Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
Paul’s “unknown god” sermon is probably well known to us all. It is certainly a masterclass in reaching out to people where they are, getting alongside their beliefs and values and then moving them to where you want them to be. Influencing skills that would be cherished by any leader or preacher – I am jealous (if that is not an unchristian thing to say!).
But in our current state of “lock down” and uncertainty, it is actually a masterclass in relationships generally. Those we know, those we live and work with will all be in different places of uncertainty, fear, boredom, frustration and any one of a number of different emotions. When we reach out to them we need to be careful not to presume that we know what they are feeling, thinking or believing – we need to seek to understand where they are if we are going to be able to stand alongside them.
This is both physical and spiritual. Maybe our neighbour doesn’t need yet another loaf of bread and “nice cake as a treat”; maybe the person we keep phoning just wants to be left alone; perhaps the self-sufficient one who is coping really well is not quite so secure underneath. While these may be things that are really noticeable now, they are also there all the time.
It is very easy to preach our views to those around us, after all preaching is not just what happens from a pulpit on a Sunday! We may not even be conscious that are doing it. Maybe we can’t help ourselves because we know we are right. Paul and Jesus knew they were right, and they were willing and able to preach across the divides of class and nationality. But perhaps the rest of us are not quite so fortunate. While we may feel we are right, theologically correct and following doctrine to the letter; this may not be the case. Being overconfident in our own position may not actually lead to effective preaching or examples; I know I don’t have the insight of a Paul or the righteousness of Jesus. My preaching, my example should reflect that. So that is the time to approach “with gentleness and reverence” as we read in the Epistle.
Gentleness and reverence are easy to say but difficult to do, especially when I AM RIGHT. But we are called to approach the world with exactly this approach. Yes, we must make our defence, we must tell our story, we must tell the Lord’s story, but we do it with gentleness and reverence, we maintain our good conduct in Christ. This is not about us; it is about us telling the Lord’s story both in our words but also in our deeds. In our actions but also in our silences and what we choose not to do.
Spreading the gospel, doing God’s work is also about evangelising and preaching in words but far more it is about demonstrating in practice, what our faith means to us. How it informs and influences who we are in all that we do. How we preach by actions; how we heal with silences. Challenging stuff and, to be frank, something I can write about but am much less good at.
And this is the punchline – we are not alone. Not in a visitation from another planet sense but in a spiritual sense. Perhaps something we find difficult to express, and something society does not value, but our reliance on the Holy Spirit is crucial. The term ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’ is one I love because that is what the Spirit is to me. An advocate for God within me and advocate for me with God. Someone who stands up for me, makes my point of view heard – more importantly makes God’s point of view heard within me.
Perhaps the Spirit has been listening to Paul – the Spirit fills the void of the unknown god within each of us. The spirit is our true helper, helping us to be more like God, helping us to hear and act on what God is telling and asking us, helping us to achieve God’s work here and now. The Athenians were covering their bets with a temple to an extra god, perhaps on a just in case basis. I wonder what we are covering our bets with? Money, influence, power, family, whatever?
So perhaps we should let the Spirit come alongside us wherever we are, whether under stress of Coronavirus, or in any other time and circumstance. We should let the Spirit come along side and within us to help us discern when we are truly right. Then, with our “helper” we can go out with gentleness and reverence and stand alongside (at least 2 metres away at the moment) those around us, those who need our love, support and prayer.
I pray that you, I pray that I, will be willing to let the Spirit be the unknown god that dwells within each of us.
Stay safe, stay well and keep smiling!