There has been a report that internet searches for prayer have rocketed during lockdown. It seems there is an enhanced interest in spirituality and religious questions. How sustained this is no one can know at this point, but this coincides with these online services seeing far more people viewing them than turned up before lockdown. It might be a giant pause button has been pressed which allows this yearning to come to the surface which lay dormant or just struggled to reach above other pressures. It might be that questions of mortality are to the fore when we are presented with daily death rates. It might be that online worship is easier to peep into than a door is to go through – especially when you can pick your time to pop in. There may well be lots of explanations, some even more subtle. If this is you, I’d be really interested to hear your story.
This is not new. In our first reading (Acts 17:22-31) we heard of Paul coming across something similar as he walked through the centre of Athens. It was such a religious marketplace, with altars to all sorts of spiritual offerings, that there was even an altar to ‘an unknown God’. This is often taken as meaning that they hedged their bets, just in case they’d missed one out. They wanted to cover all bases.
Paul takes this an opportunity to tie to this altar a label naming Jesus Christ as the one they are looking for. He gives an account of God’s love in Jesus Christ and how he offers hope and purpose for them, and by extension for us. The unknown God is named in Jesus Christ and the hope of his resurrection. Stop looking elsewhere, this is the real deal.
The second reading called for us to be ready to give an account of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:13-end). Be ready to say this is what matters to me, this is the spiritual place I go to and where I find purpose and hope. This is what feeds and inspires, provides the light to direct my path. As we delve into the story of our faith, its rich allusions and wisdom, its holding of the dark times as well as the ones of joy and thanksgiving, we find a faith that can cope with where we are. It makes the connection we need with the one at the heart of everything, God.
This crisis has had me looking at the work we had been doing in this church to refresh our vision and what we see the church as being for, and how this directs our planning looking forward. The lockdown rather disrupted all of that, but looking at what we did, it still holds true. I am relieved that it seems to have been robust. We could express our overarching aim as being to be “a beacon of faith, hope and love in the heart of our city”. And this church has shone as that through so many centuries, including the Great Plague in the seventeenth century when my illustrious predecessor, Simon Gunton, remained faithful to his ministry throughout. He is an inspiration.
Being a beacon works in two directions. It is a light that shines out to inspire and give hope. So many connect with that in so many ways as they pass by and call in. I am so sad that this virus has required us to close the doors to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. We know more about epidemiology than was known in the past. So, we take that seriously. But I am glad to be back in here this morning for you, even though we were reminded in our first reading that God does not live in shrines made with human hands, this place does stand as a focus for what we are to be as a beacon of faith and hope and love, to remind us of the story of our faith in Jesus Christ. Prayer hasn’t stopped in here because every time I have come in to check on it, I have said prayers for our city and all its people.
Beacons, as they shine light, also illuminate the shadows and things come to light that were not so obvious before we flicked the switch. It becomes, to mix metaphors, a plumb line, something to be measured against. It sets a standard for us to aspire to and reset the course if we have gone off line at all. May be this lockdown gives us chance to also press pause and think a bit. What matters about a building we can’t all be in, and what doesn’t matter; what is more important?
We aim to be a beacon of ‘faith, hope and love’ and that phrase comes from Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13), the one that begins ‘if I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels but do not have love, I am an empty vessel that just makes a lot of noise.’ – a loud and annoying noise at that. The faith is the faith of Jesus Christ, the hope is of his resurrection and the love is the love of God revealed and shown in and through him.
It is also the commandment we are to keep if we love God: the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. To show this love in everything we do. And as our gospel reading told us, we show our love for him when we show our love for everyone, when we follow this commandment to love one another as he has love us (John 14:15-21).
When we want to see the unknown God, we will see him in the acts of loving service which are the response to the beacon of faith and hope, the source of which is Jesus Christ. It is to be our aim in this church to be such a beacon to inspire in this generation as our predecessors did in theirs, because:
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Sermon for Easter 6, Live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th May 2020