Fr Jordan presided and preached at the 10am Mass. The Gospel reading was taken from John 14: 15–21.
Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
In 2018 Billy Graham passed away. At the time the news website Yahoo had the headline ‘there will never be another Billy Graham because the world that made him possible is gone.’ An interesting thing to say. People have said that Billy Graham basically just preached the bible in America. It may not be our cup of tea, our theology or even our tradition but there’s no denying at the time he had a world-wide impact. Hundreds of thousands would flock to his crusades and seemingly join the faith. Billy Graham was a ‘the bible says’ preacher because most people knew something of the bible.
But his preaching would not and does not work today. The culture has completely shifted. Most of you in this church would have grown up listening to the bible read in school and done at least the Lord’s Prayer. You may have attended Sunday School. There was a shared language of the Christian tradition which one way or the other you would have imbibed. But that is all different now.
One commentator likened it to the difference between an Acts 2 culture and an Acts 17 culture, the latter from which our first reading comes from today. You see in Acts 2; you have Peter the Apostle preaching to the crowds. And he starts of his speech with none other than the Prophet Joel. Because as the text says they were ‘Israelites’. Why is that important? Well because they knew the Prophet Joel, they knew the history of the people of Israel, they knew of a promised Messiah.
Their world and language was the First Testament. And so, Peter was speaking their language. Jump to our text today from Acts 17. We have Paul the apostle preaching. But in a completely different way. He was not speaking to Jews but to Greeks, who we are told were all about what was in fashion in the world of ideas, which came out of this genuine desire to ask the big questions of life, why are we here? Is there a God?
In light of this Paul starts not with ‘Christ crucified’ but with an appeal to the created order and belief itself. ‘This I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands.’
As another part of Paul’s writing describes ‘we preach Christ crucified to the Jews a stumbling block but to the Greeks foolishness.’
There is always a danger in generalisations but it would be safe to say that the older generation are like the Jews and the younger generation are like the Greeks.
Pauls Proclamation wasn’t about persuading the Athenians through a shouting match or the fear of punishment, it was simply explaining as best he could the hope that was within him, the hope that there was a God who could be known, and in fact had been in their midst this whole time. If we were to give this idea a name it would be what theologians call ‘general revelation’ which is that deep sense of God found in the order of the world, as Paul says “that everyone may search for God and perhaps find him”
We as Christians can often patronise those outside our faith as having no notion of any sort of truth. This passage confronts us with the idea that even those who Paul would have deemed ‘pagans’ had a deep sense that there was a God even though it was misplaced. We see this evidenced in our own history of missionary endeavour in the 18th century. The most successful missionaries were those who used parts of the culture that connected peoples with the idea of a universal God who had always been at work in the world. Paul’s message was that this God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, the visible image of the invisible God, and this was the good news.
Our western society compared to ancient Greece may seem worlds apart. But I believe deeply that many people in our modern world have tucked away in the corner of their hearts, something akin to that lonely altar that Paul discovered, a part dedicated “to an unknown God”. It manifests itself in different ways. Be it by what they buy, how much they earn or what the culture tells them to be. It is then up to us, The Church, to know our culture and our context intimately just as Paul knew his.
In the United States in particular there has been what is dubbed a ‘culture war’ raging away for the past decade over such issues as trans rights, abortion and critical race theory.
The problem with the culture wars is that they end up using language and ideas that no longer are a part of the culture around them, and therefore can be lost in translation. The danger also is that we become so obsessed with one or two issues that we may wake up one day and find a whole generation gone from the church.
Therefore, we must always look to identify that deep yearning in people’s hearts which even after 2000 years hasn’t changed. To me, it’s not about appealing to the need for consumerism or attempting to be relevant by flashing lights and a rock band. In fact, our liturgical tradition is a great treasure. However, it is about graciously proclaiming the fact that God has always been in people’s midst, and that even though they may have forgotten him, he never forgets them.
We can do this act of proclaiming by getting to know people more deeply, spending time with those different to ourselves, hearing what they search for and offering them what God has made known to us. We must know our culture and always know what is fresh in the marketplace of new ideas, so that hopefully, by the grace of God, we can offer them the hope that is within us through creative and gracious means.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus encourages his disciples by telling them that the Spirit of Truth will abide in them. And so, in turn Paul encourages the Athenians that ‘In him we live and move and have our being”. Our claims to exclusivity need not put others down, or demean their belief system, but rather it encourages us to find meeting points with people of other faiths or no faith.
Because ultimately our hope is that all people may one day replace that lonely altar, which I believe dwells in us all, so often obscured by our culture, which if brushed away would reveal the words ‘To Jesus Christ, the known God’ carved on to new hearts, for indeed, “he is not far from each one of us.”