Acts 1:8).  Jesus does not intend to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6), he will restore Israel (and the world 1:8b) to the kingdom, by the word of the apostles’ witness.  This is indeed what happens.

And this is where we see more of what Jesus has become in his resurrection.  The new kingdom which the Church is heralding is characterised by embodied existence; Jesus is no ghost but neither is he a resuscitated corpse (Luke 24:39).  And he has been raised by God, the great, complete, and unargued vindication of every word of his message.  As I have heard it said, when a man walks out of his own grave to tell you something you want to pay attention to whatever he says.  And as if more proof were required, the resurrected Christ then ascends publicly to the Father where he sits right beside God Godself.  There is no higher proof that the message of Jesus is the whole truth of God, and therefore worthy of human worship (Luke 24:52).  There is no higher proof that the promises he made will be fulfilled, the promise that he will be with us always, the promise that if we act according to his will he will complete the work because of us, the promise that we are loved, forgiven, and will ultimately be reunited with God in the new kingdom.

Paul gives thanks for the reputation of the love of the Ephesians for all the Church.  This to me is evidence that the gospel has struck and stuck.  The kingdom’s values are being lived out publicly, the disciples of Jesus are known for their character and they are unique.  The Holy Spirit’s power is effective, the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled, and the news of the reign of God is going onward and outward.  From Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria the gospel has reached and is filling Roman Asia with the news of God, the message is not too far from hitting the Ends of the Earth.

Paul prays for the Ephesian believers for wisdom and revelation as they come to know the Father so that they might see and understand the hope in the message of Jesus.  That hope includes the story that the Church is empowered to continue the work of God, empowered with the same power that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place in Heaven.  From being in the grave of an executed blasphemer and traitor Jesus is now enthroned beside God the King, and rightly so, because Christ is the head of all things.  The ascension of Christ is the next state of his resurrection, a continuation of the process of vindication that not only is Jesus revealed as Christ the true messenger of God, but that he is Godself, the king and lord who was in flesh but is now in the fullest of glory.  All that which was laid aside prior to the manger is now restored completely.  This is the news that was proclaimed on Pentecost day and this is the news which is being proclaimed a generation later in Roman Asia.

Paul prays that the Ephesians, and I pray that the East Gippslanders know this.  In Greek, this whole passage is one long sentence: one connected train of thought which we are supposed to hold together in our minds.  We have been chosen by God, because of the work of Jesus who blesses us, to receive the free gift of redemption through grace, and the power to tell others where to get it for themselves, so that every member of creation might live a life full of hope, joy, and utter security.

I do believe in a second coming of Jesus.  I’m not sure about the “Left Behind” model and I’m not a pre-Millennial, post-Millennial, ante-Millennial or any other sort of thousand-years person.  Whether one day I will vanish in the blink of an eye, or bodily ascend like Jesus, or whether Jesus does what Jesus will do another way I am not bothered.  Maybe I’ll not live to see the ultimate return of Christ at all and I’ll watch it all unfold from the old Heaven as the new one descends upon those of you who remain.  But what I believe even more than the glorious apocalypse, the great and undoubted revelation of God as both Lord and King, is that Jesus has never stopped coming to earth to be with his own.  Jesus does not walk with me like he walked with Peter, James and John, but neither is he watching us from a distance.

Ascension carries one strong and hope filled meaning for me.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, he is still with us.  Elvis may have left the building, but Jesus hasn’t gone away, and he never intended to.

Amen.

The Scholarly Man

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Parish for proclamation on Sunday 21st May 2017, the sixth Sunday in Easter, year A.  I had just returned to Lakes Entrance after a week in Adelaide where I received my Master of Theological Studies degree at a service of celebration at Adelaide College of Divinity.

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20.

