Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Sure and Certain Hope! Acts 17:22-31

We're not in the Holy Land this week ... we have travelled to Athens for a change! Though there may still be some surprises in store!

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said,

I took it with me on the Orient Express … and I made sure I had it with me on my visit to the Holy Land this time too. My Bible.

And in situ it was exciting to read then. Just as it was exciting to read now.

"Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.

It is not just the Jewish people who are extremely religious, but the Greeks, the Gentiles too … the Roman Empire as well.

Something of that religion we shall see on our visit to the British Museum. The Elgin marbles in all their splendour once adorned the Parthenon, that Temple on the hill top holy place in Athens.
Standing on the Areopagus and wandering through any great city of the Roman Empire one couldn’t help but sense how religious they were.

You sense it here too.

The shrine in Chedworth. The shrine where the water comes in at Witcombe. From Chedworth take the path back to the road, down the lane, and then through the private estate on a public right of way and the path follows the little stream to your left and to your right after a while – an impressive mound on which was a Temple.

Over to Lydney. A remarkable Temple. On a hill top marvellous architecture, staggering views of the Severn and the Cotswolds beyond. And most fascinating of all as again over the other side of the River Severn Uley. See it at its best in the British Museum! Wonderful artefacts.

23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'

We’ll also be seeing some of the wonderful Vindalanda letters, constructed in just the same way as the epistles in the New Testament – and dating from only thirty or forty years later. Every settlement and fort has its temple shrines, sometimes in profusion. A wonderful temple to Mithras towards the Newcastle end of the wall. And at Vindalanda … just as you go into the site a temple shrine.

And an innocent enough sign. To an unknown God.

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth,

Athens is a city surrounded by hills … and now covered with smog.

But then as clear as could be – high mountains in one direction – the harbour and the Mediterranean in the other.

And on that site it is breathtaking.

No less breathtaking in Lydney … or for that matter at Uley.

Make no mistake about it these temple shrines were impressive. In Athens more impressive than anywhere.


The pinnacle of human achievement.

And as nothing compared to the wonder of God’s creation!

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,

What a remarkable truth.

The wonder of God of creation.

No matter human ingenuity, the wonder of God is greater.

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

I love that expression. Since he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.
Life, breath and all things. Ta panta – the universe. A guide to science. Should science phase you? Not a bit of it. It captures the remarkable wonder of God in all his greatness.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,

There’s a solidarity here for all of humanity. And also a particularness that values different cultures.

I should have gone to Hy-Way last Wednesday, after all I went to the Friendship Group on St David’s Day. Sue did her bit for England and celebrated St George.

I did my bit this afternoon too and celebrated St George at the Scouts Parade. We brought out the century old flag once more. I recalled the international nature of the Jamboree. And a remarkable quote from Baden Powell in which he suggests that true patriotism takes pride in one's own country while at the same time respecting and treasuring other countries too.

This year has seen the re-discovery of St George's day and the flag of St George.

Maybe it's a flag worth re-claiming. It's a flag that can become a symbol of something very special for all of us who live in England whether we are English or not.

Legend has it that he was born in Turkey of a Turkish father and a Palestinian mother and grew up around Bethlehem in Palestine. And I was a there in Bethlehem a fortnight ago! I visited the Church of the Nativity where the Peace Light is lit each Christmas and brought by the Scouts of Palestine and then Israel to Austria and all over the world – and here to Cheltenham as well.

As I was leaving I passed a wonderful sculpture to St George.

The Palestinian Christians made him their won centuries before he was adopted by England. He became a soldier in the Roman Empire. A soldier who had the courage to say ‘no’.

One day a stranger passed his way – he went out of his way to help him. And he discovered the teachings of Jesus – welcome a stranger and you welcome me … Jesus said. The teaching caught St George and his life was turned inside out. Love for your neighbour. Love for your enemy. What a difference that made.

And then came the order. It was a new Emperor. The order came to capture these Christians, to torture them and to execute them. And St George said ‘no’. He put down his arms. And he decided he would travel many hundreds of miles to confront the Emperor. He did just that.

He was put on trial. Tortured. And executed in the most awful way. On the 23rd April. But the ideas he had lived on. Care for others. Meet their needs.

In the next town to Bethlehem in Bet Jela there is a shrine to St George. And there is something special about that shrine. Christians go to it; Muslims regard it as a holy place too; and Jewish people do as well.

The Shrine of St George is a place where religions too often now in conflict meet together. Scouting is a place where that happens too. For it is only by becoming friends with people who are different from you that there is a hope for peace. And that hope for peace is what world-wide Scouting is all about.

If we make friends with our neighbours around the world … we shan’t want to fight … and that is by far the best way of making sure of lasting peace. Baden Powell

But we must come back to Athens. Forgive me, I couldn’t but include one reference to the Holy Land!

Paul suggests that humanity has something in common. And that something in common is God-given. Part of God’s creation of humanity and part of God’s purpose for humanity.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 7so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

I love that phrase. A seeking for God. A groping for him. And a finding of him.
Science and the quest for life and an understanding. The Queen of Sciences – the quest for God and an understanding.

Father Prem, the Roman Catholic Priest from Warwick … a PhD in Mathematics from Downing College Cambridge.


The coach may have been driving through fascinating countryside. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to turn the conversation to mathematics.

We turned to John Polkinghorne’s account of his belief in God.

The language of mathematics is a construct or a discovery of the human mind.

The language of mathematics is capable of describing life, the universe and everything

The human mind is capable of describing life, the universe and everything.

That accords with the Christian view that the God who created life, the universe and everything created human beings in his own image and so the human mind bears the imprint of the creator God and is capable of understanding life, the universe and everything.

Not a proof of the existence of God. But a description of the existence of God that accords with the evidence of science.

The language of poetry that Paul chooses to use is far more powerful.

As human beings we are made to search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us, and this is where the wonderful poetry locks in …
For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'

All of that impacts on how we understand God and then on what we do.

First, it impacts on how we understand God. Again, remember the scene. Magnificent architecture, the greatest achievement of humanit’s mathematical minds, together with sculpture the like of which the world has never seen – magnificent. But as nothing to the magnificence of God’s creation. Not simply the world out there and its beauty. But the wonderful beauty of each one of us as ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.

29Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

God is far beyond anything we can picture, anything we can begin to imagine or understand.
That is humbling.

It pricks the bubble of our human arrogance that imagines we can solve all the problems of the world. As much as we think we know, we still are remarkably ignorant.

But God knows us as we are. He knows us in our humility. And he looks on us with love and kindness.

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness

We will face the consequences of the things we have done in this world and with this world and to this world.

And when measured by that righteousness, that justice that is God’s.

But the sting of Paul’s message is in the tail.

This God in all his wonder, whose imprint is within our mind, has disclosed himself, revealed himself through someone just like us … his teaching of selfless love is the measure by which we are to measure ourselves and the measure by which we are to be measured.

The life he lived is measure enough; the death he died has disclosed the depths to which God will go in order to bring forgiveness to people’s hearts. Not even death itself could contain him.

The measure of that righteousness comes to us ...

by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

What a note to finish on!

A sure and certain of the resurrection to eternal life!

The resurrection authenticates all that God has done through this man – and gives us the assurance that this is the way of God for us. The resurrection provides us with a vision, a wonderful vision of the world that is to be. Hold on to the vision of the world that is to be and that will shape the life we live here and now.

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