The book of Acts records that when Paul arrived in Athens, alone, he found the proliferation of pagan worship distressing (Acts 17:16). The Acropolis rises up over the city with the huge Parthenon (temple of the goddess Athena) dominating the skyline. In addition to his usual practice of proclaiming Jesus in the synagogue, Paul debates with Greek philosophers, whose approach to truth might have seemed to offer some common ground and a more promising avenue for debate than an argument about the myths of popular Greek religion.
Paul's hearers are clearly fascinated with his message, and take him to the Areopagus (see photo above), a place for debating. It's not as I had imagined it - a rocky hillock, not a building at all. In his speech (briefly summarised in Acts 17:22-31), Paul uses his knowledge of Greek philosophy and poetry to present the gospel within the thought-forms of his hearers - an increasingly important strategy for the church today, as we find ourselves living within a culture shaped by ideas and values from many sources. However, as Paul discovers (17:32-34), it takes more than intellectual arguments to win people to the Christian faith!
To what lengths would you go in order to have some quiet time with God? Yesterday we visited a monastery and a convent in the Meteora area near Kalambaka. The area is mountainous, and full of rocky outposts like this, with monasteries perched on top. Some now have a road or at least a path leading to them, but originally monks and supplies were winched up or down in a basket or net.
The guide book explained the goal of such isolation: "The true aim of the Orthodox life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The monk does nothing other than this. He lives in a constant effort to draw closer to God". While most of us aren't called to the monastic life, I suspect that a little more dedicated time with God every day would do us all good. The efforts we need to make to achieve this are, by comparison, not so great after all!
Acts 17 tells us that Paul and Silas had a rough time in Thessalonica, their next stop after Philippi. Paul's attempts to persuade the worshippers at the synagogue certainly resulted in a number of new Christians, but also generated so much hostility that after a few months some of the Jews stirred up a riot, resulting in the arrest of some new believers and the need for Paul & Silas to make a quick departure to Berea, some 70 km away (where I am writing this). A few months later, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, expressing his joy that these Christians were still keeping their new-found faith in spite of the hardships they were enduring.
Persecution continued to be the experience of the Church on and off over the next 270 years. The picture shows the place (then a prison) where one Demetrios was killed, now under the church dedicated to him in Thessalonica. It is humbling to stand at the spot where one fellow-believer's martyrdom inspired others to hold on to Christ in the face of continuing persecution, which only ended with the next Emperor, Constantine. I hope that in some way my own witness will enable others to keep the faith whatever their own hardships. The key is to keep close to Jesus Christ, who will not fail us or forsake us.
Today we took the short journey (by coach) from Kavala (the ancient port of Neapolis where Paul and Silas landed in Madedonia) to Philippi. This photo shows riverside near the probable spot where they met Lydia and the other women who were gathered for prayer (Acts 16:13-15). Lydia listened to Paul and became a Christian. Our pilgrimage group renewed our baptismal vows at the spot where she would have been baptised.
It was not long after this that Paul and Silas were set upon by a rabble raised by the owners of a slave-girl whom Paul had delivered from a spirit of fortune-telling (Acts 16:16-39). They were dragged to the Forum, the large marketplace in the centre of the city (in the foreground right) and brought before the magistrates who had them beaten with rods and thrown in jail. It was important to me to walk on the same pavement where Paul walked, but you need to use your imagination to transform these ancient ruins into the bustling city centre full of people where this scene took place. Perhaps it's easier to imagine it when you read of Christians today being falsely accused of blasphemy in Pakistan and threatened by crowds baying for their blood (see the Barnabas Fund website for such stories). Acts16:35 shows that the magistrates only intended to keep Paul and Silas incarcerated for a night. We need to pray for our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate.
Wherever we are in the world, we always try to get to church on Sunday. A quick search on the internet revealed the presence of an Anglican church in Thessaloniki.
They meet in premises owned by a German congregation on the first floor of a commercial building and are visited once a month by the Anglican chaplain in Athens. The rest of the time they run their own service and take turns leading. Today's sermon had been downloaded from a church website in Ireland and was read to us by Theo, the lady whose turn it was to lead today. We all sat around a table for the service, as you can see in the picture. Tom played the electric organ and we sang from Hymns Old and New!
