Sunday, May 29, 2011

Religious Studies exam

In the name of God, merciful Father, compassionate Son, Spirit of wisdom. Amen.

Recently I had a Facebook exchange with a cousin, who has been taking exams in religious studies. I always wondered, what kind of questions you would put on a multiple-choice exam in this subject. “How many gods are there?”

A. One
B. An infinite number.
C. …?

What would you say?

The Athenians played it safe: “I’m thinking of a number between zero and infinity.”

This is the town Paul walked into, that day he stood in front of the public meeting place called the Areopagus – Mars Hill.

“Men of Athens,” Paul said, addressing the crowd in front of Mars Hill, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He had gone about the city observing the many shrines and the deities worshipped – and, just to be on the safe side, or perhaps exhibiting an excess of piety or zeal, the altar inscribed “to an unknown god.”

What kind of town is this? A town full of philosophers, where they were as common as sports fans in a brewpub, a town of seekers, who covered every base and then an extra for good measure.

So Paul played to their strengths – and greeted them with congratulations on their perspicacity. Then he went on:

“What you have worshipped as unknown, I now reveal to you. My name is Paul, and I worship the true and living God who created all things.” - or words to that effect. (In fact these particular words are the confession of St Alban, patron saint of our parish church.)

God the Creator of all things does not need you to make him a shrine with your hands; he will not live in it. God the Source of all being does not need you to provide him with anything, for all things that exist come to be through him. Life and breath and all good things, we praise him for and we bless him; he does not need us to give them to him.

All human beings are one in origin, too, and he has set the borders of our world. He did this indeed so that we might seek after him, and, groping, perhaps find him. In him we live and move and have our being.

Then Paul takes things a bit farther:

Now, however, says Paul, he has done more than this, done more than show his hand in the making of our world. He has sent into the world a man whom he has appointed, to judge all in righteousness, and he assures of this by raising that man from the dead.

God has called us into being by making room for us. In himself he was perfect, his life was complete; but he created a dwelling-place for us, in which we may enjoy life and creation, and even more. In Christ God has called us into relationship with himself.

How does God make room for us to exist, to abide in him, in Christ?

How does Jesus make a dwelling place ready for us to dwell with him?

How do we make room for Jesus to abide in us, to dwell in us?

Abide in me, says Jesus to us; take up residence in this dwelling-place God has made for you in the world, and in his heart. Live there – live in your place in his kingdom.

Keep my commandments, and my commandments are love.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

Love one another. Love God; love your neighbor.

These are his commandments – to love.

Jesus our advocate, comforter, guide, Jesus the presence of God with us in the world, was leaving the disciples. But he did not leave them comfortless, for he promised them another advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit who is the presence of God as we experience him now.

How do we experience God? In loving God, one another, neighbor.

What Jesus commands us to do is to love. The law of God is a law of love.

It is not like ‘housekeeping rules’ – if it’s messy eat it over the sink, remember to run the disposal before you set the dishwasher, eat your vegetables.

It is not like the ‘pirate code’ – which after all, is really more like guidelines.

The law of God is an invitation into relationship: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Love one another as I have loved you.

Make room for one another in your hearts – and make room for the stranger, the sojourner, the newcomer in your midst.

Go tell the world the good news – proclaim the coming of the reign of God in the world; in him all things will be brought into harmony.

For the law of love – in reality – is a harsh and dreadful thing. It leads to the Cross – and only then and thereafter to the Resurrection.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

If you love me, you will abide in my love.

My love will become a dwelling-place for you; your true home will be hidden in me.

All other habitations will be temporary residences; you will find your rest in my love.

All other allegiances will be contingent; our ultimate faith and hope will be in God.

If we abide in God and God is in us, we are already in the fullness of that life which is eternal. (David Adam)

When God made the world he made room – he created space in which relationships could occur between himself and the creatures of his making. We are those creatures and he invites us into a living relationship with him.

In the Father’s house are many dwelling places, places where we can find our true home; but our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.

What does it mean? How do we live this out?

We live it out – and we learn what it means – as we seek to live the law of love.

Objectives and techniques will serve us, on one level; but truly to know and serve the Lord will require more than technical fixes or strategic planning. It will require prayer and spiritual nurture and growth. Our welcome of one another and of the new comer to our fellowship will be tested in its genuineness by one criterion: showing the love of God.

We think of the gifts people give us as memorials – things to remember them by: a watch, a ring, a plaque or a book. They leave behind photographs or letters, memorabilia. Or they leave us a legacy – or perhaps some good advice, or a sharp, piercing memory.

We carry these things around with us long after the person is gone. They remind us.

If we are blessed, they empower us, make us able to be better people somehow, free us for more abundant living.

(If we are blessed. Sometimes they don’t.)

Jesus offers us simpler things, to remember him: a story to tell, a meal to share, water for baptism, bread and wine for communion.

Through these simple things, and accompanying them all, he leaves us two more gifts: each other – and the Holy Spirit.

He leaves us with what he left the first disciples with: he leaves us with the commissioning – go into the world – and he leaves us with the empowerment – his abiding presence with us in the Spirit – in order that we might keep his commandments, and complete his work in the world as members of his own body.

+ ("the true and living God who created all things")


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