Sixth Sunday of Easter 2011

“Athenians….as I went through the city…I found…an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17. 22-32)

Those of you with a good eye for detail and even better memories may have noticed that since Easter Sunday we have read a portion of the Book of Acts every week. We have heard Peter’s great address to “all who live in Jerusalem” and the subsequent conversion of three thousand people (Acts 2). We have recalled the martyrdom of Stephen and his majestic vision of the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7. 54-60). Today we listened to St. Paul’s witness to the Athenians about the ‘unknown God’ that he knows by name and proclaims to them (Acts 17. 22-31). These readings show us that Easter is dynamic and ongoing, it is an unfolding of God’s presence; Easter is far removed from just being a memory of Jesus’ resurrection that gathers dust on a bookshelf or a once-a-year celebration. These readings challenge us, then, to ask: how do I respond to Easter? Is my response part of a dynamic, ongoing unfolding of God’s presence, or am I just going through a dry set of motions? The question is really, of course, are we an Easter people or are we a people who just remember Easter? These are the kinds of questions I want us to think about this week.

I recently read an article by Peter Graystone, who works for the Church Army, about the need for us all to have confidence to chat about our faith (Church Times Issue 7731, 20 May 2011). His reflections speak into the distinction between being an Easter people whose lives are transformed by the Gospel and a people who keep ‘church’ and ‘faith’ in private, closed boxes that don’t touch the rest of the week.

In his article, Peter recalls two recent examples where he overheard conversations about why people believed in God. The first occasion was on a train full of overjoyed men who had just seen their beloved Brighton and Hove Albion achieve promotion to the championship. One young man asked his friend the burning question, ‘Why are you a Christian then?’ Peter describes what happened next in this way:

“The thing that impressed me most was the relaxed way in which they talked about their Christian faith. It was entirely in keeping with the rest of the raucous conversation. I have never heard more swear-words used to describe the salvation of humankind. The theology was rudimentary… Jesus rules; and I can’t tell you where Satan has been kicked. But it was deeply felt, readily listened to, and the best evangelism I have ever heard.”

Peter then contrasts this example of confident faith with a slightly less certain response. He was on a bus to Croydon and sat close to two women who were “to put it tactfully, perhaps trying out their Freedom passes for the first time.” The response to “Why are you a Christian?” was: “Oh, I can’t possibly answer a question like that. You’d have to ask the Vicar.”

These are two very different kinds of responses – one bold if rough, the other an insecure deferral . As a result, Stephen gives a challenge to his readers. He writes:

“I am convinced that, if we are to fulfil Jesus’s commission to make disciples of all people, every Christian needs to have a few words to say that account for being a follower of Jesus. Not merely why he or she goes to church, but why he or she is a believer.”

Peter wonders what our Christian communities might look like if we all had to think of three reasons why we believed and were willing to share these when asked.

This, then, is the challenge that arises out of the questions about what it means to be an Easter people. If we are an Easter people, what are our three reasons and how might we share those reasons with one another and the wider communities that we live in? The great speeches and witness that we hear about in Acts are, in many ways, unremarkable, direct, and simple theology, sometimes from unlettered men. Yet, convinced as these people in Acts are of God’s love and saving work, they are bold in sharing what the Good News for them is in whatever places and situations they find themselves. As Peter Graystone concludes, “simple reasons are sufficient.” We don’t need to have theological expertise in order to witness to Jesus Christ in our daily lives.

What might three reasons look like? As an example, let me briefly share my three reasons with you all:

When I drive over the Moors and the sun cascades down through the clouds, shimmering shards of light over the dark heather, I wonder at God’s creation and believe.

When I pause, in church or at home, and sense an embrace of love and a still, small voice, I believe that God is with me.

When I look over my life and see times of brokenness and sadness transformed into healing and joy through the prayers and interventions of others, I am thankful to see the Body of Christ drawing me into God’s healing presence.

These three reasons are what I would want to say if someone asked me why I am a Christian. You might have similar or very different reasons. But beginning the conversation about them will inevitably change you and may well change those who listen. After a while, it becomes impossible to stop seeing and giving far more than just three reasons. After a while, it might become difficult for others not to ask, ‘why do I not believe?’

Perhaps, then, you might come up with your three reasons why you are a Christian, why you are an Easter people, and what that means, what that looks like. Perhaps you might share them with a neighbour or friend when the time is right or even this very day. Whatever your reasons are, see Easter as dynamic, ongoing, unfolding in your life. See what you worship as a daily reality and something to be shared. Be bold like the Apostles. Your reasons might one day lead someone to recognise what until then had been an ‘unknown God’. Amen.