Well there he is: as promised I have produced a photograph of me from the service of celebration I attended at Adelaide College of Divinity on May 8th this year.  So yes, there’s me in my flat hat and Geneva gown, wearing the hood of a Master of Theological Studies in the Flinders University tradition.  You can’t see it very well there but my hood is blue, with a pale blue lining of satin and edged with a ribbon of violet.  This degree in no way makes me “official”, other than as a graduate of Flinders University.  A degree in ministry or theology, and I now have one of each, (plus degrees in Education and Arts) does not confer ordination upon anyone, that’s a separate process.  A degree in ministry or theology does not make anyone any more or any less a minister; I was commissioned for ministry at my baptism, as were you.  Does this outfit make me a scholar?  Arguably if I weren’t a scholar I’d not have made it so far as to wear this particular outfit, but I’d suggest having completed the path leading to my graduation that the outfit indicates that I once was a student.  I should hope that even though I am now finished with formal education for at least twenty years that I shall continue to learn and study, so maybe I’ll always be a student.Damo Graduate

In our reading from Acts this morning we eavesdropped into Paul’s address to the Areopagus on the topic of an unknown god.  Paul is both a scholar and a student, he has credentials from the Pharisees and rabbis he studied Jewish Law with and he remains open to the Holy Spirit to teach him further.  The men to whom Paul is speaking are Greeks, not Jews, but they too are masters and students of philosophy and theology, so Paul addresses his remarks in the style of a scholar.   Paul, in this place of the study of gods, speaks of the God to whom he belongs as the sole creator who exists beyond temples such as these.  The God of Paul created humankind and needs nothing from us in the way of resources as offerings.  The God of Paul is the bringer and sustainer of life, and this God created the world with order and structure, God made place within space, and such order makes it possible for God to be found in the pursuit of order and study.  You’re on a right track Paul might have said, God can be found through reflective study.  Paul speaks of all men and women deriving from one nation established by God, a lone source.  This means that all people are the offspring of God exactly as the philosopher Aratus said in the 200s BCE, and that it is indeed in God in whom we exist and function as Epimenides said in the 500s BCE.  Paul then uses the words of the Greek philosophers to point to where their pursuit of the rational God has fallen off course, because if humankind have been made by God and from God then it follows that God cannot be made from gold or stone.  So, what’s with all these statues and temples as objects of worship?  Once, Paul says, God allowed us our human ignorance but now God is calling us to repent and to see the truth revealed in the man sent by God to show us the way to God.  If you want to know God then you need to pay attention to the real world of created things, not manufactured ones.  Gold cannot tell you about God, only a man can do that since men (and women) are made by God but idols are made by men.  But, says Paul, there is good news.  God has sent such a man with the gospel that God is waiting to be found and wanting to be found.  God, in the spoken revelation of the one who came from God enjoins you to the undertake the chase through repentance from ignorance and trust in the revelation of God.

So, this speech has a context, it is addressed to academics in an academic place.  Paul is philosophising with the philosophers in the philosophy club, that’s where he is.  I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t actually say very much about Jesus, or the message that Jesus proclaimed other than to say that God is accessible through any concerted, well-directed effort to find God.  Paul’s message to the Areopagus is not Jesus Christ band him crucified as it was to the Jews, but God the rational and personal essence which both transcends and engages with the physical “real” world.

During my studies, I undertook a unit in The Acts of the Apostles in 2015, and during that series of lectures I heard that this passage is set piece speech on how to proclaim the story of God to pagans.  My lecturer and his commentators understood that this speech is not the exact words of Paul, rather it was drafted by the writer of Acts as one of five key speeches which form a framework for the whole book. Whether it really was Paul’s word reported back to the writer, or whether it is a literary invention conceived by the author of Acts to make a point is not the point here, but it’s still good to know.  These are not random words spoken off the cuff, there is intent and thought gone into this speech.  We hear Paul speaking to a pagan audience at the Areopagus of Athens about how Jesus does not need a temple or priesthood to be set up in his honour since God acts in the world.  This is a counter-argument to the interpretations of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and indeed the idea that the “unknown god” needs an altar to his honour lest he be offended by the oversight.  If anything, God is dishonoured by the plinth, since its presence limits the creator’s influence to this one small place.   Jesus is the evidence of what God is doing, and he is attested to by his being raised from the grace by the power of the creator.

We can draw four messages from this.

