Breathe in, Breathe out!

Easter 6: 21 May 2017

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Acts 17: 22 – 34, Psalm 66: 12 – 19, 1Peter 3: 8 – 22, John 14: 15 – 21

Every preacher enjoys getting feedback – especially when it is positive and encouraging. And I have to say that preachers at St Peter’s Cathedral are blessed by the frequent, insightful and wide-ranging comments we receive. For myself, I am often overwhelmed by the way in which a sometimes random comment thrown into a sermon at the last moment, and long since forgotten, is remembered and referred to in conversation years later. It is a humbling reminder that the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts do indeed take root and grow to fruition.

So it is all the more important for preachers to take on board criticism – especially when it comes from outside those who are here week by week and listen to the range of sermons, styles and topics presented to Cathedral congregations. It is two of these ‘outsider’ criticisms I refer to in this week’s notes on the front page – and they have really set me thinking. On the one hand was an email message via the website, which arrived many weeks after the sermon in question, which criticised the preacher for not ‘preaching Jesus’. And the other a comment from a visitor at the door that there was too much time spent on unpacking the Bible passages and not enough on the application for daily life. As I see it, both are valid criticisms if the examples quoted were always the case. Of course they are not.

As I have lived with this morning’s four readings over the week a clear pattern has emerged. It suggests to me the idea of breathing in and breathing out. For healthy living we must breathe in and out constantly. What do I mean? Quite simply unless we breathe in, pay attention to our own personal spiritual lives, and the life of the community in which we worship, and perhaps the Diocese or even denomination to which we belong, we will have little or nothing to give out, breathe out, to the world at large – whether that be our families and friends, our work and sporting colleagues, our city, nation or indeed the world at large. There is a pattern that keeps getting repeated. It is often used in Christian meditation exercises – breathe in the love of God for oneself, breathe out the love of God for the world.

Two of this morning’s readings focus on the breathing in of spiritual life. Both the reading from 1 Peter and that from John’s Gospel suggest a community which is struggling for survival in an often hostile world. Both likely reflect the situation of the early church shortly after the first decade or two of enthusiasm, the first flush of conversions and the early growth of the church. Those who are currently reading through St John’s Gospel in the Education for Ministry programme will understand where I am coming from. John seems to write to a community which feels under threat. They have distanced themselves from their original community – in this case those whom John calls “the Jews” – and are struggling to define themselves as a distinct entity in a largely indifferent, if not hostile, world. This definition is based around a relationship with Jesus Christ – if you love me, you will keep my commandments. Notice the promise linked to this condition of loving Jesus – you will receive the Advocate, the Spirit of truth – one whom the ‘world’ cannot receive. You won’t be orphaned or abandoned. These are words of encouragement to stick together, to hold on to the idea of loving Jesus and keeping his commandments. It’s about building this community – separate and distinct from either ‘the Jews’ or ‘the world’.

Similarly with the 1st Letter of Peter. Read the whole and it becomes clear this is a church struggling to define and justify itself in the face of opposition, against those who simply can’t see the point, or worse, are actively hostile to the believers. Much of 1 Peter is about living well as Christians, not causing offence to those outside the community, especially not provoking the authorities. Today’s snippet also contains that very important injunction found in 1 Peter 3: 15, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” Don’t be caught out. Know what you believe, and how to express and explain that to outsiders. This is known as apologetics – making a reasoned defence of one’s Christian belief. After St Paul, Justin Martyr in the 2nd century is one of the early ‘big’ names, followed by people like Augustine of Hippo in the 4th, Thomas Aquinas in the 12th and, closer to our own time, C S Lewis.

But of course, Christianity is about more than simply focusing inwards, building the church, looking after our own faith and community. It is also about going out, taking the Gospel, the Good News, to those who have not yet heard it; struggling to express the Gospel in ways which are intelligible to those without the theological or churchy language people like me have grown up with.

A good example of this is St Paul in today’s reading from Acts 17. Some years ago I stood on the Areopagus – a large rocky outcrop to the north west of the Acropolis in Athens. Named after the rock on which people were originally tried for murder, or to which murderers clung for safety (depending on which story you prefer) by the time St Paul visited it, it had become the centre-piece of what we today might call parliament. A little like the word for the bishop’s chair, the cathedra, gives its name to the cathedral, so the rock gave its name to an institution. It is here that Paul, bewildered by the plethora of images and monuments to different gods, and the wide range of philosophies and beliefs of the Athenians, spoke about the ‘unknown god’. It’s a masterful piece of rhetoric – focusing in on something that every Athenian would be aware of, and re-interpreting it into a Christian context. Paul even quotes from two Greek writers, well-known to his listeners,  Epimenides and Aratus. For a long time I assumed the phrase ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ was originally biblical – it resonates so much with our Christian beliefs. In fact they were written as part of a praise song to the god Zeus, written perhaps 600 years before Paul came on the scene. Paul cleverly used these well-known sayings and re-interpreted them into a new context. British evangelist Michael Green speaks of the way in which Christians have always ‘baptised paganism’ – taking what is of the world and re-interpreting it to suit the Christian cause. Paul was a master at that art.

Something similar is happening in Psalm 66, especially if you read the whole of the psalm. The psalmist is full of praise for God, and encourages the whole world, all the nations, to come and worship ‘this’ God, this particular god who is so much more than the personal god of the psalmist alone. We have read only the 2nd half of the psalm today – which is a very personal promise to offer burnt-offerings, thus fulfilling vows made in time of trouble. The 1st half has a much wider vision, inviting all the earth, the whole world, ‘to sing the honour of God’s name.’

Let me recap briefly. Today’s psalm and the passage from Acts 17 suggest there is a message for the world ‘out there’, while the Gospel reading and that from 1 Peter seem to suggest attention needs to be paid to the building of one’s own faith and the church. Is one way better than the other, more right than the other? No – both are needed. We need to pay attention to our own spiritual health, our own relationship with Jesus, our own worshipping community in order to be able to have something to offer those ‘out there’! Remember the words of St Peter I quoted earlier: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.”

It is to help people be ready to make such a defence that much of our Christian education programmes are offered in this Cathedral. For those who are asking the big questions of life – “Is there a god? Who am I? What’s the point of life? Where do we come from and where are we going?” – there is the Alpha Course. For those who have already dipped their toes into the church and want to know more, there are the short courses offered under the umbrella of “The Pilgrim Course.” Every month a group gathers to consider the Sunday readings coming up and so prepare themselves to listen to the sermons preached on them. For those who are willing to be stretched into reading the whole Bible, and delve into a greater knowledge and understanding of the complex and often disturbing history and theology of the church, there is EFM. And of course, week by week, for better or for worse, we are offered teaching and explanation from the pulpit.

This breathing in and breathing out reflects the pattern of weekly worship. We gather together each Sunday, offering the week that is past to God on the altar in the shape of money, groceries, bread and wine, and then, having been fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, we are sent out into the world in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord in our neighbour.

For healthy Christian living we must breathe in and out constantly. Breathe in the love of God, of Jesus Christ, for me and for you; breathe out the love of God, of Jesus Christ, for our neighbour, the world ‘out there’.