Reading Acts 14.8-20
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
In 2007 Westminster Central Hall hosted a debate on the motion ‘We’d be better off without religion’. Seven years on, as people read of the barbarities of the so-called Islamic State, some may be tempted to agree.
Nigel Spivey, specialist in classical art and archaeology, argued that religion is part of our ‘creative, ingenious nature’, simply an aspect of what it is to be human (we are, he said, ‘hardwired for metaphysics’) and that a world without religion would be culturally bereft – without King’s College Chapel, the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Blue Mosque, the Sistine Chapel. He likened it (rather harshly) to a suburb of Swindon, where the only spire that piercers the sky is the Tesco clock.
In reply, Richard Dawkins said that artists have to make a living, and at the time the Sistine Chapel was painted, you know who had the money. We will never know, he argued, what Michelangelo would have come up with if he’d been asked to paint the ceiling of the Museum of Science; or what Haydn’s Evolution oratorio would have sounded like, or Beethoven’s Mesozoic Symphony. It was a good debate.
Spivey is right about how religion draws from societies their best and most beautiful. In tonight’s reading, the writer describes Paul and Barnabas healing someone, and this brings a moment of deep connection with the pagan locals. They are ‘of like passions’ (as the King James Bible puts it) and have a shared, deep concern with healing, that pain and impairment be banished as much as possible from people’s lives. So, when these two seem to achieve this, the locals place this event within the religion that they are part of, which is the pantheon of classical gods. And within that system they do Paul and Barnabas high honour – calling them Zeus and Hermes – and act with great generosity – sacrificial oxen don’t come cheap.
Paul and Barnabas are appalled – ‘Friends, we are just mortals like you!’ – and try to begin a vigorous piece of interfaith dialogue, but it gets skewed by the arrival of others, from within Paul and Barnabas’ own religious system, and the moment is lost.
What does this tell us? That our internal disputes can get in God’s way. The new arrivals, Paul’s fellow Jewish opponents, would have agreed with him on the non-validity of believing in Zeus and Hermes; and they could have agreed with him to emphasise what they had in common, their faith in what Paul calls ‘the living God’, and save for another time the necessary argument about whether Jesus was the promised Messiah or not. But their feud with Paul mattered more to them than common witness in a pagan world.
We know find this too. Wrangles within a church can hamper its mission, whether a local church or a whole denomination. In the CofE, the arrival of the first woman bishop is unlikely to pack every pew, but the internal debate over these past years has likely put a fair few people off. And then there is the same division of faith that is opening up in Paul’s day.
The religious life of Richmond is enriched by a synagogue as well as this and other churches. Christian and Jew share many of the same scriptures – the Law and the Prophets, and the psalm we shall say shortly – though we differ in how we interpret them. There are times to voice those differences but, after Richmond Synagogue was twice attacked last week, this is not one of them: instead we offer our prayers for Jewish brothers and sisters, and our common witness against those who attack freedom of belief and worship. And if we turn to the crisis that we presume has prompted this hate crime, it is good and right that both Christian Aid and Islamic Relief are partners in the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza.
Religion draws from societies their best and most beautiful. It can also draw out that which is most hateful and poisonous. Religions are not all the same, and there can be bad religion in any tradition of faith, including this one. If we are to bear witness to Christ in this place, that must begins with a determination to offer nothing but our best and most generous; and a resolve that nothing we do – personally or as a church – should get in God’s way. Then others, ‘of like passions’ to ourselves, may see in him the one in whom their longings may be satisfied.
A prayer inspired by words of St Augustine.
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
We’d be better off without religion
Disasters Emergency Committee http://www.dec.org.uk/