The setup made me think of the early churches founded by St Paul, who must have operated in a very similar way (though they couldn't download sermons!) We were made very welcome.
George and I are in Greece for a pilgrimage visiting the places where St Paul travelled in his mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and plant churches. The pilgrimage starts on Monday 6th June, but we thought we'd take 3 days first to relax and unwind.
The hotel we had booked for this looked good on the internet, with an outdoor pool. But we found that this had been closed, as the hotel was now housing a large number of Syrian refugee families, paid for by the EU. They are being fed and accommodated, but are all very much in "limbo", with no schooling for the children.
We decided to move to another hotel, but first George talked to some children. The little boy spoke good English and said that he and his family had been there 2 weeks. Let us hope and pray that the authorities (Greek, EU or UN) can find more lasting solutions to the plight of these families and others like them. There's a prayer for refugees on the Church of England website.
Last Sunday I watched the film War Horse on the TV, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel. It's definitely what I would call "a nice film" - that is to say, it not only entertained but I felt in some way better for having watched it. It's a tale that shows the best of humanity as well as hinting at some of the worst that we are capable of, in this case war. Amid the madness of mutual destruction certain individuals on both sides of the conflict seem to rise above the inhumanity of their situation by showing compassion for each other and for the animals. In particular, the scene where the English soldier who has walked out into "No Man's Land" to rescue the horse is helped by a German soldier with wirecutters recalls the famous "Christmas truces" that took place in real life in December 1914. Somehow, in the midst of the carnage and suffering that might cause anyone to concentrate just on their own survival, people perform an act of gratuitous kindness and share their common humanity.
Why should we remember the First World War? If for no other reason than the salutory reminder it gives us that there is nothing glamorous about war. It brings untold misery, and threatens to dehumanise not only the enemy but everyone who takes part. A moment's reflection should make us link the stories of past conflicts with the reality of wars that are being waged today. In the face of such suffering, we can either block them out of our minds, or, like some of the characters in War Horse, respond with an act of gratuitous kindness, perhaps by making a donation to a charity that helps the victims, or by showing compassion to someone around us who needs help or encouragement. In so doing, we will follow the example of the Son of God, whose response to the misery of human sin and suffering was to become one of us, and through his own suffering bring life and hope.
Over the past nine months a group of us have been working on redefining our church vision and strategy. In a sense we've been asking what our church is for, so we can find a simple way of expressing it that will make sense to people and inspire them in their own spiritual journey.
So here it is: St Michael's is about KNOWING God for ourselves, GROWING in faith and in numbers, and SHOWING God's love and power to the world. All our church activities should help us to achieve one or more of these goals, directly or indirectly. It's about us as individuals, us as a body of Christians, and making a difference in the world.
How well do you think we are achieving these goals? How could we as a church help you to know God and grow in faith? What else could we do to show his love and power to others? If we are to be effective, we need some practical answers to these questions. We'd love to hear your comments! In the meanwhile, please read the Knowing, Growing, Showing leaflet (which will be published shortly) and pray about your response!
Writing up the register for the recent Confirmation service I was struck by the fact that most of the young people getting confirmed had been baptised at St Michael's too. 11, 12, 13 years later they were professing their own faith in public, after years of being nurtured in faith, both by their parents and by our church family.
These young people, and the adults who were confirmed with them, need our continuing prayers, friendship and support. Sadly, that confirmation register also has the names of many who are no longer actively growing in their faith, or have given up altogether. Like the seed in Jesus' parable, the word of God has shrivelled up or got choked in lives filled with busyness and the pressure to conform to the world's beliefs and values.
Like a garden, if our church and our lives are to bear fruit we may need more than a bit of maintenance, but some clearing of “stones”and “weeds”, and some pruning, so that young and established plants can grow together to produce fruitfulness and beauty for God's Kingdom in Sandhurst. Are we ready?
Rev John Castle has been Rector of St Michael & All Angels Church in Sandhurst, Berks since October 2004.