6th Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 3.13-end
We are, perhaps in equal measure, intrigued and affronted by Tracy Emin’s installation, My bed, first exhibited in 1998.It was sold for £2.5m in 2014 and in 2015 was again exhibited in Tate Modern.
But the use of a bed to make a statement about a person is hardly original.The great canopied beds of the baroque tell us something about wealth and courtly etiquette.Similarly, and from a much earlier period, Anglo-Saxon bed burials were important statements about dignity.Women of nobility were buried in their beds, together with their jewels and other possessions of importance.
The discovery of these burials is extremely rare and can occur in places that we often fail to notice.Not long ago a find of international importance and was exhibited in Loftus Town Hall, close to Street Houses in North Yorkshire where a mid-seventh century Saxon cemetery had been identified. It brought to national prominence a proud community on the edge of Teesside that rightly enjoyed national prominence.
Hundreds of people visited the Town Hall to see the ancient jewels and artefacts. Today’s story of Paul’s visit to Athens reminded of my visit to Loftus during that exhibition.
The Athens that Paul encountered was a place where art and philosophy touched a nerve and prompted an immediate public response.But Luke has a deeper insight into the character of the Athenians, and it is one that holds good as an assessment of us today.“For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17.21KJV).
Novelty commands attention today as it did then.It matters not whether this is the novelty of Tracey Emin’s bed or that of a Saxon Princess from 1400 years ago.Paul, however, challenges the Athenians to delve beneath the superficiality of the new when he picks on the altar to an unknown god and invites his Athenian audience, and us, to think more deeply.
The speech is a consummate piece of oratory and diplomacy.Paul’s opening words, “Ye men of Athens” (Acts 17.22KJV) are a classical introduction that registers his knowledge of good manners and intellectual confidence.Richard Rackham, a New Testament scholar from the Community of the Resurrection, comments on Paul’s reference to the unknown god: “the Athenians, with all the complacent self-conceit and self-confidence of their philosophy and religiousness, did recognise the possibility of some depths in heaven which their knowledge had not fathomed”.
Paul’s handling of the Athenians is remarkably similar to the challenge that faces us.Like Paul, we also believe that there is in all of us a capacity and desire for the knowledge of God. We, too, are challenged to find a common language with which to explore this truth, confident that interest in it as a possibility has not been eradicated by the persistence of militant atheism.
To prove his point Paul quotes not from Jewish scriptures, which would strike a discordant, foreign note, but from the poetry of the culture of his hearers.His reference to the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” was an immediately recognisable saying, as was his assertion that we are the offspring of God.
This focus on language and how we engage the attention of our own generation in a discussion of what is beyond novelty was something envisaged by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.About a year before martyrdom, Bonhoeffer writes this to his godson: “Our earlier words are...bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men.All Christian thinking, speaking and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”
Christians today, like Paul addressing the Athenians, face a society in which there is determined indifference to the old words of institutional status, but a profound fascination with spiritual authenticity and its manifestation.The examples of Mother Teresa and of Desmond Tutu, of John Paul II and Aung San Suu Kyi all attract enormous interest because they exemplify lives of spiritual integrity and “righteous action” that is costly in facing risk and danger.
In order to offer a credible alternative to the attraction of novelty, we must have at our fingertips the unmistakable depth of experience of God that will feed those who live with spiritual hunger.Ours is not an exotic experience, but it is born out of prayer that is deep, simple and regular and it can also enable us to do what is inexplicably sacrificial in the world’s view.
Bonhoeffer believed that the starting point for our engagement with a secular world would be an account of God “who wins power and space in the world by his weakness”.This is our madness and our artistry.
Of this God we might say,
...your voice is carved of jade yet warm
And always is itself and always new,
A pocket of calm air amidst a storm
And yet a ripple beneath all calms, a view
Into wide space which still is near; is you.
And we would know this space because it is where we experience the Spirit of truth, the Advocate, who resides within us, convincing us of God.
Come, Holy Spirit, inspire, and speak through us.
 Louis MacNeice, “Flowers in the Interval”