6th Sunday of Easter – St Mary Magdalene

Parish Eucharist and Baptism of Eliot Buckley, Lillian Sutherland and Holly Townsend

Readings: Acts 17.22-31, John 14.15-21

The world in which Eliot, Lillian and Holly are being baptised today is not so far from the world Paul encounters in first-century Athens. People worship many things in our world. Over in Twickenham yesterday, pilgrims followed the cult of the oval ball, and then there was worship at Wembley last night, though the TV congregation fell some way short of that for a certain morning service at Westminster Abbey a month ago. According to a recent book, the royal, the rich and the famous of our own day have a place in many lives similar to that of the gods of the ancient world whose altars surround Paul (they had Poseidon, we have Pippa Middleton, and so on). In Athens, people believe all sorts of stuff and worship all sorts of gods. So Paul spots an altar dedicated ‘to an unknown God’, and says, ‘There! That’s why I’m here. I’m here to tell you about the God you worship but don’t know.’ We’re going to explore that idea, through the thoughts of some of the famous of our own day, channelled for us by the voices of Emily and Andrew.

How do you worship a God you don’t know? Because, when it comes to God, some people know just where they stand…

‘I don’t have to be asking, “Where does it all come from and why?”’ said the late Claire Rayner, doyen of agony aunts, ‘It just is. I don’t need some sort of blind watchmaker and I don’t need a god and I don’t need a tooth fairy or a Santa Claus,’

Or, when the boot’s on the other foot…

‘Unlike most footballers, I have no superstitions. Players put on their left sock first, or carry a lucky charm or whatever, but I put all my trust in Jesus Christ. I believe that superstitions are a millstone, a sign of weakness. You limit yourself if you are superstitious, whereas God gives you strength.’

South African international George Boateng. And if you like the sound of muscular Christianity…

‘A lot of people say “Oh, I’m a Christian by inclination or by philosophy” or some such nonsense. It’s not possible, You are either a Christian or you are not, and being a Christian actually means active belief in Christ as Redeemer.’

Not much of ‘the unknown God’ there for former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe. For many people, though, God is a bit more ‘unknown’, though they do think about God. For some ‘God’ is about a positive mental attitude…

‘How do I conceive of God?‘ asks the publicist Max Clifford, ‘It’s optimism, it’s hope…but’ – to be honest with you – that’s about as close as I get to it. I don’t really sit down and ponder the universe… ‘ because (poor lamb) he’s ‘too busy doing the things I do.’

For some the negative way is easier:

‘Is religion part of my life? Yes, it is, yes. I wouldn’t describe – I usually say I’m more ‘I don’t not believe.’ Does that make sense?’

And that makes sense of a kind for Rowan Pelling, Telegraph columnist and former editor of The Erotic Review. Other people might not say they know God, but they know when the ‘God’ thing happens to them:

‘My faith is –‘ Labour MP David Blunkett, ‘I feel it when you walk in the woods, I feel it as electricity that you can tap into, that you can’t hold in your hand, but is within and around you… ‘

Some know they have a faith but don’t think they’re very good at it, like former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy:

‘If you ask me “Am I a practising catholic?” I would say, “Well, I put the emphasis on ‘practising’ rather than ‘perfect’, to say the least.”

Others find knowing God a bit of an on/off thing:

‘There’s a wonderfully schmaltzy radio station called Magic FM which has a huge footprint all over London,’ – this listening tip comes from Mayor Boris Johnson – ‘but when you get into the Chilterns’ – where he used to be an MP – ‘it sort of comes and goes a bit. And that is what my faith is like.’

Some people know they have a long way to go, like film-maker David Puttnam:

‘I think the core of me is – I would like to say “very Christian” but unfortunately I don’t think I’ve got that far…’

while something stops others even from starting out:

‘There are more things in heaven and earth’, says the former hot-spot reporter Kate Adie, ‘and we are finding them out slowly. Maybe there’s a rational explanation at the end of the rainbow, but at the moment I just leave my mind open. There is a point where faith starts,’ -she admits – and that’s my problem.’

For others God is just, well – unknown:

‘The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous darkness of all the things I don’t know. In this darkness there may be God; and I don’t know, because’ – says best-selling writer Phillip Pullman – ‘I don’t know.’

And, in the end, if it’s so hard to know God, then perhaps we shouldn’t take it all too seriously. Is God a DJ, as the song puts it? Here is the late and wonderfully human DJ John Peel,

‘If I believed in a god, it would be a rather vengeful and capricious old fellow lurking in the roof of a rather nice old building waiting to zap you for some imagined crime, rather than a Cliff Richard type of God who lets you beat him at table tennis.’

You may have had a moment of recognition there: ‘that’s how I am’ or ‘how I used to be’. ‘The God you worship but don’t know’, said St Paul, ‘that’s the God I’m here to talk about.’ Paul doesn’t put down his hearers, he respects the experience of God they already have. And then he says that he thinks he’s found the best, the fullest picture of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Some laugh and walk away. Some stay and listen.

This story sets out your task, if you are among the parents and godparents of these very young people. In time, Eliot, Lillian and Holly will have thoughts about what it all means, and what God is like. Sometimes they will have the experience but miss the meaning. Your task will be to take them seriously, to listen, to discern what is the best way to respond, so that they might discover something of what you have discovered about the reality of God. But you won’t be in your own. All of us are about to make promises to help you and them, as we hope Eliot, Lillian and Holly will get to know us, the people of God in this place. And this must a place where your experience is respected, where you’re free to come and then walk away; or to stay, and listen, and speak; a place where God and each human life is taken seriously.

In any healthy church, there are those with a firm, clear faith, and others feeling they don’t really know God but would like to. For both, God has a place of honour and welcome. Our task, as well as deepening our own awareness of God, so we are not embarrassed when others ask serious stuff about faith, our task is not to get in the way, as God’s Holy Spirit leads them (and us ) beyond whatever we have known of God up to now. That is the journey of faith that we are all on, and we now mark the beginning of that journey for Eliot, Lillian & Holly as they are baptised.


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