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Embracing the unpredictable

Internal Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 8th May 2016

A sermon preached on Sunday 8 May 2016 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(Acts 16.16-24; John 17.20-end)

 

There are many things I don't much like about St Paul. But I do warm to his humanity. He’s a saint we know warts and all in a way denied to our knowledge of the other great heroes of the faith, who've mostly receded into stained glass and legend, sanitised and simplified. But we read Paul's complex writings, and we see him wrestling with ideas and with other people who don't agree with him, or who behave in ways he disapproves of. And we see and read him reacting with very recognisable human emotions, when we might expect a proper Saint to be calm and humble. There is no doubting he is a real person.

 

Take the beginning of the passage we heard from the Acts of the Apostles. A slave girl has been following Paul and his companions round Philippi for many days, shouting out 'These men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation'. In itself, you'd think they wouldn't have much to object to in that message, which was an accurate enough statement - but after a few days of it you can see why even people who were seeking to charm and persuade their audience in this new city, would be driven nuts by hearing this. And Paul, we are told, was 'very much annoyed'. And he puts an end to it.

 

By reacting in this human way to this slave girl, he brings about a cascade of events which occupied the rest of that long reading: Paul and his companions are imprisoned, they encounter the jailer and his family, that household is converted and the prisoners are released.

 

It seems this girl wasn't used to this kind of reaction. For her owners (as we learn straight away by their reaction to what happens to her here) she represents simply a property and a nice income. For her normal audience, she offered the foretelling of their futures.

 

But Paul reacts to her as a person, not as a thing to his own advantage. Paul reacted to her with truth; and made possible so much that was good and unexpected. This slave, a person whose relationships were transactional and based on the self-interest of others, is treated quite differently, and things develop in entirely unexpected ways. The writer of Acts has traced the hand of God from the slave girl - anonymous and possessed in more senses than one - to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus and the transformed lives of the jailer and his household. And it all grows out of the annoyance of Paul, who for once wasn't trying to evangelise but simply wanted her to shut up.

 

Back in Lent the archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to every serving priest in the Church of England inviting “you and your people to join us in a week of prayer for the evangelisation of our nation”. The week from today leading up to Pentecost, next Sunday. And they urge us to focus on saying the Lord's Prayer, together and individually.

 

It's hard to object to prayer and evangelism, and I don't. If the work of all Christian people is not to align ourselves with God in prayer and to help others to experience the good things we find in that relationship, then we may as well pack up and go home. So I wholeheartedly urge you to pray the prayer Jesus taught his followers, as we will later in this service and as we do in this cathedral many times every day. And I urge you to pray for your neighbours and colleagues and friends. And I urge you to be a spreader of good news.

 

But this initiative stirs up some reservations in me. I resist the implication that we can manipulate the results by overwhelming God with our prayers. God is God, and he will do what he wants, not what we want. And we shouldn't be passing on the good news of Jesus Christ in order just to get more people into our congregations. Great if it does - but above all we want people to know the truth, and for that truth to set them free. Freedom is a great deal bigger, and much more unexpected and dynamic in its consequences, than membership of an organisation, even if it's one like ours which seeks to love and serve God. Neither God nor other people are objects to be manipulated. Slavery and imprisonment, as we saw in today's reading, are broken for the most unexpected reasons, by the action of God and through the intricacies of human relationships.

 

Last week in this service the Dean spoke about God using a Greek word: 'perichoresis'. Think of that as dancing round – God, not static, predictable, but endlessly dynamic, in a living relationship. It's from that endlessly loving relationship that all things, including us as a tiny part of it all, have come about. And it's into that relationship that we are drawn, by the grace of the Son and the power of the Spirit. So Jesus prayed in today's reading from John, that his followers may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me'.

 

The life God lives, and the life he has created, isn't ‘one’ in some naive, measurable, quantifiable way. It is multiple, dynamic, unpredictable - it's alive and endlessly creative. Hence, as St Paul did what proved to be some of his best work in Philippi simply by reacting as a real person to this annoying slave girl, so we may prove to do some of our best work this week, not by counting up a great quantity of prayers, nor by focussing on people as targets of evangelism, but by lives which are true, by relationships which are lively and honest, and by rooting our whole beings in the dynamic and ever-surprising love of God.