Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 August 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Acts 17 verse 21.
There’s only one verse in the Acts of the Apostles which makes me laugh, and we heard it this evening. For you to appreciate the humour I shall have to read the verse from the Jerusalem Bible. Luke is setting the scene for Paul’s great disaster of a sermon in Athens, that talking shop where theological debates went on day after day all over the city. Luke writes of the Athenians: “The one amusement the Athenians and the foreigners living there seem to have, apart from discussing the latest ideas, is listening to lectures about them.” And I thought, yes, that’s been the background to my lengthy ministry in London; there’s always something new to debate and discuss, and a committee to do it in. New patterns of ministry, debates for and against, an almost Athenian enthusiasm for the lecture and the book about it, all good, all necessary renewal; all good, but it isn’t enough. It never was enough.
A warning is here for all of us in the reception given to Paul’s speech before the Council in Athens, set before us as an example of the Jewish Paul’s preaching to the Gentile intelligentsia. On the face of it his sermon is about the idols we make, a good sermon about the living and true God who cannot be worshipped through man-made images, and the Athenians lap this up, because they love the debate aspect of it all, they look for points of common interest between pagan philosophers, the Greek thinkers and the Jews, how can we represent God?
And it’s all going really well until Paul mentions the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the judgement of the world. The mood changes in the Council, and I can imagine the Athenians saying, Thank you, This has all been such fun, we haven’t laughed so much in ages, that’s enough for now, you really must come back and then we can have a proper debate about this, and maybe a sandwich lunch before dividing into groups.
What had happened? What spoiled the party? What is holding us back on our Christian journey? As I see it, Paul moved from discussion and debate, to proclamation, proclamation of what we call the kerygma of our religion. Now in my rather middlebrow sermons I skip the Greek, but seeing we’re in Athens, it seems appropriate to give you this word. Kerygma is a word worth knowing. It means the original apostolic proclamation of faith in Christ crucified, the core oral tradition, what was proclaimed, the essence of it all, as it was. It’s not the Creed. It is not teaching, nor is it a body of knowledge you have to accept or else. Nor is it a great theory which we can put up for discussion. It is rather the proclamation of salvation offered to each one of us through Christ crucified, and it must draw out a response, an individual response, from every person who listens to it. So it is meant for you, for each of us here this evening. The kerygma, the core teaching of Christianity, is not up for public debate, it is personal, it is addressed to each one of us, an invitation into the mystery of God, and Christ will wait for an answer for as long as it takes, because God so loves the world.
So any proclamation of the Christian kerygma, which every Christian preacher must attempt, will leave room for your response, offer time for you to receive this message and make it your own, because it takes a lifetime to be a Christian, it can’t be sorted out in a debate or a discussion group or a book group. At the heart of it all is the resurrection of which Paul spoke, that new life with Christ which is given to each of us.
No wonder the Athenians baulked at all this, preferring to amuse themselves to death with debates. No wonder we have invented, and continue to invent, all sorts of ecclesiastical distractions to keep us occupied. We would do anything but face the truth of the kerygma, which is that whatever happened to Jesus can happen to each of us: incarnation, a hidden life, an ordinary life, initiation into the life of God Himself, a trial, a surrender, a death, resurrection and a return to God. That’s our life. To accept such a life is heaven; to resent it is hell.
Maybe Paul’s sermon wasn’t such a failure after all. A few people became believers because of it, we’re told, and maybe some others will become believers because of us. Let us never be frightened by the proclamation of Christ Crucified and the personal response it demands. Our God is kind, He is our Creator. He gives us life and breath, says Paul. What after all is the repentance that Paul preached but acknowledging that fact, and allowing God to draw us back to Him. We are not separate from God. God says, in Jeremiah, When you search for me, you will find me. Through our slow progress towards discerning God’s will for us, we transcend our many limitations and become strong with Christ’s life within us. There is no better book to read than Christ crucified, no better lecture to hear than the Bible’s words of encouragement and hope, no better way towards renewal and a new life than the kerygma of our faith. And when we know that, and the salvation that has come to us, we can go back to the meetings, the debates, the groups and the lectures, with a light heart, with serenity.