Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014, St Mary, morning

Readings Acts 17.22-31, John 14.15-21

Preacher Canon Robert Titley


An interesting story in the Telegraph: a giant inflatable whale has been banned from the Royal Parks because of its ‘religious undertones’. It was a part of a kids’ fun day based on the story of Jonah that was itself part of a campaign run by the Bible Society called Pass It On, which encourages parents to read Bible stories to their children. Apparently officials turned down applications to hold it in either Hyde Park or Greenwich Park in London claiming it could be classed as an act of ‘religious observance’. What’s interesting is that, though the Royal Parks are managed by a Government agency, they are owned by the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and patron of the Bible Society (including its dangerous whale).

We live in a pluralist culture, with space for different paths of faith, but policed by a doctrine of doubt: you can’t know beyond reasonable doubt which religion is true – or if any of them are – so you need to keep them all in the private sphere. Public space in Britain (or in this case England and whales) must be faith neutral.

Stories like this make you laugh in an irritated way – especially after Mr. Cameron’s remarks that Britain is a Christian country – but it’s better live with the odd idiocy like this than be in a culture with no doctrine of doubt. In Sudan, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim faces death for allegedly converting to Christianity. She says she has always been a Christian, but even if she had changed her faith, apostasy laws are ghastly and have no place in a civilised country. Surely people in Sudan have doubts as all human beings do, but to change your faith turns private doubt into a public act, and a society (or its ruling regime) needs to have reached a certain maturity to handle that. It is used not to be so easy here.

St Paul this morning is a visitor in a very mature, pluralist culture. He’s in Athens, capital city of free thinking. It’s very pious too. They do their pluralism in a different way from us. There are objects and acts of ‘religious observance’ everywhere, and Paul is invited to talk about his beliefs in a very public space, the Areopagus, a kind of outdoor House of Lords. The Athenians’ doctrine of doubt doesn’t lead them to banish religious expression indoors: they have it in the streets, and they are happy to hear Paul say his piece, one voice among all the others in the religious superstore.

Paul pays the Athenians a compliment (and it’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek) when he calls them ‘extremely religious’, and refers to an altar dedicated to ‘an unknown God’. Paul is ‘extremely religious’ too, but there is a difference between him and his pagan audience: it’s not just that he has some extra religious information unknown to them; there is a difference in style. The religious scene in this city of many altars is an exercise in spiritual insurance: let’s pay our dues to many gods, even the ones we don’t know about; that way we shall avoid giving offence to any; and so (we hope) it will go well with us. And the altar to the unknown God is the ultimate just-in-case, like buying extra travel insurance at the airport.

That is not Paul’s style. He is not an insurance man, he is a gambler. He stakes everything on what he believes to be the one true God, whose presence and purpose is made known in one human life, in Jesus of Nazareth. He will tell you it is no gamble, he’ll tell you that he knows, ‘what you worship but not know, this I proclaim to you’. But to some shrewd Athenian it looks like taking an unnecessary risk.

This reminds me of something Sue Eastaugh, David Shaw and I heard at a meeting of our Deanery Synod a few days ago. Richard Sewell, Team Rector of Barnes, had been with our bishop to Zimbabwe. He reported that the clergy they met there spoke about how some of their flock practiced indigenous religion alongside their Christian faith. If, say, illness strikes the family, medicine is expensive, so they ask their church to pray for them and also visit the witch doctor.

The insurance instinct – hedging your bets – runs very deep. I’m on the board of some charities, and the assets we hold are always spread between property, shares and so on – if one goes down the other might go up. We do it without thinking – from investing money to sticking an umbrella alongside sunglasses in the bag.

The insurance instinct serves us well, but there are some places in life where it can hinder us. Think of friendship. It’s sensible to begin warily, not to invest too much in a person you don’t know well, but as time goes by and trust grows it should seem right to risk more. You may have a friend who finds it hard to trust – that can make your relationship awkward – and it is the tragedy of being betrayed in love or friendship that the risk is much harder to take the next time.

When it comes to God, it’s natural to bring the same instincts to bear. Our Mission Action Plan commits us to three priorities

  • having our churches and their people at the heart of Richmond
  • embracing people of all ages
  • trying to become more welcoming

that we hope will encourage more people to come to church. This will mean more people trying on Christian faith for size. And if that’s what you’re doing, it’s natural to start with the Athenian model, to see Christianity as one option among several to make life fruitful. But after a while, as you hear words like Paul’s this morning, as you meditate on the whole-hoggishness of Jesus’ teaching – ‘Whoever loses their life will gain it’ – ‘Drop everything and follow me’ – and the question becomes pressing: Is this to remain one option many? Or is it the horse I back in the race of life?

The answer we give will say something about your, my religious style. The Athenian solution is a matter of business and transaction, where it is good sense to hedge your bets and not over-invest anywhere. For people like Paul, God is an affair of the heart. And love and friendship know about the necessity of risk, and about taking the leap of faith.



Biblical whale

Meriam Yehya Ibrahim

Deanery Synod the Richmond Team Ministry is one of the parishes in the Deanery of Richmond and Barnes.

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