  1. God loves and wants to be reconciled with the academics and with all pagan leaders, as well as the worshippers and all Jewish priests, Levites, and Israelites.
  2. God’s means of outreach can be culturally specific so as to be inclusive. An Areopagus message would sound like useless wordy worldliness to the Sanhedrin, and a Sanhedrin message would sound like ethereal superstitious babble to the Areopagus.  There is only one God, and only one way to God, but there are countless ways of speaking of God so as to elicit a response from the hearer of the news of salvation.
  3. The gospel stands up to academic scrutiny, even in the presence of the most learned of learned men.
  4. God was doing the work through the Jews before God was doing it through the Christians. Paul has not discovered a new thing about God, and Paul has not invented cross-cultural; evangelism.

Bless our God, O peoples says the NRSV, on page 459 of the Bible in front of you.  The NKJV says “Gentiles” which makes it even more obvious what is going on.  The Hebrews are calling the world to bless the God of the Hebrews (Psalm 66:8).  God established [each living thing] in life according to Psalm 66:9, just as the Greek philosopher Epimenides said.  The nations have tried to destroy us says the Psalmist; in other words, God may be not made of gold and stone but the people of God have been refined and refreshed as if we are, (Psalm 66:10), but we have come through because of our God’s faithfulness.  So now, says the Psalmist, I (singular) will worship with Hebrew worship, and I call upon you all now to listen to my story of what God has done for me.  And what has God done for me? Well God heard my prayer.  Now I call upon the world to come and hear (Psalm 66:16) me say that when I cried out to God, God came and heard (Psalm 66:19).

The messages of the Psalmist and of Paul are not entirely the same, but there is a common theme.  The God of the Israelites is the God of the world, and the only true God.  The One for whom the entire world is searching can be found amongst the Israelites in the personal testimony of individual Jews and in the disciplined and applied study of the Jewish cultural traditions.  Whatever your way of searching for meaning is, however it is that you bet understand your need for something greater than yourself, God has provided a way in Jesus Christ.

So how does this apply to you or me?  Some of us fit into both models, even if it does require some stretching.  I was raised in a Christian home so, like Paul and the Psalmist, I learned the stories of God as a child from my parents and many of the other adults in my life at church and school.  I am not a Jew, but I am a Christian, and so I know about God from inside the culture of God’s own people.

But, like Paul and the Psalmist I am also a student.  I don’t like being thought of as a scholar or an academic since my desire is to be approachable in ministry.  I am clever and well read, I have degrees in Arts, Education, Ministry and Theology, but I hope I’m not lofty.  I can debate with other university graduates, but I’d rather sit and listen to people living daily lives and I hope I never become too grandiose to do that, even if I do use words like “grandiose” in my preaching.

The gospel speaks to the ordinary person who just wants to thank God for what God has done, and to the no-less ordinary person who enjoys a well-written book and relates to a God of crosswords and sudoku.  If finding God is a puzzle to be mastered for you, a journey to be walked by you, a lover to be wooed for you, a parent to be rediscovered in your adulthood, or any other image there is room in God for all those ways to lead to satisfaction.

My job, all our jobs, as ministers is to make sure that the Church does this too.

I have now completed all the formal study I want to do, and at the end of my studies in theology, ministry, leadership, and scripture I am more in love and awe of God, and more in love and awe of the Church.  I did not lose my faith in learning about other ways of approaching God, in fact when I read all the books and articles, and distilled the information into essays and seminars, I discovered a real God who expresses real love through the real man Jesus Christ and the Church which carries his name.  Tertiary studies might not be your path further into God, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for anyone else.

So, whether you meet God and go deeper with God in books, gardens, or solitary or with your beloved walks along the beach; whether in singing in the car or at church, in hanging out with Christian friends on Sunday mornings or Tuesday afternoons, I encourage you to do more of it.  Continue to pursue God, continue to go deeper into your relationship and God’s love.  Whatever it is that you do to know God more is what God has set before you entirely for that purpose.  So, go on, keep going on, and be ignorant of the depth of love no more.

Amen.