MISSION TO THE THINKER
A sermon preached by the Minister, Rev Andrew Sails,
at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 20 May 2012
Sunday after Ascension
4th in Series of Services on Mission in Acts
Acts 17:23 “Now what you worship as something unknown
I am going to proclaim to you ”
This is the 4th of our Circuit wide services looking at Mission through the lens of the Acts of the Apostles.
Let's look at four things -
Heart and Mind,
Heaven and Earth
1. If we have learnt anything over these four weeks,
it is to recognize God’s Mission Imperative for the Church -
the Church and God’s mission are inextricably tied together.
The Book of Acts is not the story of the first Christian apostles and how they tended their gardens and cooked their lunches and said their prayers in the suburbs of Jerusalem or Jericho or Capernaum
The Book of Acts is the story of how a group of men and women driven by the Spirit take the good news of the Gospel and spread it across the whole of the known world.
Today is Aldersgate Sunday – those of you brought up in the Methodist tradition will know this as the day we celebrate the conversion (on 24 May 1738) of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement
John Wesley famously said “The world is my parish” – his was not a localised parochial faith – it was a faith to be shared with everyone
Like St Paul, Wesley knew that a Church which stands still dies,
As he said on another occasion:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
Wesley’s didn’t just create a social club or network of friends – Methodism wasn’t an 18th C version of Facebook –
Methodism was (and is still called to be) not a club but a Movement – committed to and empowered for changing the world.
It has been said that the Church lives by mission as a fire lives by burning
Later today the Olympic torch will come through Exeter en route from Athens to London.
Our passage today describes the day the flame of the Gospel reached Athens from Jerusalem – That’s what the Church is – a passing on of the flame of the Gospel from person to person, from generation to generation to generation, from Peter to Paul, from Paul to John Wesley, from John Wesley to you, to me…. I’ve missed a few out in the middle – but that’s why we do Church.
I wouldn’t want to be the guy who fell over with the Olympic torch and let it go out.
I wouldn’t want to be the apostle who stumbled with the flame of the Gospel when the Spirit was calling me to spread the fire.
2. But how do we spread the word? In many different ways
But today we think about Paul addressing the Greek philosophers and so we think about the intellectual issues around mission.
Paul wasn’t afraid to start where his hearers were. Nor did he have the arrogance to think that he had all the answers and they had none.
You talk about an unknown God he says – let’s start from there.
For of course the Greek philosophers were in part quite right -
God in his infinite majesty and holiness cannot be fully known by mere humans – we all worship a God who is in some sense unknown and – by mere humans – unknowable.
Thanks to Mary for the story of the elephant
We need to be humble and open to new insights in our talk of God.
You know those web sites where people post questions
and anyone who knows the answer posts it to the message board.
I remember one such Q&A:
To the question “What is the difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching on this issue?” one respondent had posted the following frighteningly honest answer: “I have no idea what the difference is, but the Protestant version is bound to be correct”
Isn’t that frightening?
No doubts, no questions, but no critical thought or questioning either
and certainly no chance of growing into new truth.
Beware the totally closed mind of the bigot.
I think I may have talked before about my one and only attempt to scale a climbing wall. You have all these hand and foot holds. The instructor said that to be safe, you have to keep three of your four foot/hand holds anchored to the wall at all times - only move hand or foot at any given time. I don’t have a good head for heights - half way up the wall I decided on an even better safety strategy
If you keep all four holds secure at all time - both hands and both feet firmly attached to the wall face - you are even safer. The trouble of course is (as I discovered) you never go anywhere - you just stay in one place.
If we want to grow in the faith we have to let go (or at least be willing to question) some truths and understandings if we are deepen our understanding and move on.
Here is a model for mission to the thinker.
We don’t turn up with a comprehensive Person Spec for God
a SatNav programmed to lead us to Heaven’s gates
and a menu guide and recipe book for the Heavenly Feast
No – we begin by saying, lets explore together, seeing as in a mirror dimly – willing to share with each other our questions and understandings, trusting that by so doing we may all learn.
And so let’s not dismiss or rubbish our humanist or Muslim friends
Of course we will want to share our insights and understanding -
but we should never forget that we are all made in the image of God,
and that we may have things to learn as well as teach.
Let’s begin by seeking to share our experiences of spiritual journey.
In the words of Billy Graham -
“Be to the world a sign that while we as Christians do not have all the answers, we do care and know about the questions”
And so, with Paul we need to say,
Like you I am seeking the meaning of life, love and the universe,
the answer to suffering & evil & death –
I don’t claim to have all the answers,
but let me tell you about Jesus –
I don’t fully understand him yet,
but the more I read and learn of him,
the more I discover that in his presence
I come to understand the nature of God and the meaning of life.
3. Finding God is not just about affirming academic and intellectual propositions. It is ultimately about a relationship.
You talk to a 4 year old boy about his mum - can you explain the genetic links between you and your mum, the relationship between your respective DNA profiles. Also could you give me your mum’s NI number, and the amount she gets in child benefit.
The 4 year old is bemused.
Then you say – Does your mum love you?
A sudden beam – He runs to his mum and gives her a kiss.
As the author of Ephesians says – “Love surpasses knowledge”
It is both simpler and deeper.
When we meet with those who understand the world in a different way from ourselves, we need to be open with them,
share our understanding, our uncertainty, our faith –
and attend to their understanding, uncertainties and faith
But if we want to go further and turn an intellectual debate
into a journey of spiritual discovery, we need to address them with heart and soul and mind – we need to love as well as think.
4. A final thought for this, the Sunday after Ascension
when we turn our thoughts to the unknowable mystery of heaven – when we shall at last see face to face not in a mirror dimly –
all our questioned lovingly answered.
So I leave you with a poem by Cecily Taylor talking about what will ultimately happen to our questions after death…:
I pulled my sack of question marks right up the stairs of heaven.
and shook them out, all clattering, before the feet of God.
He smiled that I had carried them for such a weary distance
and I could smile because it seemed I would not need them now-
For all my answers floated up like rainbow bubbles laughing
and children ran to catch them down the lanes of paradise
We threw the dots for distant stars
and then we gently gathered two armfuls of some brand new moons
that nobody had used.
We fixed a question hook in each and on these silver hangers
the people hung their coats of care - they would not need them now.
For all their answers floated up like rainbow bubbles laughing
and children ran to catch them down the lanes of paradise
Or as Paul would have said,
“Now we see in a mirror dimly – then O then shall we see face to face!!”