Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2017


Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-end
John 14:15-21

Saint Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus was an absolutely critical moment in the history of Christianity. It was the moment when the Gospel stepped across a deep divide, into new and uncharted territory.
Before this, the Gospel had been preached to Jews, and to those Gentiles who had already become believers in Israel’s God and attached themselves to the synagogue. So Christianity was initially a movement within Judaism – both ethnic Judaism, and the wider community that was attached to it.
When Paul came to Athens those were the people he spoke to initially – the Jewish community, and its Gentiles followers. But word had got out beyond those circles. And Athenian Greeks who knew nothing about Judaism wanted to know what Paul was preaching.
So Paul spoke to them, too, for the first time. And it is important to note both what he does say, and what he does not say.
He speaks to the Athenians in terms that they would have understood. He refers to the religious practices of the Greeks. He sets out a logical argument, very different in style from the midrash of the rabbis that Paul used when speaking to Jews. He quotes Greek philosophers. And he does all this so that he can tell the Athenians about Jesus, a man whom God had raised from the dead.
What Paul does not do is quote the Bible. He does not quote a single verse of Scripture. These Athenians did not know the Jewish Scriptures., so Paul stuck to what they did know, using terms and ideas that they would have understood.
The world we live in is much more like Athens than the Synagogue. Like Paul, we can assume no knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian faith. When I was on retreat last week the conductor told a story of a priest she knew who had popped into the National Gallery in a spare moment. He’d gone into a room full of paintings of the Madonna and Child. In front of him stood a couple, and one said to the other, “what I don’t understand, is why they always make the baby a boy”.
In a world where people who go to galleries can stand in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child, a monument of Christian art and culture, and not realise that the two people in the picture are Mary and Jesus, not know the story, then we can assume nothing.
On my way into the parish I often pass the Jehovah’s Witnesses with their stand of literature. Their sign proclaims, “What does the Bible really teach?” Now, as a Christian I have issues with the way Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible and the doctrines they claim to find there.
But I suspect that the reaction of most people passing that sign would be, “Who cares what the Bible teaches? It’s a collection of ancient texts from a faraway culture, what on earth could it possibly have to do with me or my life?”
The indifference of our culture to Christian faith is something we can’t simply ignore. Like St Paul, we have to begin by speaking to our culture in language that it does understand. Start from where people are.
This should not discourage us. On the contrary, this is a moment of great opportunity, and the Spirit of God is at work. Jesus in the Gospel promises the gift of God’s spirit, the Spirit of Truth who will guide us into all truth. The Spirit sends us on our mission, as he did St Paul, pushing him across the great divide between Jewish and Gentile culture for the first time as he spoke to the Athenians. This was a moment of truth for the Athenians, as they first heard the Gospel. But also I suspect a moment of truth for St Paul, as he faced the challenge of finding new words to speak about Jesus to an alien culture.
So what language does our culture speak? The language of science, for many people. We are often invited to assume that science has made faith redundant. But the basic assumption of science, the idea that the universe is rational and consistent, is an act of faith. You can’t actually prove that scientifically, you just have to believe it. And it is a belief rooted in theology, in the doctrine of creation. Modern science began with Christian and Muslim scholars in the middle ages exploring the universe, sure in their belief that it was rational and consistent because they believed that its Creator was rational and consistent.
Our society has its own myths, too. Another person at the retreat last week was Fr Richard Peers, the Superior of the Sodality of Mary, the community of priests I belong to. He has worked in education for a long time and told us that when children ask him why he became a priest, he answers, “I became a priest because it was the nearest thing I could find to being a Jedi Knight”.
Simple, but profound. Children might not know the Christian story, but they know Star Wars. They know its mythology, the cosmic struggle between good and evil, the endurance of love and hope amid deeds of darkness, and the Jedi, people who have a call to live out intensely the energy of that struggle on behalf of other people. There is a lot about priesthood in Jedi knights!
Our society may not know the Bible, but it has its own myths and heroes nonetheless. It has its stories that embody meaning and tell us about ourselves. Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings. These are epic tales that grip people. And they are all really the same story, in different guises: the struggle between good and evil, temptation and fall, sacrifice and redemption.
These stories are endlessly fascinating because they are our story. They tell us about who we are deep down and what we aspire to be. Like St Paul, if people don’t know the stories of scripture we need to start with the stories they do know, and speak to the myths and hopes and aspirations that people do have.
Because the myths and heroes that beguile our culture are not simply a wistful dream of a world we can never enter. They are more than a make-believe escape from a grim world that has no hope. Rather, they tell us about who we are, and the meaning of our life in the world.

Christians are those who can say that the great myths of human origin and purpose have entered the world in concrete form, in a solid human life really lived. For the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus good has triumphed over evil in this world and not just in myth, the wreck of sin is really undone, and eternal life definitively lies open. Myth and history have joined hands at last, and salvation has entered the world for all. And, one way or another, all need to hear.

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