Who do we honour?

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Here’s the reading and the reflection from today’s Communion service. The photo is of the stained glass window in the Chapel, which is all about this reading…

While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him.

People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?”

Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about foreign gods! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”

They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.”

More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new. So Paul stood up in front of the council and said:

People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don’t really know him. So I want to tell you about him. This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and he doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. He doesn’t need help from anyone. He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be.

God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.

The huge window at the end of our university chapel shows St. Paul speaking to the leading lights of Athens on the hill called the Areopagus. It was a place in the city for you to present your views – a bit like Trafalgar Square now perhaps.

Paul has been in Athens for a few days, wandering around and looking at everything. He sees the many temples and idols – statues perhaps – and they upset him. He thinks about what this all says about the Athenians. And he starts conversations with anyone and everyone, Jews, philosophers, market goers – sharing his different way of understanding, and telling everyone about the one he honours – not an idol, but Jesus.

Eventually Paul is invited to the Areopagus to give his views – a little like being asked onto the Andrew Marr show of the time. His approach is interesting. He doesn’t stand up like a street corner preacher, telling people off – he talks about something both he and his audience have in common, our shared humanity, as those loved by God.

He’s noticed an altar inscribed ‘To an unknown God’. This gives him the opening to point people to this bigger vision. He tells them about the God who gives life and breathe to everyone. The God who is close to them. The God who even their own poets describe as our Father.

In the debate that has been going on following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, there has been a renewed awareness that what we put up on plinths, and leave there, says something about us. There’s a lot of debate on what should stay, and what should be taken down – and on who we should honour, and how.

I think that debate is important, as long as it doesn’t distract us from the more challenging work of engaging with the issues that have been so powerfully raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. But it might be helpful as well to look at another way of honouring a life.

On Tuesday it was the 4th anniversary of the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a far right extremist. Instead of a statue, her memory is honoured through the work of the Jo Cox Foundation, guided by the beliefs set out in her maiden speech; “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” This weekend thousands of people will make connections with neighbours and across communities as part of the Great Get Together – part of their work in building strong compassionate communities and engaging with loneliness.

What a great memorial! And a great reminder that memorials can unite, rather than dividing. Jo’s sister said this, on her anniversary; ‘At a time when there is so much uncertainty and sadness around…surely it is more important than ever that we pull together with compassion and kindness rather than judge each other and allow ourselves to be divided?’

As we think about the ways that we honour individuals, we might also want to think about the way the one we follow as Christians is honoured. Jesus was put up for public display – not as a powerful or respected leader, but as a troublemaker who was brutally put to death by a ruthless empire. And that image is what we often choose to put up in our churches – a reminder of Jesus not ranked with the great and the good, but put with the outcast and the despised. A statement that love is more important than power. And a challenge to any honour we may bestow on others or we seek for ourselves. In the words of the hymn:

‘When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride’.

We can all sometimes get caught in the desire for honour, or status, in small ways. We want people to be impressed by us. We worry about where we are in the hierarchies of our world. Or maybe we pay too much attention to the position of others. But in the end, none of that will matter. And even now, if we imagine ourselves looking into the eyes of Jesus, then all of that world of status and importance falls away. And then, we may be ready to offer him the honour only we can give him: ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’

  • Lord Jesus, lover of all, help us not to be distracted by controversy. Give us steadfast hearts and minds to engage with the deep injustices in our society – to listen, to learn, and to find ways to act in the name of love.
  • Lord Jesus, we thank you for all whose lives and words have spoken against division, and for the common good of all, including Jo Cox. Bless the work done in her name, and show us ways to build compassionate community in the places where we live and work, and especially in the life of our university.
  • Lord Jesus, help us let go of our need for status. We long to honour you with lives of self giving love. Through your grace, may others see you at work in us, and so come to know you for themselves.

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