What draws you to come to church? It’s not a trick question or one designed to trip you up, questioning motives, but each of us have lots of different reasons for coming. And whenever this question is asked of a group there will be a number of answers which are likely to appear: to get a spiritual fix, to meet with friends, the music, the atmosphere, to find a bit of peace, it’s good for children, I’ve always done it and life would feel odd without doing so. None of these are wrong in themselves and they hint at the kinds of things that help us get out of bed on a Sunday morning, particularly on those dark winter mornings, and make the journey. From time to time I am deeply humbled and impressed by the incredible effort some have to put in to make the journey overcoming various difficulties: personal physical, emotional and public transport timetables.
Our readings this morning in their various ways touch on what is going on when we make the effort to worship. We live in a time of human history when corporate worship is not part of the popular culture, well not in Western Europe. It is in the rest of the world, USA, Eastern Europe, Africa and the East. We are not the norm here, but John’s words in his gospel this morning ‘the world cannot receive him because it neither sees him nor knows him’ (John 14:17) take on a new dimension for us. The idea of corporate worship is not obvious or assumed as something that is missing from life. And if we reduce worship to some kind of spiritual fix then we reduce what is happening here to a form of ‘spiritual clubbing’ and that means that we are competing with all sorts of other events, interests and activities. Getting the spiritual fix is important, but it is not the most important reason for coming to worship.
The reason we do this was spelt out more clearly in our first reading (Acts 17:22-31). Paul is walking through the city centre in Athens. He finds that they are a very religious people because there is a veritable supermarket of statues and faith traditions on offer. It must confuse the life out of people. The competing claims are deafening. It’s like walking through Cathedral Square with people shouting that we are all sinners in one corner, offering free copies of the Qur’an from one of the Muslim traditions in another, with city centre chaplains offering free hugs and cake in another and quietly standing as the backdrop in one direction is this church and in the other, peeping over the archway is the Cathedral. The spiritual marketplace is not very different from one bank offering 5% on a current account balance up to £2,500 and another offering a fixed rate bond for 3 years. The city centre becomes a place where just shouting and being there does not mean that we are heard. Something else has to go on that makes someone interested.
Paul looked at what was going on in Athens and decided there was a searching for answers. He started to offer a way through the supermarket approach of this fix is better than that one or this claim trumps that assertion. He takes it back to the core. He starts with the purpose and point behind creation. We are made, we have a source and we therefore have a goal. God is God. We serve the divine; the divine does not serve us. And the fundamental shift that is required in mindset for Western people comes in verse 24, ‘he who is Lord of heaven and earth’. To our more democratically shaped minds this might sound archaic and out of touch, but God is not someone we vote for. God is God and beyond that. We need a major shift of mentality when we come to worship because we have to bend our will to the will of God and reorientate our focus from self to God. That doesn’t mean that our interests are not central, they are because Christ came to give life in abundance, but we are mortal, fragile and mess it up at times. A humble and contrite heart is a pre-requisite for worship and being able to understand what it means to be a disciple.
The challenge is then to find a tradition that starts to make sense and it is clear that not everyone offering their wares in the squares outside is telling the same message. What we offer here is the classic Anglican tradition of scripture, tradition and reason. We take the bible seriously because it has truths to teach us and wisdom to impart. It tells stories of a faith journey through time and how a people have understood the nature of God. It tells us about Jesus and in him we see all that we can see of God in human life and the hope of resurrection to come. The journey of faith continues to today and over the centuries there is a tradition of each generation making sense of God in their own age. Tradition is not static; it is a journey of thought and insight. And we have our own generation’s understandings, the incredible discoveries of science and travel. This ‘reason’ means that faith matches life as it is experienced. This is the lens though which we approach the great supermarket of faiths and competing claims. They are assessed and weighed using these tools.
If our only reason for coming is to get a fix of some kind, then we are engaged in what I call ‘spiritual clubbing’. This is one way we could spend Sunday morning among many others and the only way we will convince others is if we can make it sound more attractive than golf, swimming, football, a walk in the park or listening to Desert Island Discs on the radio. It may fare well; it may struggle depending on mood. However Paul did not stand up in the market place and proclaim a different leisure activity. He stood up to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to affirm God as God and that our life is incomplete without the commitment and challenge of being a servant of God in Christ. We come because our hearts have been converted from the Western obsession with ourselves and the next high or happy experience, to follow God. We come because this is where we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. We need to say that out loud because it is not assumed by those around us. Saying it changes us and how we live, how we approach life.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 25th May 2014